IT'S A CRUEL business, the world of professional sports. Aaron Rowand learned that about this time 2 short winters ago, when he was ripped from the glow of a world championship, ripped from the organization that had drafted him and weaned him, and shipped off to the Philadelphia Phillies for Jim Thome.

It's a cruel business, the world of professional sports. The Phillies ownership knows this well, too, stuck repeatedly in the town's stockade for much of the last 2 decades for personnel moves that were, in hindsight, dumb and dumber.

Rowand didn't get them out of that funk. That was Thome's legacy. But Rowand signaled a personality change that altered our view of this team from dolts to darlings, from passive to aggressive.

And so we come to this juncture, the immensely popular Rowand taking the $60-million, 5-year offer he could not refuse from the suddenly star-starved San Francisco Giants, walking away from the latest town to embrace him.

The Phillies were said to have offered him 3 years guaranteed, for slightly more than $12 million per season. "We make little puddles," Pat Gillick told Comcast's Leslie Gudel last week at the winter meetings, seemingly unaware of how grating that sounds to a populace who has watched too much puddle-making by this organization throughout these many moons.

Two winters ago we marveled at Gillick's ability to pry Rowand, considered a catalyst to that White Sox championship team, for the then-injured Thome. After Gillick's disastrous deals last winter - Freddy Garcia, Adam Eaton - it remains his best move so far.

Will this go down as his worst? Or does Garcia make that impossible? Rowand did everything short of kissing babies for the Phillies in his 2 seasons here. He played hard. He played hurt. He batted everywhere in the lineup without a single protest. He became the team's spokesman, issuing thoughtful answers to obvious questions regardless of what happened that night, or the day before. He got in a reporter's face or two when he felt it was warranted, and he policed his clubhouse.

Here's what Giants manager Bruce Bochy said yesterday: "I wanted to change the culture of the clubhouse and get back to the warrior mentality and play the game hard for nine innings. Aaron's the type of player who can do that. He's the type of player who can hold everyone accountable."

Who does that for the Phillies now? Chase Utley? Like Rowand, he leads by example. Unlike Rowand, he does not embrace the role of clubhouse spokesman, or clubhouse cop. For years the Phillies sought to find that guy among their home-grown talent, once imagining Scott Rolen to be that guy, later Pat Burrell. But you have to be that guy to be that guy. The Phillies have learned you can't create one.

Do they really need one? Ah, that's the question out there to be answered this season. White Sox fans will tell you yes. You would think the all-out play of Utley and Shane Victorino and Jason Werth and Jimmy Rollins would be more than enough. With his MVP status and his willingness to embrace the spokesman role, you would think Rollins could slide into any leadership void.

But again, guys like Rowand aren't just made. It's why Jason Varitek continues to be so valuable in Boston, even as his offense and defense have declined ever so slightly. Two summers ago Varitek, barely hitting .250, was injured in late July, his team entrenched in first place. The Red Sox faltered miserably.

There are plenty of good reasons for the Phillies not to give Rowand the 5 years. His all-out style of play implies a greater risk of injury, especially as he advances into his 30s. In Victorino and Werth, the Phillies have two young outfielders who can chase down balls and make strong throws, and who can hit some too.

And then there is this: Rowand hit 47 points higher last season than the previous one. He knocked in 20 more runs than he had in any of his previous 6 seasons. Last season was the second time he hit more than 13 home runs in a season. This, his style of play and the Phillies' recent history of paying millions to players with injury issues, of issuing lucrative long-term deals to players with decreasing productivity - it's not hard to see Gillick's reluctance.

But if he thinks this is playing it safe? Uh-Uh. He better hope Victorino's hamstring doesn't hamper him again. He better hope Werth's hand holds up, too. He better hope that last summer was Rowand's career year, and not the start to a string of great seasons. He better hope that others fill that huge clubhouse void, and that the team continues to play in that all-out style their centerfielder embodied.

Because the world of sports can be a cruel place.

Especially if the puddles you make don't add up to spit. *

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