There were times in the first half of this season when Jimmy Rollins would be loosening up a few hours before a game. His eyes would shift toward the dugout, where manager Charlie Manuel was answering questions from a pack of reporters.
Rollins had been mired in a hellacious slump, so his intuition told him that the questions were about him.
"I'd say, 'What did they ask you today, Charlie?' " Rollins said. "And he'd say, 'Please start hitting, son. I'm tired of answering these questions.' "
The imperturbable shortstop would laugh and continue about his day.
"Don't worry, Chuck, I got you," he'd say.
Manuel always had faith that his leadoff man would break out of his slump. Rollins did, too, because when it comes to self-confidence he is always among the league leaders.
Eventually, Rollins' bat warmed.
He hit .287 with 15 homers, 28 doubles, 50 RBIs, and a .336 on-base percentage over 85 games since July 1 and is a key reason the Phillies are headed to the postseason for the third straight year as National League East champions.
Rollins, who will turn 31 on Nov. 27, will finish his ninth full big-league season ranked among the top five in the league in doubles and stolen bases. Even with an on-base percentage under .300, he has reached 100 runs for the fifth time in six seasons. With the fewest errors (six) and highest fielding percentage among major-league shortstops, Rollins stands a good chance to win his third straight NL Gold Glove.
Not bad for a guy who was benched in June.
Pro athletes are proud people. Being benched, even temporarily, is never easy.
Rollins was hitting .211 and in the midst of a career-worst 0-for-28 slump when Manuel ordered a break.
"I feel very free talking to Jimmy," Manuel said. "We know each other. He knows I like him, and I pull for him. I want what's best for him, and I want to see him at his best. When he's at his best, he's one of the best players in baseball.
"His problems were mostly mental. It wasn't too much physical. When you get in a slump, it can wear on you. I wanted to get him off his feet and relax him, get him a breather and see if he'd come back and do better."
At first, Rollins was against the idea. No surprise. This is a guy who says he doesn't play the game to sit around and be in the background. Rollins listened to Manuel's reasoning and said, "OK, you're the manager. I'll roll with it."
Rollins sat out June 25 at Tampa Bay and June 26 at Toronto. There had been some thought to having him play June 27 at Toronto, but the guy who was at first reluctant to sit told his skipper he needed a couple more days.
"I sat two games," Rollins said. "The other two were in my hands. I knew we were playing the next series in Atlanta, and I've always felt good there. I figured, two more."
During his time out of the lineup in Toronto, Rollins employed a novel, gastronomic slump-buster.
"Charlie told me don't worry about anything so I didn't," Rollins said. "I just stayed up in the clubhouse, ate garlic fries and listened to Michael Jackson music. It was a vacation."
In between bites of garlic fries, Rollins hit off a tee in the batting cage. He worked on keeping his weight back and exploding toward the ball with a short swing. During difficult times, Rollins' swing gets long, and he looks as if he's trying to hit home runs, a no-no for someone of his physical stature (5-foot-8, 175 pounds) and spot in the lineup.
Hitting coach Milt Thompson said Rollins has a tendency to drift, or lunge, in his stride when he is struggling at the plate. Other than to correct that, Rollins did not make changes during his down time. He said he learned not to tinker with his swing too much during his second big-league season, when frequent suggestions from then-manager Larry Bowa left his head spinning. In his time off, Rollins tried to get back to the basics: See the ball. Put a good, short swing on it.
"I guess it helped," he said months later of the benching.
It didn't get him down
Rollins said the slump didn't affect him mentally as much as people think.
"The team was winning," he said. "Anytime you're winning, it's OK. If the team is not winning, and you're not doing well, you have no hope. But I was always like, 'Maybe I'll do something today.' I always think positive. I was born that way."
The people closest to Rollins say he never got down.
