The misunderstood legacy of Jimmy Rollins
Jimmy Rollins leaves the Phillies having left his imprint on the city of Philadelphia
For the first time since before the Sept. 11 attacks, Jimmy Rollins is not a member of the Philadelphia Phillies. We'll have a complete retrospective on the spectacular career of the franchise's all-time hits leader in due time, but for now, I leave you with this piece I wrote back in the autumn of 2011, when the Phillies were just a couple of days removed from what would prove to be the last playoff game of the greatest era in franchise history. At the moment, I can't say it any better than this.
A Thursday afternoon in America's heartland: sunshine, blue skies, "Wild Thing" pulsing through Milwaukee's mostly empty Miller Park. A baseball stadium before game time is a carnival before opening night: the steady beep of a forklift in reverse, the dull roll of a beer keg on a concourse, the muffled chatter of park personnel running through their pregame routines.
In an hour, the gates will open and the stands will begin to fill with pale Midwesterners trickling in from their 9-to-5s. For now, though, the world is empty aisles and quiet preparation, the calm pierced only by the intermittent crack of rawhide on ash.
The impact of bat on ball creates a sharp sound, like a tree branch breaking in a forest of plastic seats. For a veteran shortstop, it's the equivalent of Pavlov's bell, a signal that causes instinct to take over. Everything after it is reaction, a conditioned response that starts on the basepaths of suburban Oakland and stretches to big league batting practices like the one in progress now.
On a patch of dirt between second and third, the shortstop sprints into motion, bounding after a ball skipping across the lake of open grass. He digs a cleat into the ground and launches his body into the air, twisting his core and cocking his arm in one smooth motion. Then he falls away, Jordan after the jump shot, backpedaling toward the chalk line, tracking the arc of the ball as it arrives at its target.
That's when Jimmy Rollins cracks satisfied grin and allows his momentum to knock him backward onto the turf. For a few moments he is a alone, lying on the outfield grass, staring at a late-summer sky, floating in a moment that none of us will ever know. Three hours before another first pitch, the world beeps and rolls and chatters away.
All around him, the speakers sing: "Wild thing . . . I think I love you."
He is bald now, the braids of his youth replaced by a cueball head that holds his cap like a storefront window bust. At 32, he is the most veteran fixture on the town's most successful team, and one of the most accomplished offensive and defensive shortstops in the history of major league baseball. Eleven years after he first arrived in Philadelphia, Jimmy Rollins' career has completed an arc that few Philadelphia athletes ever experience. When he first arrived, he was billed as The Future. As he made his mark, he developed into The Present. And now, a decade-plus after it all began, Rollins is staring down a potential existence as The Past.
At some point early next month, the best shortstop in Phillies history will become a free agent. He would not be the first player to leave, of course. Philadelphia has a long history of watching its best athletes depart for other pastures, whether it is at the behest of the majority (Rolen, Lindros, McNabb), or in spite of it (Dawkins, White, Chamberlain). Some leave as malcontents, their personalities having worn thin. Some leave as martyrs, proof of the perceived failings of team owners. But most leave as . . . well, usually it's just time to go.
Which brings us to Rollins, and the prospect that we could be watching his final days anchoring the middle of the field. And it begs the question: Who is Jimmy Rollins? And how will we remember him if he leaves?
It is a peculiar thing, this world in which our ballplayers live: close enough to share, far enough to mold to our desires. In New York, it is the world of Joltin' Joe and Jeter, smooth and polished and debonair, two chunks of melting-pot beef bobbing in our American dream: Rocks glasses, velvet ropes, pretty little actresses with pretty little smiles, a world far removed from the dirty stoops and aging houses that constrain normal city life.
In the Midwest, it is the world of Stan the Man, strolling around town with the ego of a church deacon, shopping their stores, sharing their restaurants. Ryne Sandberg working second base like a farmer in the field.
In Philadelphia, we tend to define our world by what it is not. It is not the scene, it is not the epicenter, it is not Page 6 or Page 1 or the Farmer's Almanac. It is not the glass caverns of high finance or the halls of power or the Stepfordian manners of the states washed in red. And it most definitely is not a brash-talking shortstop who arrives in town with all the subtlety of an eastbound train.
That was Jimmy Rollins in September 2000: A 5-8 bundle of energy and noise bursting into the clubhouse of a team sitting 25 1/2 games out of first place, acting as if he would be the guy who would finally do something about it. He was as much a curiosity as he was a prospect. Talented? Sure. But also looking so . . . different.
The newspaper headlines embraced the energy he brought to the diamond, but in doing so began to draw a subtle distinction between a ballplayer like Rollins and a ballplayer as he is supposed to be. They focused on the hair (dreadlocks!), the jewelry (gold chains!), the music (rap!) instead of the . . .
