Ronnie Roberts’ professional baseball journey started with a dream.
At 41 years old, he walked away from a corporate life in pursuit of his passion, and sent handwritten letters to Minor League Baseball teams up and down the East Coast. Thirty years ago, when he found his way back to the diamond, a newly minted member of the Lynchburg baseball club’s staff, Ronnie saw his deferred dream come into being.
After that, Ronnie Roberts, who died Monday at the age of 70 after battling cancer, spent three decades pouring his life into Lynchburg baseball — the players, the staff, the fans — and into the community.
He never stopped being a champion of dreams.
Monday, when I talked with the people who knew Ronnie well, I heard stories of his infectious energy. I heard stories of his unmatched work ethic. I heard stories of his love for people.
Through all those anecdotes, Ronnie’s character came into focus. Ronnie was a man who put everyone in front of himself, his only goal to see others thrive.
As head groundskeeper when he first arrived in Lynchburg — and in his work as an assistant general manager and general manager in the years after — Ronnie made Calvin Falwell Field and City Stadium a welcoming place where hopeful players could chase after their ambitions of making it to the majors.
That meant picking up debris from fireworks on 90-degree Saturday mornings, from time to time. On other occasions, helping players meant finding comfortable places for them to stay during their time in Lynchburg.
Ronnie was “never above doing the job — any job,” said Chris Jones, president of the Lynchburg Hillcats.
Around the stadium, he did the tasks no one likes to do. Cleaning toilets. Changing out trash. Walking the equivalent of several miles around the stadium hours before first pitch, so the stands and concourse looked spotless. Those duties likely went unnoticed, but Ronnie did them anyway so fans could enjoy a night out at the ballpark.
Among the staff, Ronnie was the encourager, as he aimed to help those employees see how lucky they were to be working in sports. Even amid tarp-pulling duties, Ronnie was the engine who powered the group — interns who were in pursuit of their own dream careers, broadcasters who worked toward a job in Double-A ball — to the finish line.
I saw Ronnie do all those things without showing a hint of selfish ambition. And Ronnie became a champion for me, too.
I only knew Ronnie for a few years, taking over the Hillcats beat full-time in his last season. That didn’t matter, though.
The second time I ever came in contact with Ronnie — the first including our initial meeting, of course — Ronnie greeted me by name, and he did the same every time I saw him after that.
It’s admittedly a small gesture, but it meant so much to me. In my line of work, sometimes I’ll “meet” someone six times and they still don’t know who I am. And oftentimes, athletes, coaches and others only talk to me because it’s expected.
Ronnie was never that way. He always wanted to speak with me.
One day in 2018, Ronnie spent over an hour with me for an interview. I’d planned for at least 30 minutes, thinking he’d be busy during the season. Instead, he carved out time for an in-depth conversation.
Ronnie always hoped for my sports-writing success; he told me how much he liked my stories and thanked me often for my work, telling me how he believed the things I wrote did, in fact, have an impact.
This was the familiar scenario that played out two weeks ago, during a drive-thru sendoff for Ronnie just before he left for North Carolina to enter hospice care.
Ronnie had just sat for more than two hours in the heat, greeting every one of the hundreds of people who’d come through the long parade. At the end of it all, Ronnie, who was helped inside a nearby building to rehydrate, still wanted to talk with me.
From his chair, he looked up and told me how much that tribute had meant to him, that it was good to know he’d actually meant something to people. Then he thanked me for the story I was about to write, and for what I’d done in the past to further the importance of minor league baseball in Lynchburg.
That event was about Ronnie, and yet he’d still left me feeling like I was important.
Ronnie was a champion of my dreams and those of so many others who’ve come through Lynchburg and City Stadium.
And even though Ronnie always put himself on the back burner, recently, he told me he did focus on one of his own dreams (this one of the “while-you-sleep” variety).
In this dream setting, Ronnie told me he saw himself in a boxing ring, adorned in shorts and boxing gloves and ready for a fight. Around the ring were 10,000 fans chanting Ronnie's name and wearing Ronnie Roberts hats and T-shirts.
Then Ronnie’s opponent — a 6-foot-8 “baddest man on earth” figure — entered the ring, and Ronnie fell to the ground, curling into the fetal position. Those chants from his fans turned to screams of “you let us down!”
Ronnie woke up from that dream and knew exactly what it meant. He couldn’t let that huge opponent — cancer — knock him out.
“I can’t let these people down,” Ronnie said of his new goal.
He never did.
Never was cancer an excuse for Ronnie — in that 2018 interview I did with him, for a story about his life and career, he didn’t want me to even mention the fact that he had cancer. Ronnie still showed up to work, still served and still entertained.
The cancer took away his physical strength and body. But in his 12-year battle, he never let cancer win.
“Beating cancer,” he told me two weeks before his death, “means not letting it dictate how it controls your life.”
Mission accomplished, Ronnie. In my book, you will always be a champion of dreams.