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Robin Roberts, an icon in Philadelphia and bay area, dies at 83

TAMPA — Robin Roberts, the rubber-armed Hall of Fame pitcher who dominated batters of the 1950s for the Phillies, died Thursday at age 83.

And while he will be sorely missed in Philadelphia, where he spent 14 of his 19 major-league seasons, for the past 33 years he called Temple Terrace home. He moved there to be baseball coach at USF in 1977 and stayed in the same house, 2 miles from campus and just off the 13th fairway at Temple Terrace Golf & Country Club.

"He loved it here," said his son, Jim, who played four years for his father at USF and helped it to its first NCAA Tournament appearance in 1982.

Mr. Roberts is best known as a right-handed pitcher who won 286 games and exhibited durability, completing 305 of his 609 starts. But those who met him after his playing days — he coached the Bulls from 1977-85 — remember a humble man, rare to tout his exploits but eager to pass along his knowledge and love of baseball.

"He was one of the finest men I've ever met, period," said Eddie Cardieri, who spent three seasons as Mr. Roberts' top assistant at USF before succeeding him as coach. "I was blessed, so blessed to have those years on his staff. A great baseball man, totally first class, very humble and very baseball bright."

Another player on that 1982 team was current USF softball coach Ken Eriksen, who was reminded of Mr. Roberts' humility whenever he would look up from a softball game and see his old coach in the stands behind third base, just like any other fan.

"Robin was very unassuming. The guy could hold a conversation with anyone in any walk of life," said Eriksen, who called USF's 1982 season a "magical year."

Eriksen said Mr. Roberts routinely brought other former major-leaguers to talk to his USF teams, including Hall of Famer Richie Ashburn and Eddie Sawyer, who managed the 1950 Phillies, known as the "Whiz Kids," to a World Series berth.

"Most of the guys on the team, we knew every player for the last 20 years. So to meet these guys, you just said, 'Oh, my God,' " Eriksen said. "He would call upon his days as a player, and he always was a big proponent of making sure you kept your nose clean, told you that you were always representing your family and the University of South Florida."

Mr. Roberts was a fan of the Rays, attending some games and making appearances at the Trop.

"He was very complimentary to us," manager Joe Maddon said. "He would come in and sit in my office and just talk about us and how much he enjoyed watching us. … Wonderful gentleman, real easy to talk to, bright man, educated, kind of an academic type, which is really unusual for that era of baseball."

There was a moment of silence prior to the Rays-Mariners game, as was the case in most ballparks Thursday, to honor Mr. Roberts.

As a pitcher, Mr. Roberts was known for his tireless arm — he threw 28 consecutive complete games at one point and once went 17 innings in a single outing. Last year, only two players threw more than four complete games, but Jim Roberts said his father understood the game had changed in the past 40 years.

"He didn't begrudge anyone for making so much money, and he never complained about pitchers not throwing complete games," the son said. "He knew the game had evolved."

"He was a special guy, I can't say how many times I refer to his career accomplishments as the epitome of what a pitcher should strive to be," Hall of Fame third baseman and former Phillies great Mike Schmidt said.

Golf had been his passion since he retired from coaching. Every time he shot his age, he gave the scorecard to his granddaughter, Jennifer. She has more than 80 of them. In the fall, she starts classes at Michigan State, the same school her grandfather attended on a basketball scholarship 65 years ago.

The Roberts family — he is survived by four children and seven grandchildren — spent part of Thursday watching the Phillies, who paid tribute to Mr. Roberts by hanging his retired No. 36 jersey in the dugout and flying the NL pennant commemorating their 1950 World Series trip at half-staff. A statue of him outside the first-base gate at Citizens Bank Park was adorned with a wreath, and Phillies players will wear No. 36 on their sleeves, starting today.

Five years ago on Father's Day weekend, Mr. Roberts lost his wife of 56 years, Mary. And in the years since, "half of him was gone," his son said. To lose their father just days before Mother's Day, Jim said, was a reminder that his parents are reunited.

"I told my kids that he was just tired of celebrating Mother's Day without her," he said.

Times staff writer Marc Topkin contributed to this report.

Robin Roberts, an icon in Philadelphia and bay area, dies at 83 05/06/10 [Last modified: Thursday, May 6, 2010 11:08pm]
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