Well, let's just look at the headlines. Four years earlier, the Phillies had welcomed another highly touted rookie, one who was raised in Jasper, Ind., and looked and acted like everything a ballplayer was supposed to be: "Classy skills, and even classier guy," was how the Inquirer introduced Scott Rolen to the fan base in a story that raved about his "firm character" and his "classy demeanor" and his "one-of-us personality."
One of us! Yes, that's what we want in Philadelphia. We want a guy who was raised how we were raised (Rolen's parents: teachers!), who listens to the music we listen to (Dave Matthews Band!), who has a soft-speech/big-stick mentality (Like Jim Eisenreich! And Dale Murphy!). And if that was an accurate definition of who was one of us, well, it also defined who most assuredly was not one of us.
Rollins belonged to some other world, one that caused us to comment on his "raw talent" and "youthful exuberance," but somehow allowed us to ignore the fact that he was raised in a working-class neighborhood, where every spring, he and his teammates on the Encinal High baseball team would gather with shovels and rakes so they could make their field playable for another season.
His first few days with the Phillies, Rollins took batting practice in a group that included Rolen, who was finishing up his fourth season in the majors. Each day, Rolen watched with chagrin as Rollins punctuated his swings with a laugh or a howl. To Rollins, batting practice was not practice. It was an event, an event that - like everything else - required a healthy amount of talk. By the end of the week, it was too much. Rolen approached the two other veterans in the group and asked for permission to kick the kid out. Chain of command is a big part of The Way. The veterans shrugged. Rolen talked to the kid, and then had him replaced.
What the veterans did not tell Rolen is that they liked the kid. What the veterans knew is that they needed the kid.
When Doug Glanville broke into the bigs in 1996, the speedy leadoff hitter was well-schooled in The Way. He was 25 years old at the time, and after six seasons in the minors he just wanted to survive. He was an African-American in a predominantly white sport, a Penn graduate in a clubhouse with more diplomas than degrees. Conformity was not something he resisted.
At the same time, conformity did not always mean comfort. After Rollins' excommunication, Glanville watched the kid respond by keeping his mouth shut and hitting in silence with his new group. "And then he came out of it," says Glanville, who was one of the veterans in the Rollins' original hitting group. "He said, 'All right, well, Scott is Scott.' "
Jimmy, on the other hand, was Jimmy. And although some might have seen him as a rookie who did not know his place, Glanville saw a player whose exuberance stemmed from an appreciation of the opportunity being offered. In the clubhouse before games, Rollins would sit at his locker and practice his signature for hours until it looked just right. In the dugout and on the basepaths, he bounced with a zeal that was missing from an organization wrapping up its seventh straight losing season. "Where I came from, you had to be a little more careful about announcing your presence with authority," Glanville says. "But Jimmy was fearless about that . . . Jimmy was so excited to be there, so fun-loving. Right of the gate . . . He embraced being The Man."
Would Philadelphia embrace him? Eleven years later, has it embraced him? It's still an open question. When you think of Philadelphia, do you think of Jimmy Rollins? Or do you think of Brian Dawkins? Or Chase Utley? Or Bobby Clarke?
Maybe the paper had it wrong. Maybe we weren't drawn to the players who reminded us of us. Maybe we were drawn to the players who reminded us of the way things used to be, of the days when linebackers hit like Chuck Bednarik and pitchers lasted like Robin Roberts, the days when men were men and this city was a city, before industry fled and people followed, days when we sat together in concrete stadiums that shivered with energy, a teeming mass of 60,000 strong, just seats and grass and a common cause.
When Jimmy Rollins burst into our lives, we had not witnessed a championship in nearly 20 years. The Phillies had not produced a winning record since before the 1994 strike. In a decaying city with a dwindling population, everything looked better in the rearview: the factories and the quarterbacks, the shortstops and the streets. Two hours up the turnpike, New Yorkers were still gloating over two straight titles, with a third on the way. In 2000 alone, New York produced two. This used to be a baseball city, the old-timers would tell you, their voices straining to be heard above the din of sports-talk radio. Whitey and Lefty, they'd say, Michael Jack and Tug . . .
. . . And Bowa. Yes, that's it. Larry freakin' Bowa. Now there was a Philadelphia athlete. He may have finished his Phillies career with a .301 on-base percentage, but he played the game the right way. He showed us that it isn't always about how you perform, but about how you react when you fail. Bowa always displayed the appropriate level of pissed. During Rollins' first full season in the majors, a profile labeled Bowa as "the ultimate uniform-dirty guy" when comparing them.
Cool is cool in New York, where style matters as much as substance. In Philly? Sports is our world. It is not their world. They are not letting us watch. We are letting them perform. Their tax dollars do not fund the stages on which they play. Their disposable income does not fund their exploits. They are here for us, and they damn sure better play like it.
