Thursday, August 12, 2004

Unexpected Heroes and Beating a Dead Horse

Wouldn’t you know! The solution has been there all along, right under our noses as fate would have it. Pitcher Randy Wolf, who hit two home runs last night, should have been batting fifth from the get-go. Who else would force opponents to pitch to Jim Thome? Randy needs to work on the home run trot and, perhaps, on his stylin’, but otherwise he seems destined to make the fans forget Pat Burrell.

On another front, ever so steadily, Chase Utley, appearing in only 61 games for the Phillies, has hit 12 homers and driven in 43 runs. He has also been spectacular in the field at times. His future continues to look very bright.

With the right side of the infield settled for the foreseeable future, clouds are thickening over on the left side. Jimmy Rollins rejected a multi-year offer from the Phillies prior to last season leaving his future with the club somewhat in doubt. Signing Rollins to a long-term deal is imperative; there is no one in the farm system to replace him. Injuries continue to plague third baseman David Bell, a gamer if ever there was one. He lost most of his first season in Philadelphia to injuries and is now listed day-to-day with back spasms and hip problems. One might be tempted to look longingly at third base and rue the day Scott Rolen, everyone’s third baseman of the current millennium, departed.

It’s time to set the record straighter on that subject once and for all. Certainly this observer has been guilty of laying too much of the blame for Rolen’s departure on Larry Bowa.

For nearly two years prior to his trade to St. Louis Scott Rolen complained early and often in no particular order about the playing surface at the Vet, a lack of commitment to winning and about senior management. He wasn’t necessarily wrong to point out any of these deficiencies (and had lots of company in each instance) but he was more or less a Curt Schilling-in-training, i.e. a major league complainer, with the exception that more often than not he forced people to guess what he was thinking rather than scurry to write down every quote (the more outrageous the merrier) that rolled off his tongue.

Scott Rolen seemed to know better than anyone else what the team needed and what it was unwilling to do to achieve those goals. But his way of communicating his displeasure was to say at every turn, "Do what I want on my schedule." He refused to negotiate a new contract in spring training. Fine. But then he insisted there would be no negotiations during the season. What was the matter, Scott, couldn't you play and make millions at the same time? Next he complained there were no new starting pitchers of the caliber he demanded. Next, he wasn’t going to wait for a new playing surface until 2004.

Nothing was really going to satisfy Scott. And then, of course, there were Larry Bowa and Dallas Green, who openly questioned Scott’s commitment. Say what you will about them, they provided Rolen with the one public explanation for his dissatisfaction. And frankly, I don't blame him for disliking either guy. They aren’t likeable.

Rolen also thought of himself as a deep thinker among men playing boys' games. But it takes more than reading the Jack Kerouac novels he was spotted carrying to qualify. Rolen could have used a few years of college to work on his logic. Precious little of what he said held up to scrutiny only proving that what really mattered was how he felt. And how he felt, denials notwithstanding, was that Bowa and Green accused him of letting down the side and the fans got all over him, too. He just didn’t like playing in Philadelphia.

It would be difficult to extract one item from his soliloquies on the state of baseball in Philadelphia as being paramount (in his mind), but I have settled on the following:

Scott wanted guarantees in a business where there are none. And above all, he wanted a guarantee the Phillies would commit to winning. He pointed to Bobby Abreu, Mike Lieberthal, Doug Glanville and Pat Burrell and wondered aloud (twice), would the Phillies commit to winning by signing them to long contracts? (Three eventually were signed.) Would these players -- the nucleus of the team Rolen envisioned -- be in Philadelphia in the future? And then Rolen announced in the next breath, he wouldn't be here. He was the first one of this so-called nucleus of young stars to be approached about a long-term commitment and he responded by not signing a contract reportedly worth nearly three times the team's then-current payroll.

Scott Rolen can catch a baseball extremely well, hit a baseball well in spurts and run the bases well. Off the field he was no particular credit to his breed and he certainly wasn't the exemplary citizen or Hamlet-like prince many made him out to be. Indeed, he kept to himself, apparently gave relatively little of himself outside the lines and was, by most accounts, a decent guy. True, in this era even a decent guy looks very good, but decency is not a precondition for sainthood. And giving one's all on the field is not unique to Scott Rolen. I can point to several teammates on the Phillies who gave it their all; they just didn't grimace as much as Rolen and wear the same game face. Appearances were not everything.

What Scott Rolen lacked was a thick skin. If you don’t have one, Philadelphia is not your venue. St; Louis is clearly much more to his liking. Had Rolen had a thicker skin he might have been able to weather the storm, especially the one blowing in from the manager’s office. In the end Rolen lacked commitment to Philadelphia and it was on this point that I found local tributes to him following his departure more than ironic. Rolen gave up on the Phillies when they were making a pretty good effort to build a contender. J.D. Drew's refusal to sign here (or was it Scott Boras' refusal?), Curt Schilling's demand to go elsewhere and then Rolen's departure certainly weakened a team that was doing its homework. But malcontents wear out their welcomes sooner or later anyway. Rolen wore his out sooner.

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