“…for as far back as I can remember I have loved two kinds of teams more than any other. The first, of course, were the hometown teams, which for me were Cleveland teams, the Indians and Browns and Cavaliers, those heartbreakers I had inherited because my father found a job at a factory there before I was born.” –Joe Posnanski, “Game Six,” Oct. 28, 2011
I read that passage, in a typically-outstanding blog post by Joe Posnanski of Sports Illustrated, the dean of the kind of rambling, introspective, analytic form of sports column I love most. The post itself had little to do with the genesis of Posnanski’s own Cleveland fandom, but it got me thinking about how much my happiness is tied to the employment status of a 32-year-old man from Oakland, whom I’ve never met and probably never will.
I’m a 24-year-old man with a driver’s license and a postgraduate education, so I’m an adult by proclamation, if not so much by behavior, and for the first time since I had terrible acne, a squeaky voice, and thought Blink-182 was cool, I’m faced with life without my favorite baseball player on my favorite team. Jimmy Rollins has been a constant in my life for 11 years, a period of time in which I’ve graduated from middle school and high school and collected bachelor’s and master’s degrees. A period of time in which I had my first kiss, first girlfriend, and first bad breakup, and got engaged to a person who, at the time of Rollins’ major league debut, I wouldn’t even know existed for another five years.
In spite of my quest to be objective in my baseball analysis, I hope the Phillies re-sign Jimmy Rollins above all else, and while I’d be thrilled if he’d sign a contract with favorable terms to the team, deep down I don’t care what the cost is.
And the most unsettling part of all of this is that I feel so strongly about Rollins, more than anything else, because no one was building much of anything in North Carolina in the early 1980s.
Both of my parents are architects, fresh out of college in a depression, when the construction industry ground to a halt. My dad found a job in Rocky Mount, N.C., but without anything to design, their situation was tenuous until my mom took a job with the government in Philadelphia and they moved up north. That’s why I’m a Phillies fan rather than a Braves fan, because if the economy was prospering and my parents hadn’t moved, I’d have grown up around the Braves on TBS and people with accents out of The Dukes of Hazzard, never seriously considering the Phillies as the source of self-defining social belonging I consider them today.
But why the Phillies, rather than the Eagles or Flyers? Because, as a nine-year-old, I didn’t have the stamina to play soccer, the strength or lunacy to play football, or the money to play ice hockey. Because my parents valued literacy above all else, and no sport has more or better mythology than baseball. Because my dad, though only a casual sports fan, liked baseball better than other sports. Little things.
Jimmy Rollins was drafted by the Phillies in the second round (46th overall) of the 1996 amateur draft, three months after my ninth birthday, for reasons still unknown to me. Maybe the Phillies wanted to draft Brent Abernathy, who went two spots before J-Roll, and settled. Maybe they already knew what kind of player the then-17-year-old would turn into. I have no idea. I wouldn’t even know who Rollins was until years later, when he started showing up in the minor league sections of Baseball Weekly, and even then, I wasn’t sold on the Phillies’ would-be shortstop of the future.
You see, there was another minor league shortstop, Travis “Gookie” Dawkins of the Cincinnati Reds, that I always preferred to Rollins as a prospect. Dawkins, like Rollins, was drafted out of high school as a second-rounder, and fast-tracked to the big leagues, so while Dawkins was a year younger and drafted a year later, he made his major-league debut in 1999, while Rollins, still only 21 when he played his first game in Philadelphia, had to wait until 2000.
There were reasons I preferred Dawkins–Dawkins, not Rollins, was selected to the team of minor league all-stars that won gold in baseball for the United States in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, a team that included Roy Oswalt, Ben Sheets, Doug Mientkiewicz, Brad Wilkerson, and, yes Brent Abernathy. The Seattle Mariners, in the process of trading an unhappy Ken Griffey, Jr., to the Reds in the winter of 1999-2000, zeroed in on a package that included Dawkins before their leverage evaporated before their very eyes and they settled for Mike Cameron, Brett Tomko, Jake Meyer, and Antonio Perez. To the 12-year-old scout, Dawkins, not Rollins, was the superior prospect.
Eventually, though, I got over my disappointment when Rollins stepped into the starting lineup as a 22-year-old rookie in 2001, hitting .274, leading the league in at-bats, stolen bases and triples, and making the all-star team. If Rollins hadn’t had the bad fortune to enter the league the same year as Albert Pujols and Roy Oswalt, he may well have been that year’s NL Rookie of the Year. But while I enjoyed Rollins, and grudgingly admitted that he was a better player than I had anticipated, I was still very much a Scott Rolen man.
Even after 900 words, we still haven’t reached the real question: why Rollins? Probably because I was never very good at baseball. The kids who were good at baseball pitched, played shortstop, and cranked home runs. I tried to do the best I could by walking a lot and being aggressive on the bases, and by throwing the ball in from the outfield as hard as I could (I had a pretty good arm, but because I was neither a preternatural talent nor the coach’s son, I pitched a grand total of one inning in eight seasons of organized baseball). Because I sucked so bad, I never really gravitated to the stars, but instead to the water bearers, the guys who showed up every day, went one-for-four with a stolen base and solid defense. Maybe I felt like I could identify with them better.