But Rollins wasn't here to play the way we wanted him to play. He wasn't here to be an outlet for our post-industrial angst. He told us as much. You are not going to define me, he said. Me is Rickey Henderson, not Steve Van Buren. Me is Tupac, not Springsteen. You can fake the hustle but you can't fake the game, he said, but don't think for a damn minute that I don't have the hustle. You want blue collar? Try working until nightfall at a Clorox plant like Jimmy's father did. Try taking ground balls on the rock-infested fields of Alameda, Calif.
When Rollins played his first game for the Phillies, the last shortstop to represent the franchise in an All-Star Game was Bowa. That was in 1979, three years before he departed for the Cubs. In the 19 seasons that followed, Phillies shortstops combined to hit just .243 with a .312 on-base percentage and .334 slugging percentage for a lowly .646 OPS. They had averaged just 6.1 home runs and 7.7 stolen bases and committing an obscene 25.6 errors per season.
For the first half of that time period, few major league teams expected much in the way of offense out of their shortstops. In 1990, Cal Ripken led all shortstops with 21 home runs. But by the end of the 2000 season, then-Mariners star Alex Rodriguez was nearly doubling that number. With players like Miguel Tejada, Derek Jeter and Nomar Garciaparra joining Rodriguez, an offensive transformation was under way. No longer were shortstops expected to be small, slap-hitting defensive specialists who batted at the bottom of the order. They were bigger. They were faster. And, regardless of the means, they were stronger.
Which made Rollins an anomaly in his sport as well as his organization. When the Phillies drafted him in the second round in 1996, he was listed at 5-8, 160 pounds. His father was more than 6-feet tall. His brother, a fourth-round pick of the Rangers in 1998, was listed at 6-1, 190 pounds. His sister played basketball at the University of San Francisco. But Jimmy measured closer to his mother, a renowned fast-pitch softball player in the Bay Area. And whatever Gyvonnie Rollins' genes lacked in the way of size, they made up for in attitude. The Rollinses played bigger than their bodies, and they informed every teammate and opponent of that fact.
Back in those early days, Glanville saw himself as a mentor to Rollins. After a night on the town, Rollins would crash at Glanville's place in Conshohocken. The veteran would listen to the kid chattering his cellphone, debating every debatable topic with his younger brother until Glanville was finally forced to poke his head around the corner and tell Jimmy that, for God's sake, it was time for bed.
See, Rollins was always talking. To those who did not know him, it sometimes hid the fact that he was also always listening, always watching, always thinking. One of those seasons, Glanville was dating a woman who seemed skittish about committing to a long-term relationship. He felt like all of us do: alone on stage, the whole world watching, waiting for a pitch we aren't sure we can hit. Rollins, nine years his junior, listened as he always did: deeply, intently. After Glanville finished talking through his trepidations, Rollins hit him with the advice he always lived by.
"Do it afraid," he said.
Do the thing you fear most, Mark Twain once wrote, and the death of fear is certain. We either define situations or let situations define us. So we do it afraid. During their brief time as teammates, Glanville and Rollins would talk about the philosophy in terms of baseball. Whenever you play, do it afraid. Years later, Glanville shakes his head. All that time, and he thought he was the teacher.
Maybe Rollins played with the fear of the scouting reports that wished he had another few inches of height. Maybe it was the fear of the boos he watched teammates like Rolen and Pat Burrell endure. Maybe it was failure. Or rejection.
When the Phillies hired Bowa to replace Terry Francona as manager after the 2000 season, it brought together the man considered to be the best shortstop in franchise history with the kid considered to be his potential heir. On some levels, the pairing appeared to make perfect sense. On others, it appeared to be the setup for a bad sitcom: Bowa with his red face and bulging veins, Rollins with his aura of cool.
Looking back, maybe those years should serve as the ultimate referendum on Rollins. Because it worked. Instead of a fiery crash at the intersection of old school and new, the union between the undersized infielders with oversized egos helped transform the Phillies and redefine professional sports in Philadelphia.
Every afternoon, Rollins would glide into the clubhouse with his usual swagger. "Pimpin'," is what Bowa called it. One day, the manager tried to clown on Rollins by imitating his walk. Rollins shook it off, then proceeded to show Bowa the proper way to strut. See, he said, you gotta drag the back foot a little more. Bowa snapped back: "Why don't you try dragging that back foot across home plate every once in a while?"
One of those springs, Rollins walked into the clubhouse in Clearwater wearing a velour track suit, the kind of outfit that only a select few can pull off without looking like a Zumba instructor. Still, Bowa complimented him on his attire. A few days later, a package arrived for the manager. That season, you may have encountered a middle-aged white guy rocking a velour track suit while strolling about the Delaware Valley.
