CLEARWATER, Fla. - Things are different for the Phillies this spring. Everyone knows and acknowledges this.
From 2004 through 2012, the Phillies came here with the expectation that they would compete for, if not presume to win, the National League East. In 2013 and 2014, they came here with the hope of repeating that success, even if anyone who had foreseen the team's predictable downward trajectory recognized that hope was faint. This spring is not like those springs. The expectations are minimal. The faces are unfamiliar. The manager talks of "small ball."
And Jimmy Rollins isn't here.
Rollins' absence is the most conspicuous sign that the Phillies, finally, are making a fresh, clean start, or at least trying to. The December trade that sent Rollins to the Los Angeles Dodgers was in a sense inevitable. At some point, the Phillies were going to wise up and realize that wishing Rollins, Chase Utley, and Ryan Howard would crowd into Doc Brown's DeLorean and rev it to 88 m.p.h. was a fruitless pursuit. Rollins certainly realized it; he wouldn't have consented to the deal if he hadn't.
So for the first time in 15 years, there is no Rollins bopping around the clubhouse, offering words worth attention and consideration to his teammates and the media, preparing for the regular season, setting a tone.
"It's different - there's no doubt," said Utley, Rollins' double-play partner for a decade. "I haven't known a spring training without Jimmy. It's different not having him here. I've talked to him a few times, and it seems like he's doing well in Arizona. He's a friend of mine, and he's a great teammate over the years, and he was a very big factor in our success."
He was big in ways that often went unseen. Rollins was the bridge from the franchise's previous dark period, the late 1990s and 2000, to its rise to greatness in the late 2000s. Better than anyone, he knew where the Phillies had been and what it took to get where they wanted to go, and it is difficult to overstate the effect and importance of his influence, even among the players who came to be regarded as his equals, his peers. Remember: He was Howard's first roommate when Howard came to the Phillies to stay.
"He took me in, let me stay at his place," Howard said. "Then what he did for the organization, his accomplishments, it tells you what kind of person he is.
"I mean, he let me stay at his house. Can't do anything better than that."
Those remarkable seasons that Howard put together early in his career, when he was rookie of the year and National League MVP, when it was taken for granted he would hit 45 home runs in a season, feel deep in the past now. They seem almost fictional, because of Howard's subsequent injuries and decline. But they were real and they were spectacular. They are also impossible to separate from his relationship with Rollins, from Rollins' role as a mentor who could guide Howard through life in the majors as Howard supplanted the player who had been the team's centerpiece: Jim Thome.
"I think it definitely helped," former manager Charlie Manuel said. "Once we kind of changed the team, Jimmy was definitely the leader on our team, and I think some of the trades we made leading up to that opened the door for Ryan to be the player that he has become. Jimmy and him corresponded real well together and would pull for one another, and they were tight. They were buddies.
"I think our connection on the team was absolutely great in those days, and I think Jimmy and Ryan both were part of that connection. Both of those guys were leaders on our team. Howard was more of a leader by what he did, where Jimmy was just a leader."
Now the clubhouse is a little quieter, the atmosphere a little less buoyant, the focus on less-familiar places and players. The Phillies played the Red Sox in a split-squad game Sunday, for instance, and catching for Boston was Blake Swihart, a highly regarded prospect thought to be the key to a potential Cole Hamels trade.
Trading Cole Hamels. It would have been unthinkable when things were good for the Phillies, when Jimmy Rollins was around and times were great.
"Of course we're all going to miss the guy, but it's all about competing now," centerfielder Ben Revere said. "He's going to try to beat us. We're going to try to beat him. When he's in town and we do see each other, hopefully in the playoffs, it's going to be like, 'We'll see you again. It's go time. It's competition.' "
OK, so not everyone knows things are different.