"He's so even-tempered and calm in his approach to baseball and life in general," said Johari Smith, Rollins' fiancée. "I wouldn't say nothing bothers him. He's human. But he's very good at brushing things off his shoulders, moving on and saying, 'Today's a new day.' "
Rollins is close to his parents, James and Gigi. They attend a number of games each season and watch the rest on television at their Alameda, Calif., home. In July, Rollins presented his father with a replica 2008 World Series ring and his mother with a pendant commemorating the Phillies' championship. In person and in telephone conversations, James Rollins never noticed a change in spirit as his son battled through his early-season slump.
"I know his demeanor," James Rollins said. "He wasn't down. That's not his personality. He was using the same approach. He just wasn't coming through."
When James Rollins was 13, he took a hard ground ball off the shin while playing second base in a youth-league game. He ended up in right field and eventually became a track star in high school and at Laney College in Oakland, Calif. His specialties were the 100- and 220-meter sprints. Later in life, James Rollins, now 50, turned to competitive weightlifting. He dead-lifted 585 pounds in a competition several years ago.
Through his own athletic experiences, James Rollins learned lessons that he passed on to his sons, Jimmy and Antwon, and daughter, Shay. Antwon Rollins played pro ball in the Texas Rangers' system, and Shay was a star point guard at the University of San Francisco.
Laughing about that long-ago ground ball off the shin, James Rollins said his message to his sports-loving children was never be afraid. That message goes beyond ground balls off the shin.
"I told my kids, 'Don't be afraid of failure,' " he said. "Don't worry about messing up. If you're worried about messing up, you'll lose your aggressiveness. It's not failure if you hit it to another person, and he makes a play. That's their job."
James Rollins believes that mind-set, drilled years ago into his son on the practice diamonds around Alameda, helped him stay mentally strong while he struggled early in the season.
"I still tell myself that," Jimmy Rollins acknowledged. "It's a valuable lesson. Don't be afraid. If you're taking a test in school, don't be afraid. When you're afraid, you block yourself out, you get in your own way. You only have two options - fail or succeed - so don't stress on it. Have faith in your ability and let it happen."
James Rollins, a shipping-and-receiving clerk for Clorox for 31 years, gained other pieces of wisdom as a young athlete and passed them on to his children.
One: You can do anything you desire. You have the tools. Make it happen.
"When I was in junior college, I met Donald Quarrie," James Rollins said of the former Olympic sprint champion. "I looked at him. He was a normal guy like me, no different than me. I wanted to tell my kids no one is any different than you. It can be done. It was a good lesson for me, and I told it to my kids."
In Jimmy Rollins' case, he went from fielding countless ground balls - hit by his father - on rocky fields to the National League's MVP in 2007 and a World Series champion in 2008. Jimmy Rollins still laughs about all those ground balls his father hit. He'd stand in front of a brick wall, and his father would "hit bullets" at him.
"If the rocks on the field didn't get you, the ricochet off the brick wall would," he said with a laugh.
Jimmy Rollins survived. No ground ball off the shin would take him away from the game he loved.
Hey, look up there. There are those letters again. MVP. For Rollins, those letters have proven both precious and pesky.
In winning the MVP in 2007, Rollins batted a career-best .296 with a league-best 139 runs. He had 38 doubles, 20 triples, 30 homers, 41 stolen bases, and 94 RBIs. He won the Gold Glove at shortstop.
The MVP award will always be one of the highlights of Rollins' career. In some ways, it is also a minor nuisance. Rollins' career year in 2007 raised people's expectations. Whenever he doesn't reach those lofty standards, people ask questions:
What's wrong? Was the MVP year a fluke? Is he on the decline?
Rollins isn't the first MVP who had to deal with these questions. The notion of a career year is a very real phenomenon. It was for 1997 NL MVP Larry Walker, when he hit 49 homers, 11 more than he hit in any other season. It was for NL MVP Terry Pendleton in 1991, when he hit .319, his only .300 season in a 15-year career. It was for 1971 NL MVP Joe Torre when he had a .363 batting average, 230 hits, and 137 RBIs. Torre's 162-game career average in those categories: .297, 172, 87.
There's a reason they call these career years. They happen only once (unless your name is Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds, or Albert Pujols). The mortals can enjoy great heights one year, then be humbled the next.