During those first few years, Bowa would push Rollins to improve his approach at the plate. A leadoff hitter can't be striking out 100-plus times a season, he'd say. And Rollins would push back. "But he had a good work ethic," Bowa says. "And he wants to win. He wants to be the man when the game is on the line."
After an impressive 2001 in which he finished third in Rookie of the Year voting and helped lead the Phillies to their first winning season since 1993, Rollins' development appeared to plateau. Twenty-six games into the 2004 season, Rollins was hitting just .180, and the fan base was restless. Instead of developing into the player the Phillies expected, he was treading water, or maybe heading in the wrong direction. The team was coming off a disappointing season in which they finished 15 games out of first place and five games out of the wild card despite an offseason spending spree that added Jim Thome and David Bell. For the first time in his career, Rollins was walking to the plate to a chorus of boos.
Along with the boos came rumblings about Bowa's job security. Both aspects bothered Rollins, who had never before experienced the ramifications of unfulfilled expectations in the city of Philadelphia.
But then something changed. The Phillies hit the road for a West Coast trip and Rollins began to hit the ball. Over the last 130 games of the season, he hit .306 with an .850 OPS. The team followed his lead, going 74-62 the rest of the way to finish 86-76, and Rollins set career highs in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage, and finished with 14 home runs and 30 stolen bases. In the process, he also developed into the leader the club had expected him to become. In a mid-September series in Montreal, Rollins had the day off, so he spent some of his pregame hanging out by the stands, signing autographs and cracking jokes and mugging for cameras with a group of Phillies fans who had made the trip north. "He really wanted to love the fans back," Glanville says. "He just does a great service to the game. He just loves people and thrives in it. It's funny, because he has this very broad spectrum of people who can relate to him."
None of it was enough to save Bowa's job. The move hit Rollins hard. On the last day of the season, roughly 48 hours after Ed Wade relieved Bowa of his duties, the shortstop hit a grand slam to lead the Phillies to a 10-4 win over the Marlins. Afterward, he dedicated the blast to the man he had grown to love. "I figured he's probably at home celebrating," Rollins told reporters. "Probably with a smile."
That day, Rollins and Glanville walked off the field as teammates for the last time. Before they entered the dugout, Glanville turned to his friend and wrapped him in a hug. Back in September 2000, when he watched Rollins arrive, he felt that a changing of the guard had begun. Now, he felt like it had finished. "I was so proud of him," says Glanville, who retired after that season. "Not only of how he performed, but of how he handled himself."
Maybe we'd rather our athletes be athletes and not rock stars. Maybe we'd rather see them sprint full speed to a first than jog in frustration after a routine groundout. Maybe we want their uniforms dirty and their words few. Maybe we want them to perform, and when they don't, maybe we want to see them display the appropriate level of pissed.
But Bowa thinks what we really want is more basic. "Jimmy comes across a little bit as, well, not aloof, but I don't think it bothers him if people want to boo him," says the former manager, who now works as an analyst for the MLB Network. "He'll come out with some statements. But he's always backed it up."
In the end, isn't that what want? In 2007, Rollins labeled the Phillies the team to beat in the National League East, then went out and led them to their first division title since 1993, winning the NL Most Valuable Player Award for his contributions to the team's improbable comeback. In 2008, during an appearance on Fox Sports Net, he used the word "front-runners" to describe the Philadelphia fan base, which prompted said fan base to boo him roundly during the next homestand. But Rollins responded by hitting .307 with a .391 on base percentage, 453 slugging percentage, 20 runs and 17 RBI over the final 38 games of the season. The Phillies went 26-12 down the stretch and once again caught the Mets from behind. This time, they won the World Series. The next year, he scored the game-winning run in Game 3 of the NLDS and hit a two-run double with two out in the bottom of the ninth to lift the Phillies to a 5-4 win in Game 4 of the NLCS. This year, he collected seven hits in his first 12 postseason at-bats.
Maybe we don't know yet what Rollins means to Philadelphia because all of this is so new. We have never seen a team win five straight division titles, never seen a team advance to back-to-back World Series, or play in three straight National League Championship Series. We have never seen a shortstop like Jimmy Rollins. Maybe we want players who remind us of us, or maybe we want players who remind us of the way things used to be. But what recalls our glory days better than actual glory?
This past spring, Rollins sat in front of his spring training locker in Clearwater and contemplated his legacy. For years, Bowa was Mr. Phillie. Because, Rollins said, "He was the won that one."
But now Rollins is the one who's won more than anybody. The only Phillies regulars to spend more continuous seasons with the club are Bowa, Mike Schmidt and Richie Ashburn. None ever won five straight division titles.
"Was I a winner? You can say that," Rollins says. "Was I an impactful player? You can say that. Did I change baseball in the city? You can say that. So the rest is whatever you want to argue about. You can argue this guy was better because he hit better. You can say, well, this guy had a better arm. That's the fun part. But the important things, what I just named, I did."