Rays infielder Ryan Roberts got his first tattoo when he was 18, figuring a cross on his arm would be fitting for his family's Christian beliefs.
"I was really not planning on getting anything else," he said.
But now Roberts, 31, can't even count how many tattoos he has. They cover him from neck to toe, earning him the nickname "Tatman."
"It's crazy," he said, smiling. "I'd say more than 30."
Roberts has joked that the hours he has spent sitting in front of a tattoo artist have likely turned into years, and — yes — it still hurts. "Every time," he quipped. Each mark has its inspiration, emblazoned on his skin to help him remember experiences from his long baseball journey to starting a family.
Most noticeable are the Japanese characters on his neck that mean "family," and a phrase, "God gave us a fairy tale," around his collar, referring to his 3-year-old daughter, Hudsyn.
"Everything means something special in a way," Roberts said. "Anything significant in my life is on my body."
What he never envisioned was how his tattoos, and popular nickname, could be significant in the lives of some special children in Arizona. Roberts trademarked his Tatman logo so he could sell shirts and give the money to a charity, and he picked Ryan House in Phoenix, which gives respite care to youths with life-threatening conditions. In four months of online-only sales, $2,000 has been raised for a place Roberts has visited several times.
"It's unbelievable," Roberts said. "Those kids will change your life."
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It started with a sign.
With Roberts having a breakthrough season for the Diamondbacks last year, ripping 19 home runs — including several clutch ones in their playoff run — Fox Sports Arizona did an in-game contest to have fans pick a nickname via text message.
Roberts laughs as he remembers a few strange ones, "Boxcar" and "Railroad."
"I've been called worse," he joked.
The TV flashed to a kid in the stands with a "Tatman," sign, and it stuck.
"After that, it went so crazy," Roberts said. "It just took off."
A big reason was that Roberts had rejuvenated his career. One year earlier, in mid June 2010, Roberts was sent down to Triple-A Reno after struggling in his second full big-league season. It was a humbling experience for Roberts, a Fort Worth, Texas, native and former 18th-round pick, who at times considered walking away from the game.
"I think it's a thought in everybody's mind," Roberts said. "Minor leagues are hard, man, it's not cut out for everybody."
Reno manager Brett Butler, who played 17 big-league seasons, told Roberts to stop thinking about being a home-run hitter and focus on hitting line drives. The results would come.
"He bought in," Butler said.
It paid off for Roberts, who hit some of the Diamondbacks' most memorable homers last season, including an extra-inning grand slam in their season-defining victory over the Dodgers in late September. As Roberts rounded the bases, he did an impression of Arizona manager Kirk Gibson, pumping his arms like Gibson did after hitting his legendary homer off Dennis Eckersley in the 1988 World Series.
"It was great, man, you play this game for this moment," Roberts said. "You play the game to be 'the guy' and you strive on that."
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Roberts' onfield success spurred momentum for sales of his Tatman T-shirts, which cost in the $25 range and are available through Los Angeles-based Youth Monument (youthmonument.com).
Ryan House can use all the help it can get. It houses up to eight children (six respite beds and two for end-of-life care), providing comfort and activities for them and their families. Roberts and his wife, Kim, have created memories for the youths, including playing the flute and piano for them in their music room the morning he was traded from Arizona to Tampa Bay on July 25. Roberts, having been designated for assignment, filled a need for the Rays at second and third base.
"We were very sad to see him go," Ryan House public relations director Nancy Flores said.
Roberts had joined the kids in mid June for an adaptive baseball game, using bases that are bigger and flatter to make them accessible to wheelchairs. He spent two hours there, hit the ball for them and wheeled them around the diamond.
"It was so funny, after the baseball game, some of our kids showed up with temporary tattoo sleeves," Flores said. "They knew he had a bunch of tattoos and wanted to show their support."
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Roberts' tattoos are diverse, both in color and type.
There are sayings, such as "Only God Can Judge Me" (on his stomach) and "Only the Strong Survive" (on his left arm). There are some tribal markings, as well as a playing card with the Sacred Heart and dice (on his right arm).
"I'm not a card shark, but I just think it's cool," he said.
Olmy Rosenstock, based out of the Oakland area, does most of Roberts' work, often coming to his Arizona home and inking him there. Rosenstock's clients include several major leaguers, including Prince Fielder, and he even did Kim's tattoo sleeve.
Roberts said he could add to his collection, with a baby boy, Lyric, due in September, a potential inspiration. "There's always room," he said.
Roberts recently went as far as suggesting to manager Joe Maddon that, if the Rays make the World Series, Maddon would get his first tattoo.
Smiled Maddon: "I'm all for it."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]