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Bodley: Friendship with Roberts special

Bodley: Friendship with Roberts special

PHILADELPHIA -- The first time I met Robin Roberts was at Spring Training in 1958, my first.

I introduced myself, told him I was covering the Phillies and stuck out my hand. After a long pause -- his eyes were as piercing as if I were an opposing batter -- he said sternly, "Congratulations."

I looked for the nearest hole to crawl into. He obviously wasn't impressed with this hotshot rookie reporter. Over the years we often talked about that defining moment in Clearwater, Fla.

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It was always, "remember that morning in '58?" Or, "You've come a long way since ..."

Robin Evan Roberts -- a Hall of Famer, greatest right-handed pitcher in Phillies history and a man whose friendship I cherished -- died Thursday at his Temple Terrace, Fla., home. He was 83.

This has been a difficult week. First, Ernie Harwell and now Robin Roberts. Two legends, two true gentlemen who represented all the good that baseball stands for, are gone.

I grew up watching Roberts pitch for the 1950 NL pennant-winning Whiz Kids and putting together all those amazing 20-win seasons (1950-55) with mostly dreadful teams.

Just last October during the National League Championship Series in Los Angeles, I visited with Don Newcombe, who was outpitched by Roberts as the Phillies defeated the Dodgers on the last day of the 1950 season to win the pennant.

"We had some great matchups over the years," Newcombe said. "None was more important than that Sunday afternoon at Ebbets Field in '50. Robin was one of the nicest men I've ever met."

When Dick Sisler hit the home run in the 10th inning to give the Phillies their first pennant in 35 years, Roberts gained his 20th victory. He became the first Phillies pitcher to win 20 since Grover Cleveland Alexander, who won 30 in 1917.

To have been able to cover Roberts during his later years was an enormously rewarding experience for a young baseball writer.

In 1958 the Dodgers and Giants moved to California, and on their second trip there Roberts drew the starting assignment against the Giants on July 15 at old Seals Stadium. He allowed just two hits in seven innings, just one unearned run but lost, 1-0.

Roberts and Richie Ashburn sat in the back of the bus en route back to the hotel late that night. Ashburn, who had two hits, kept moaning, "We're a better team than this. We're a better team than this."

Roberts, the true victim of poor run support, tried to calm Ashburn. He was a fierce competitor, but his personality remained much the same, win or lose. Often, after a tough loss, Robbie would walk back to the hotel, but not in San Francisco.

Some of the most pleasant moments were in Cooperstown during Hall of Fame weekends. He was inducted in 1976 and returned every weekend after that, later becoming a member of the Hall's board of directors.

I was sports editor of the Wilmington (Del.) News Journal at the time, and out of the blue he called one day wondering if I would be interested in having him write a weekly column for the newspaper. Needless to say, I jumped at the offer.

He had an uncanny ability to remain current with the game and its players, especially the Phillies, and that was evident in his columns.

The last time I saw him was in the Phillies' clubhouse during Spring Training. He wanted to meet newly acquired right-hander Roy Halladay.

On this day, while waiting for Halladay to complete a workout in the weight room, Roberts pulled up a stool and for 20 minutes talked with first baseman Ryan Howard.

"We just talked baseball and a lot of other things," said Howard. "He was a fan and a student of the game. He kept up with it very well. That's all about being a fan and a student of the game. He was a very big part of this organization -- a true Hall of Famer."

Jamie Moyer, Phillies elder statesman at 47, said because he lived in the Philadelphia area he knew all about Roberts and his six consecutive 20-win seasons.

"Almost every day I look at the Phillies' Hall of Fame jerseys that hang in the hallway by the clubhouse," said Moyer. "I try to appreciate what he did as a pitcher. Looking back at the impact he had on the game, it was special.

"He never dwelled on his career. He was more of a storyteller of his experiences. Whatever the subject matter was, he was able to relate to it. He never really talked about himself."

When I saw Roberts in Spring Training I was concerned about his health.

So was manager Charlie Manuel.

"He told me he hadn't been feeling too good," said Manuel. "But he was a mentally tough person. I always knew that because of all those complete games (305) he pitched. You don't see guys like that anymore and probably never will."

Outfielder Shane Victorino was in such awe of Roberts he had a uniform top made with 36 (Roberts' number) on the back and had Robbie sign it.

"I only have two of those -- Robin Roberts and Willie Mays," said Victorino.

Dave Montgomery, the Phillies CEO and president, would not have his current job had Roberts not talked then team vice president Bill Giles into hiring him. Montgomery started in the ticket department.

Halladay reminds baseball graybeards of the way Roberts pitched -- never giving the batter an inch -- overpowering fastball, smooth delivery.

So, it was only fitting that Halladay was on the mound for the Phillies on Thursday and the winning pitcher as they won, 7-2, over St. Louis.

As Halladay repeatedly worked his way through the Cardinals potent lineup, once escaping a bases-loaded jam, I knew that somewhere up there Roberts was looking down.

With a huge smile on his face.

Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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