Maryland Community News

Published: Wednesday, August 7, 2013

From the bottom, St. Mary’s Ryken graduate Roberts has reached incredible heightsBy ALEX KUHN

Special to The Enterprise

MichaelShort was 14 years old. He leaned against the fence of the St. Mary’s Ryken High School tennis courts. It was cut day for his JV baseball team.As a short, shaggy-haired teenager, Roberts was unorthodox and underwhelming, and just did not fit in to his surroundings. He was a sidewinding right-handed pitcher with a fastball that topped out around 54 mph. His third baseman skills were minimal. He couldn’t make the throw to first base. To top it all off, he had few friends at Ryken.He was leaning against the fence when he heard coach Ron Jensen address the team. “If I call your name, you’ve made the team and you can leave,” Jensen said.

Jensen worked in alphabetical order. He got to “S” and did not say “Short.” Jensen then said, “Short, come here.”At that point, many of the Ryken freshmen who had made the team were laughing at Short because they were sure he was going to be cut. Jensen began speaking to Short. “He told me that he should cut me but he wasn’t going to. He told me that I would be good moral support for the team,” Michael said. Short was ecstatic, “My stepdad and I cried in joy that night after I made the team.”Fast forward six years. The kid once known as MichaelShort is now named Michael Roberts.

He changed his name at the age of 18. The kid who should have been cut as a freshman is the closer for the NCAA Division I team at Coppin State University and an All-Star in one of the most prestigious summer collegiate leagues in the country.

As the closer for the Hamilton Joes in Ohio, a member of the Great Lakes Summer Collegiate League, Roberts is 3-1 with a 0.71 ERA. In 25 1/3 innings, Roberts has allowed just two earned runs.

“He will be drafted one day,” said Hamilton general manager Darrell Grissom. On July 25, Roberts received word that he had been added to the roster of the Cotuit Kettleers of the best summer collegiate league in the country, the Cape Cod League.

When Roberts — Short at the time — was 12, his sister Catlyn married Jimmy Serrano. Serrano was a very successful minor league pitcher in the Kansas City Royals organization and eventually pitched 10 games in the major leagues in 2004, for the Royals.

In walks Serrano into young Short’s life. Roberts’ father was not really around at the time, and he never really had a male figure to look up to. So when Serrano walks into Roberts’ living room sporting a Kansas City Royals bag on his shoulder, it was a no brainer, baseball was the sport that Short was going to get serious about.

Roberts spent time around Serrano, who was a baseball instructor at a local baseball training facility. Serrano was busy with other clients, so he would get Roberts into the cage whenever he could. However, cage time wasn’t the reason Serrano wanted Roberts at the facility every day.

“Jimmy told me to be a sponge, that meant that he wanted me to soak up as much information as I possibly could in order to better my mental aspects of the game,” Roberts said.

So, Roberts would go to the facility and watch how Serrano taught, and every now and then, he would throw a bullpen session with Serrano. One day, in the middle of a Roberts bullpen session in which Serrano was catching, Serrano stopped and smiled. He looked at Roberts and said, “Have you ever thought about throwing submarine style?”

Roberts always threw with somewhat of a sidearm delivery but had never thrown from such an exaggerated, low release point. Roberts was very effective from that point on, pitching on a fall league travel team that Serrano coached. His fastball had climbed in velocity. He was now throwing his fastball 70 to 75 mph.

Waiting for his chance

Unfortunately, his high school career was not running as smoothly, and that is an understatement. Jensen refused to believe that Roberts could ever be an effective pitcher.

“He would always tell me that I would never be able to throw strikes with that arm-slot,” Roberts said.

Despite not pitching much in high school, Roberts’ peculiar style had college coaches intrigued. Roberts went to summer showcases throughout his high school career. He was in contact with several college coaches, but all of them asked him the same question: How is your high school season going?

“What am I supposed to say to that? I would tell them that I am not playing at all,” Roberts said.

In August before his senior year of high school, Roberts and Serrano were doing a bullpen session one morning when Greg Beckman walked into the facility.

Beckman was watching Roberts and was intrigued by what he saw.

“He was a little raw, but I liked that he had a tall and lanky body type. I also liked the arm angle,” Beckman said.

As it turned out, Beckman became the pitching coach at Coppin State University shortly thereafter. Weeks later, Roberts got a call from Beckman asking to set up a visit to Coppin State.