"This game can make you look like you're on a blooper reel at times," said Phillies first-base coach Davey Lopes. "It's such a difficult game. It happens to almost everybody."
Lopes ran Rollins' 2007 season through his mind - the home runs, triples, doubles, stolen bases, runs, and Gold Glove - and said it was unfair to expect that again.
Lopes then shrugged and made a concession.
"But I think most of us are unfair, because we do expect it, because Jimmy has great tools and great ability," he said.
Questions about Rollins were more pronounced during the first half of this season because his production had slipped across the board in 2008. Part of that may have been attributed to an early-season sprained ankle. Rollins had his best month in September, helping the Phils chase down the Mets by hitting .313 with a .411 on-base percentage that month.
Early this season, the questions rose again.
What has happened to our MVP?
Why isn't he reaching expectations?
Rollins smiled when he was asked about expectations.
"Doesn't bother me," he said. "It's human nature. Ryan [Howard] has four years of 40 home runs. If he hits 35, it's, 'What happened?' When is 35 home runs not enough? That's a lot of home runs.
"As teammates, we're guilty of it, too. If Chase [Utley] goes from .310 to .289, you think, 'What happened?' He's still productive, but you're just used to seeing certain things.
"People get spoiled. Even us. That's the way we're wired."
During his slump, Rollins never once thought he was in decline as a player.
"I do look in the mirror and say, 'Damn, look how old you've gotten," Rollins said with a laugh. "But I never thought I was losing it."
Neither did Manuel.
"The skills are still there," he said. "There's been no diminishing at all. The big thing people have to realize is human nature still plays the game. That's why you can score 22 runs one night and have to fight for three the next night. That's why your team can get 20 hits one night and only two the next.
"Jimmy's still a great player."
Very good or great?
Gentlemen, start your debates.
Rollins, who had an 86-game errorless streak this season, is a great defensive shortstop. With the game on the line, pitchers want the ball hit to him.
But overall is he a great player or merely a good one? That argument centers on his offense.
Rollins' critics point to the biggest flaw in his game - his inability to consistently get on base when he's not hitting. The problem is magnified because Rollins is a leadoff man. He does not have the patient approach of a typical leadoff man. Rollins goes to the plate trying to hit the ball hard, not walk.
He entered the weekend with a paltry .297 on-base percentage. As a leadoff man, it was .292, the lowest of any full-time leadoff hitter in the majors.
"From a Sabermetric standpoint, Jimmy is viewed as a solid but unspectacular player," said Sean Forman, a member of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) and owner of the Baseball-Reference.com Web site. "On offense he is above average for a shortstop but makes too many outs to be an elite player. His .329 career on-base percentage is actually below average. He makes up for it some with his slugging and tremendous baserunning, but he is en route to leading the league in outs for the fourth time in his career."
Former shortstop and NL MVP Barry Larkin is a big fan of Rollins. Larkin was a coach for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic in March. He saw Rollins go on a tear and hit .417 with four extra-base hits and four RBIs in eight games in the tournament. Then, in his role as an analyst for the MLB Network, Larkin watched as Rollins spiraled into his early-season slump.
"I talked to Jimmy about his approach to hitting," Larkin said. "It's very unique. It's an aggressive approach, especially for a middle infielder, closer to a guy who hits 40 homers a year. That's why he's lethal when he's hot. At the same time, with this approach, it takes time to get out of it when you struggle.
"You can't pigeonhole guys in this game. It's unfair to Jimmy to try to characterize him as a leadoff hitter. You can't expect him to be Rickey Henderson, who gets on all the time, or a guy who is going to look at a lot of pitches. He's not your prototypical take-take-take, slap-the-ball-around guy. People try to pigeonhole guys because of where they're hitting in the lineup. The only time you're leading off is the first time up in a game, maybe occasionally after that. The No. 1 spot can be an RBI spot. You've got the eight and nine guys trying to move runners into scoring position, so No. 1 is an RBI hole.