I know for certain that I thought it illustrated a staggering lack of imagination, even as a child, when, for instance, one of my buddies said his favorite hockey player was Eric Lindros (I preferred Mikael Renberg). What did that say, I thought as a ten-year-old, about a person’s character that he cared only about how good a player was? What about the guys who let him skate around with his head down all the time and fed him the puck? Like a good buddy movie, the fate of a sports team depended as much on the quality of the sidekick as it did the performance of the romantic lead.
Rollins, over the course of years, developed into the kind of player I enjoy watching most in all sports: flashy and nearly faultless on defense, aggressive and electrifying on offense, going about his business with either a self-assured smile or an intimidating scowl, depending on whether the inning and score called for humor or intensity. As an integral member of the 2001 Phillies, he, along with Pat Burrell, became the avatar for the youth movement that would set into motion the events that led from the doldrums of the Francona Era to the heights of 2008 and beyond. It was Rollins whose bold proclamation that the Phillies, not the perennially dominant Braves or the developing powerhouse Mets, were the team to beat in 2007. Rollins said this fresh off the last major league postseason in which the Phillies did not participate.
Rollins was the initial salient in the Phillies’ trench warfare against mediocrity. Where he pressed forward, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, and Cole Hamels burst through to victory. It was somewhere during this process, after his rookie season but before the “team to beat” incident, possibly around the time he cut off those awful cornrows, that I declared my allegiance to Jimmy Rollins, and throughout the ups and downs, the injuries, the suspensions, the bad performance, I’ve stood by him.
Saying “setting aside the division title” about the Phillies’ 2007 season is like saying “setting aside the iceberg” to a passenger on the Titanic. I get that.
Setting aside the division title, 2007 was an incredibly gratifying season for me as a baseball fan. It was the year that the world bore witness to the greatness of my favorite baseball player, who had been overshadowed his entire career by Burrell, Abreu, Thome, Utley, and Howard. You remember the season: the 30-30 year, the 20 triples, the staggering 139 runs scored at the head of one of the most potent offenses in the history of the franchise. The all-star snub, followed by the gold glove, the silver slugger, and the National League MVP. The never-ending entertainment that, to someone who values narrative over empirics, could very easily be mistaken for the works of a man who, by sheer force of personality, willed his team, like Atlas holding the Earth, from the realm of possibility to genuine success.
I won’t tell you that J-Roll was the best player in the National League that year, because it’s statistically pretty evident that he wasn’t. By Baseball Reference WAR, Rollins wasn’t even the best player on his own team (Chase Utley had 6.6 WAR to Rollins’ 6.1 despite playing 30 fewer games), and Matt Holliday, Chipper Jones, Albert Pujols, and David Wright outpaced him by significant margins. I was just getting into advanced stats at that point, and every time I read something to that effect on Fire Joe Morgan, I seethed quietly to myself. How dare they, I thought. Sure, the stats aren’t there, but…he’s my guy, by God, and the world is just now waking up to what a great player he is.
Among Phillies position players since integration, Jimmy Rollins is third in career plate appearances, seventh in WAR, fifth in games played, third in hits, third in runs, second in doubles, first in triples, eleventh in home runs, and first in stolen bases, by nearly 100. For a man who brings so much to the table qualitatively, Rollins is in retired number territory when it comes to the sheer stats.
Travis Dawkins hit .163/.241/.204 in 110 major league plate appearances spread over four seasons. He had 16 career hits, four of them doubles, nine walks, and scored eight runs. His last major league hit was, believe it or not, against the Phillies. It was a one-out double off Brandon Duckworth in the bottom of the fifth inning of a 4-3 loss on Sept. 22, 2002.
Since 2007, it’s been a quiet time for J-Roll and me. It should be obvious by now that 2007 was the best season of his career, and nothing will ever top that. But I don’t resent the older, wiser, calmer, J-Roll. Frankly, the Rollins of 2007 might be too much to handle in concert with both Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence. Jimmy Rollins has evolved into a perfect elder statesman, a quiet team leader. He’s grown up, in short, and because of the time in which it happened, it seems like he and I have grown up together.
Being a Phillies fan is one of the three or so most important social identifiers in my life right now, as sad as it seems when I put it like that, and over the past 10 years or so, that social identifier has caused me to experience almost literally every emotion possible, from shock to rage to confusion to the kind of unbridled, innocent exultation that makes the very revolution of the Earth seem to slow down. Jimmy Rollins has been the constant, and for whatever reason, I’ve developed an emotional attachment to him that goes beyond the simple rooting interest I have in most of his teammates. I know at least some of you must feel the same way.
If the Phillies don’t re-sign Rollins, we’ll be losing a massive part of the team identity. A part of our history as fans. And for me, it will mean saying goodbye to my favorite ballplayer.