Pa Rowan Kauner
Posted by FOX Sports MLB
He made the changes in honor of Dodgers legend Maury Wills, a paragon of running backs whose death occurred Monday at his home in Sedona, Arizonahad Roberts fighting back tears as he described what the three-time World Series champion meant to him.
“I found out last night,” Roberts said before Tuesday’s doubleheader against the Dodgers Diamond backs. “I know that he passed peacefully. I will have a heavy heart. Maury has been a huge influence on me personally and professionally.’
In the early 1960s, Wills’ audacious baserunning revolutionized the game. The seven-time All-Star led the league in stolen bases for six straight seasons from 1960 to 1965 and set a major league record at the time with 104 in his 1962 MVP season. He also won the second of two Gold Glove awards that year as a Dodger shortstop.
Sixty years later, another prolific base stealer is now the manager of the Dodgers. Roberts learned from Wills, another lightweight speedster who had to struggle to get playing time in the major leagues.
“He was a friend, a father, a mentor, everything,” Roberts said. “So it’s hard for me.”
Wills played in the minor leagues from 1951 to 1959, stealing 281 bases during that time, before taking those talents to the major leagues with the Dodgers.
In 1994, Roberts was drafted in the 28th round out of UCLA. He didn’t make his debut until 1999 and played moderately until he got to Los Angeles, where Wills’ tutelage of baserunning helped him steal 123 bases over three seasons. By then, Wills had become an instructor for the Dodgers. The area where Wills worked with players on oatmeal and baserunning became known as “Morrie’s Pit.”
“He just loved the game of baseball, he loved working and he loved the relationship with the players,” Roberts said. “We spent a lot of time together. He just showed me the value of my skill and what it’s like to be a major league champion. He just loved to teach. I think where I get my excitement, my passion, my love for the players is from him.” .
Wills saw a part of himself in Roberts. Roberts, who grabbed 45 bases in his first season with the Dodgers and went on to create a 10-year playing career, said he doesn’t think he would be where he is today without Wills, whose spectacular feats on the basepaths made fans The Dodgers rise to their feet and shout, “Go! Go! Go!”
Wills once told Sports Illustrated that he could look at his form and tell what kind of day he was having. When he was clean, he didn’t feel like he had done his job.
“I remember even during the games when I played here, he would leave the room and tell me I had to do it,” Roberts said. “I came and met him at the end of the dugout. The coach said, “Hey, Maury’s over in the dugout, wants to talk to you.” So it just showed that he was in it with me. Even to this day, he will be there rooting for me and rooting for me.”
Wills played 14 major league seasons, including parts of 12 seasons with the Dodgers. He stole 586 bases in his career, which ranks 20th all-time, and batted .281. Although his career 88 OPS+ fell short of other Hall of Fame candidates and he was never inducted into the esteemed Hall, his impact at the time was undeniable. Wills had five hits in the 1959 World Series, hitting a home run and striking out two batters in the decisive Game 6 against the White Sox. Six years later, Wills went 11-for-30 with three stolen bases in the 1965 World Series.
After his playing days, Wills spent six years as a baseball analyst for NBC Sports before becoming a manager Seattle Mariners in 1980-81. He went 26-56 in his short tenure as manager and later spoke of the battles with alcohol and drug abuse that would follow. But he recovered and was helping the Dodgers again, both as a spring training instructor and in the team’s public relations department.
His words of wisdom in “Morrah’s Pit” served Roberts well even after he was done as a Dodger.
After Roberts was traded to Boston in 2004, his signature steal in the ninth inning of Game 4 of the American League Championship Series turned the series against Yankees. Wills’ gutsy voice stuck in Roberts’ head as he sprinted to second base in the comeback victory. The Red Sox came back from a 3-0 series deficit to win the ALCS and the World Series.
“I remember Maury Wills in the backfield in Vero Beach,” Roberts told MLB.com in 2014. — He said, “Dr., one of these days you’re going to have to steal an important base, when everybody on the field knows you, ‘I’m going to steal, but you have to steal that base, and you can’t be afraid to steal that base.’ So, just running on the field that night, I was thinking about him.”
The Dodgers will wear a jersey patch in Will’s memory until the end of the 2022 season.
“I know he’s resting in a better place today,” Roberts said.
Rowan Kauner covers the Dodgers and the NL West for FOX Sports. He previously served as the Dodgers’ digital and print editor. Follow him on Twitter at @RavanKauner.
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