Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Jimmy Rollins: A Retrospective

Can you remember what you were doing in September 2000? I can. I was a snot-nosed freshman at Quakertown High School playing varsity golf and still waiting on my first kiss. My God, that was a long time ago. 

Jimmy Rollins played his first Major League game against the Florida Marlins at Veteran’s Stadium for a last place Phillies team on September 17th that year. The Phillies were 62-86, 25.5 games back of the Atlanta Braves who were winning their umpteenth division title in a row. Randy Wolf started, Pat Burrell played left, Bobby Abreu played right, Scott Rolen had the night off and Terry Francona probably had a chew that would make Lenny Dykstra smile going in the dugout. Rollins had the first and second of his eventual all-time franchise leading 2306 hits that night.

Desi Relaford and Alex Arias got the lion’s share of playing time at short that year for Francona and the Phils. That was the last year that Jimmy Rollins wasn’t a mainstay at the 6 spot on the diamond for a decade and a half. So the actual answer to who played shortstop for the Phillies before Jimmy Rollins was "Yikes".

Rollins played the last handful of games in 2000 and it was clear that he was the shortstop of the future going forward, and the Phils brought in shortstop of the past Larry Bowa to steer the ship in 2001.  Rollins was a catalyst in a turnaround year for the Phillies. Every position player outside of catcher played a minimum of 147 games that year and the Phils finished 2nd in the NL East at 86-76 and earned Bowa manager of the year honors.  Rollins hit 274 with 48 steals 29 doubles 14 homers and 180 hits in his first full season. He finished 3rd in Rookie of the Year voting behind Roy Oswalt and a dude name Albert Pujols. Things were looking up for the Phillies after above average years from a young group of talented players.

It was not to be.

The Phils ran the same squad back in ‘02 but the organization’s unwillingness to spend money as well as Bowa’s fiery personality clashed with the temperamental star of the team, Scott Rolen. Ed Wade sent him packing and Rollins numbers were down across the board for a team that finished a game below .500.

The next few years were spent trying to find an identity as the team moved across the street to Citizen’s Bank Ballpark and Jim Thome hit a bunch of mostly meaningless home runs.

Rollins was a constant. If everything else on the team was a variable, be it the manager (Charlie Manuel replaced Bowa in 2005), the starting pitching, the entire roster save Burrell and Abreu, Rollins was always there. From 2001 to 2007 Rollins missed just 34 of 1134 games and never played less than 154 in a season. In that same stretch he posted the following hit totals: 180, 156, 165, 190, 196, 191, 212.

By the time Charlie Manuel had settled in as manager Jimmy Rollins knew that the Phillies were going to be good. They had serious close calls for playoff berths in 2005 and 2006, the former of which was led by Rollins’ 38 game hit streak that stood at 36 games when the '05 season ended. That hitting streak is 8th all time by the way. In 2006 the New York Mets were dominant and ran away with the division and looked poised to do the same in 2007.

Jimmy Rollins was not having any of that. Don’t get me wrong, Rollins was always an All-Star caliber player from day one but believe me when I tell you his 2007 season was something for the ages. We all know he declared the Phillies as “the team to beat” in spring training that year even though the Phillies hadn’t made the playoffs since Rollins was in middle school. Then all he did was go out and make every single play a guy could make that year. Ryan Howard gets to go down in history for those 58 home runs in his 2006 season, but put Jimmy Rollins right next to him for having the following stats in ’07 (bold numbers indicates a league lead).

162 games, 778 plate appearance, 716 at bats, 139 runs, 212 hits, 38 doubles, 20 triples (20 triples?!?), 30 home runs, 94 rbi, 41 steals (6 caught), and he hit 296.

Oh, and he also won his second consecutive gold glove. And National League Most Valuable Player honors.

I tend to get carried away with stats but know that it wasn’t just about the stats with Rollins. He was the leader on a ballclub on a true ascension. He was outspoken. He was charismatic. He had swagger (before swagger became something that everybody claimed to have). He Made Every Single God Damn Play At Shortstop. Day in. Day out.  For what seemed like forever. This can't be taken for granted but usually is.

His 2007 season got the Phillies over that playoff hump. Sure, they got swept by the Rockies but the comeback the Phillies made against the Mets to take the division is what every one remembers that year.  Seven and a half back with 17 to go and the Mets folded like a cheap suit. Rollins put the belief in that team to go out and do it. Having Chase Utley, Howard, Jayson Werth, Chooch, and Shane Victorino certainly helped but Rollins was the one who made them believe. First he did it with his words, and then he did it with his play.

From there the legend only grew. Every one reading this knows what happened in 2008 for the Phillies. When you’re the starting shortstop and a main reason for a team to reach the apex of the sport your position has been solidified as one of the all time franchise greats.

Then came the 2009 NLCS. The Phillies had not been in a tight playoff series during their run up to that point and Jimmy Rollins was not about to let that '09 NLCS be any different. It was a cold Monday night in October and the Phils were leading the series 2-1 but trailing the Dodgers 4-3 and down a run in the bottom of the 9th at Citizen’s Bank Park.

The Dodgers closer, Jonathan Broxton, had already been victimized by the mortal Matt Stairs in the 2008 NLCS to the tune of a moon shot game-winning home run. This time, Broxton was facing Jimmy batting left-handed with two outs and two men on when the 30 year-old shortstop connected on a 99 mile per hour fastball and sent a laser into the gap in right center. Can’t you just hear Harry (RIP) doing that call “Two runs are gonna score..”

 This always has and always will be my favorite YouTube clip of all-time. Scott Franzke with the call.

That’s the hit you dream about when you’re a little kid playing in your back yard. That’s what every fan wishes their team would be capable of pulling off. That’s what Jimmy Rollins delivered in the 2009 NLCS. It’s a hit and a moment I’ll never forget for the rest of my life. It made Jimmy Rollins immortal as a sports figure in this city regardless of his shortcomings and more lean years we’ve experienced of late.

Since the Phils string of five straight NL East titles Rollins’ play has dipped, along with every other star on the Phils' aging roster. After the 2011 season, the one that ended in bitter disappointment after 102 wins, he signed a three year deal to stay with the only team he’d ever known. I actually wrote him an open letter pleading with him to stay. I’m glad he did. It was the right thing to do, whether it worked out for him and the Phillies or not.

Jimmy wasn't without his faults. I did my fair share of complaining about his penchant for popping up the second pitch of an at-bat in the infield. I got frustrated when he seemed to swing for the fences or not work counts, but the positives always far outweighed the negatives when it came to Jimmy. He was never the prototypical leadoff hitter, but when Jimmy Rollins was going good the Phillies were tough to beat and everybody knew that.

It saddens me that Rollins, Utley and Howard are not as revered currently as they should be because they have seen such a large drop in production. That’s what happens though, athletes get old. Unless you’re Barry Bonds (cough bullshit cough), you’re not putting up career years at age 38. People will rag on Jimmy these days because of his low batting average and suspect on base percentage.  They might be legitimate gripes but after 15 years of being the best shortstop this organization has ever seen it’s finally time to let any negative feelings you may have about Jimmy Rollins go today.

He is the man that put his heart and soul into this ballclub since before any 20 year old in the Delaware Valley is capable of remembering. He’s been through Francona, Bowa, Manuel, and Sandberg. He’s been through last place and he’s been through multiple pennants. He won one of the franchise’s two World Series. He will always be a Phillie, but for now he’s a Dodger.