“I went up there and talked with the coaching staff. They offered me a scholarship. My first question was, ‘Am I going to pitch?’ Nothing else mattered to me. When they told me I was going to pitch, I committed on the spot,” Roberts said.

Beckman realized that Coppin State is not going to be a hotbed for college baseball recruits, so they had to think outside the box.

“Ninety mph fastball pitchers aren’t just going to fall into our laps, so we have to go out and get different types of guys,” Beckman said. “Mike threw hard enough from that arm angle that you knew he could be very effective with some experience.”

There would be no redshirting for Roberts at Coppin State. He was going to play early and often.

Coppin State was not winning much. In fact, the Eagles finished 2012 with a 1-53 record. That didn’t matter to Roberts. All that mattered was that he was pitching and getting better every day. Of course he didn’t like losing; in fact, he despised it. But he recognized that this was going to be a process, a process that would benefit him in the long run.

Fast forward to March 28, 2012. Coppin State traveled up to University Park, Pa., to take on the Penn State Nittany Lions.

Coppin State was down 7-1 in that game when Roberts was told to get loose. He got one warm-up pitch in the bullpen and was called into the game. That’s when Roberts came on to pitch in front of a crowd exceeding 1,000 people at Medlar Field, a professional ballpark, against a Big Ten team. Medlar Field is also home to a Class-A minor league team, the State College Spikes.

“It was an incredible feeling. I had almost never pitched before, and I was given one warm-up toss and told to come on in front of the biggest crowd I had ever pitched in front of,” Roberts said.

Roberts went 1 2/3 innings, surrendering just one hit and no runs. In Roberts’ freshman year at Coppin State, he pitched 37 2/3 innings. That more than doubled the 15 innings he pitched in all four years of his high school career.

After an All-Star season in the Beach League in the summer of 2012, Roberts returned to a much-improved 2013 Coppin State team that won 17 more games than it had in 2012. Roberts was responsible for four of those. He was 4-2 with a 2.76 ERA.

On April 17, Roberts got the win in a game against the 25th-ranked Pittsburgh Panthers. On May 18, Roberts went 2 2/3 innings and struck out seven against 30-24 Bethune-Cookman in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Tournament. By then, Roberts was making a name for himself.

“When I was pitching against Bethune-Cookman, it was 1 in the morning, and all the scouts had left. But the next day, when they returned, they were all shuffling to get the stats of what I had done.” Roberts said.

Rising to summer ball

When it came to this summer, Sherman Reed, Roberts’ coach at Coppin State, sent out emails to several high-profile summer collegiate teams. He hit all the major leagues, including the Cape Cod, Alaskan, Coastal Plain and Great Lakes Leagues.

Two teams responded, the Orleans Firebirds of the Cape Cod League and the Hamilton Joes of the Great Lakes Summer Collegiate League.

“The Firebirds were going to give me a two-week tryout while some of their players were at the College World Series. Coach Josh Manley [Hamilton Joes assistant coach] told me that they would give me an entire season,” Roberts said.

That is exactly why he is a Joe. He wanted an opportunity to be a regular on a pitching rubber, and he has received it.

Roberts has flourished in the summer of 2013. He was selected to the Great Lakes Summer Collegiate League All-Star Game. The game was rained out, but that does not mean it didn’t produce some highlights for Roberts.

“A couple of scouts, one from the Brewers and one from the Rangers, came up to me and knew me by name, I was not wearing my name on my back, they just knew who I was and that was a thrill for me,” Roberts said.

How does a kid, who six years ago barely made his freshman baseball team, make hitters in one of the most prestigious summer collegiate baseball leagues in the country look so silly at the plate? How is a kid who played no more than a handful of innings in high school make it to the Cape Cod League?

“Determination,” Beckman said. “The kid works harder than anyone we have. He also plays and practices with a chip on his shoulder.”

Roberts is a perfectionist who certainly is his own worst critic. He needs to succeed. Every time he fails, he takes it very personally. But that just makes him work that much harder.

Roberts can usually be seen after games running from foul line to foul line on the warning track at Foundation Field, the Joes’ home field.

After all of his teammates are long gone, after the lights have been turned off at the stadium, Roberts keeps going. He keeps going for his ultimate goal. He doesn’t care what anyone says he can’t do. Those who have told him in the past what he can’t do have clearly been wrong. He just keeps his eye on the goal: the show.

Kuhn is the media director for the Hamilton Joes

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