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Roberts happy to stay in his roost

BALTIMORE — The Brian Roberts trade rumors began at the winter meetings in December and gained momentum in January. By spring training, the only mystery surrounding the pending trade appeared to be the bounty the second baseman would bring the Baltimore Orioles.

Midway through June, the former USC standout remained in Baltimore. After spending nearly half a year wondering about his future, he finally is convinced he isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. The realization has made baseball more enjoyable for Roberts, who recently has been more productive at the plate.

“I think the last couple weeks I put that behind me,” he said. “I have no idea if that has any correlation to anything; I told myself I’m just going to play baseball and not worry about what other teams are doing, not worry about who might be trading and who might not.”

On June 1, Roberts was batting .262 — 19 points below his career average. He has since gone 23-for-64 (.359) with 11 RBIs and five steals in 13 games. His two-run homer Sunday in the bottom of the ninth took the Orioles into extra innings against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Roberts is playing like a two-time All Star again.

“I just realized that everything is out of my hands,” he said. “I knew that from the beginning, but at some point you just have to stop worrying about all that junk and just play the game.”

Roberts has been an integral part of the Orioles since his rookie year in 2001. But because the switch-hitting leadoff hitter has yet to enjoy a winning season in Baltimore, he indicated he won’t return after his current contract expires following the 2009 season.

So the rebuilding Orioles made the 30-year-old Roberts available during the offseason. The Chicago Cubs expressed the most interest, and on Jan. 10, Chicago Tribune columnist Phil Rogers wrote, “Don’t be surprised if the trade is finalized later this week.”

It hasn’t happened, and perhaps never will.

Though the overachieving Orioles are at .514 (36-34) and just 7½ games behind Boston in the AL East, the decision to trade Roberts remains in the hands of Orioles president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail. “We will entertain any offer we believe will make the team better now and in the long term,” MacPhail said.

It is unlikely MacPhail could work a deal that would provide Baltimore with a better leadoff hitter than Roberts.

“Everybody was bummed out when we heard about the trade rumor,” Orioles first baseman Kevin Millar said. “But he’s here, and we’re better that he’s here. Any team is better with a guy like Brian Roberts at the top of the lineup.”

MacPhail probably feels the same way. But he’s interested in keeping Baltimore competitive into the next decade, which is why he traded standout shortstop Miguel Tejada and star left-hander Erik Bedard for a total of 10 players. Soon after Tejada was dealt to Houston in December, Roberts figured he was next.

“Unfortunately for Brian, he had to deal with it for a whole offseason and all the way through spring training, which is a little weird,” teammate Jay Payton said. “You don’t hear of a guy getting traded for five months and then nothing happens. I’m sure that was a little different.”

Roberts got so tired of getting calls from friends and reporters that he changed his cell phone number.

The trade rumor wasn’t the only topic that marred his offseason. Roberts was named in George Mitchell’s report on steroid use in Major League Baseball, and he acknowledged in December that he tried steroids once in 2003.

But long after the ramifications of that admission passed, his pending departure by way of trade remained a hot topic. Virtually every time he arrived at the ballpark, Roberts wondered if it might be his last day in an Orioles uniform.

“I tell you one thing, it’s probably one of those years where I’ve worked the hardest to get things going,” he said. “And now I’m finally starting to see the fruits of it.”

His recent surge has heightened his trade value.

After watching Roberts go 6-for-14, score four runs and collect five RBIs over the weekend, Pittsburgh’s Doug Mientkiewicz said: “The way he plays, the amount of ability he has, you understand why a team wants to keep him and how a team can get a lot back for him. There’s not too many leadoff hitters with power. He can still hit 10 to 20 homers, he can steal 50 to 60 bases, he plays every day, he plays the game right.”

Having finally cleared his head of all those rumors, Roberts doesn’t even want to think about how he might feel when the nonwaiver trade deadline approaches at the end of July. He’s operating on the assumption he will be in Baltimore at least until the end of next season.

“That’s my plan at this point — until something else happens,” he said. “I stopped worrying about everything else.”

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