"Jimmy's approach works for him. You're not going to change the spots on a leopard at this point. He's been around for eight years, won an MVP, been to All-Star Games, won a World Series. Listen, you've got what you got. If you don't like it, you can get someone else, but I guarantee you won't want to do that."
Former New York Mets general manager Steve Phillips, an analyst for ESPN, would like to see a higher on-base percentage from Rollins. But overall, Phillips believes Rollins' strengths outweigh his weaknesses.
"He's a tremendous defender and base stealer. He's exciting and fun to watch," Phillips said. "I know he's had some down stretches the last couple of years. But I still think he's a great player. Despite the numbers, you still feel confident with him up in certain situations. You still think he's going to do something to help you win the game. He has that ability to elevate his game in important situations."
In recognizing Rollins' streakiness, Phillips offered an admonition.
"Jimmy is getting to the point in his career where he's going to have to evaluate his downturns," he said. "There comes a point in every guy's career when you can't get by doing what you did before. You have to make adjustments. You might have to prepare differently. He may be approaching that point in his career. But he's not done by any means. He's got a lot of good baseball in front of him."
The Phillies are glad about that. Not only is Rollins signed through next season with a club option for 2011, but his supporters also say he is the man who makes the team go.
Lopes says it.
Teammate Jayson Werth often reminds Rollins, "As you go, we go."
The numbers back that up. The Phillies were 42-15 when Rollins scored a run last year and 58-19 this year entering the final weekend.
But even that statistic lends itself to some argument.
Forman, the SABR member, said the idea that as Jimmy goes, the Phillies go is "to a large extent overblown."
"All teams do well when someone scores a run," he said. "Through last Sunday, the Phillies were 38-11 when Pedro Feliz scored a run, 55-19 when Ryan Howard scored a run, 21-6 when Carlos Ruiz scored a run, and 64-21 when Chase Utley scored a run."
Asked if there was any validity to the notion that as he goes, the team goes, Rollins said, "I don't know." But he likes the idea of it all.
"I've heard it for a long time," he said. "The way I look at it, I don't play this game to sit around and be in the background. It's definitely a good thing."
But he sure can cook
Rollins might lack patience in the batter's box but at home?
"He's very patient," Johari Smith said. "You should see him with our dogs. (The couple have two akitas, Kato and Kayla.) He loves to train them."
Smith said her man is also handy in the kitchen.
"He makes me laugh," she said. "He's a really good cook. He's mastered grilling the perfect steak."
Smith was raised in East Mount Airy. She graduated from Germantown Friends, where she ran track and cross-country. She is a certified personal trainer and is part owner of Balance, an upscale personal-training studio in Chestnut Hill. The couple met in 2004, when Smith was an intern in the Phillies' sales department. They plan to marry in January on Grand Cayman Island.
"At least three," said Jimmy, when asked if he'd like to have children.
"That's the hope," Smith said. "We'd love that. Three's a good number."
The couple will introduce their children to athletics, and Rollins will pass along the lessons he learned from his parents. (His mother was a softball player.) Don't be afraid to fail. You can do anything you desire. Make it happen.
"I'll teach them the same way I learned," he said.
As for baseball, Rollins views himself at midcareer. He has more than 1,600 hits and would like to make a run at 3,000.
"I'm not going to be a .300 hitter," he said. "Might as well get 3,000." And he isn't afraid to admit that making the Hall of Fame, like his idol Henderson, is a goal.
Rollins' Hall of Fame worthiness is years from being weighed. Another World Series ring would definitely enhance his resumé.
Rollins was drafted by the Phillies more than a decade ago, when the team was racking up last-place finishes. In those days, the thought of multiple World Series rings seemed far-fetched.
"When I first got here, the GM would have a meeting," Rollins said. "He'd say, 'We can win,' because he had to say it even though everyone knew we really couldn't.
"Now, it's totally different. It's turned around. When kids come to this organization, they expect to win.
"I want to win another World Series here, hopefully build a dynasty. I know that word gets thrown around, but that's what I'd like to see happen."