Sunday, October 15, 2006

Rolen Redux

Lately, the atmospheric conditions in Baseball Paradise appear to resemble the weather normally found in more northerly climates with reports that the relationship between Cardinals’ manager Tony La Russa and third baseman Scott Rolen has become quite frosty. One of our favorite columnists, Jim Salisbury, wrote this morning that Rolen is extremely unhappy with at least two benchings as he sees it, one in September and the other two nights ago against the Mets, and is barely on speaking terms with his manager. La Russa, for his part, could care less what Rolen wants or thinks; he’s got his own issues to resolve and job to save. Meanwhile, Salisbury, an even-tempered, considerate guy if ever there was one, gets this year’s post-season award for chutzpah for even asking the questions of Rolen in the first place.

When Salisbury tried to inquire of the former Phillies third baseman whether or not he would entertain a return to the city where he got his professional start, he got a series of cold stares, monosyllabic replies and, no doubt, lifted eyebrows from Rolen. Jim went on to describe Rolen as always “high maintenance,” an understatement of the first water.

Readers of this space are familiar with my take on Rolen. When he forced a trade and left town a few years ago, everyone blamed Larry Bowa and Dallas Green for driving him away. At the time, I wrote:

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.

Rolen’s dispute with La Russa would involve a standoff between two guys who believe they have all the answers, at least in their own minds. Neither one is likely to budge, which probably means one will have to go. If the Cardinals fail to make it to the World Series, La Russa is my nominee for a one-way ticket out of town. If they make it to the Series and implode like they did against the Red Sox in 2004, the same travel plans remain in force. If, however, La Russa finally makes it over the hump (and, as an aside I sincerely hope he does not), then Scottie may be looking for a new place to scowl come next season.

Either way, they deserve each other for now.

As for all those fans and writers who lament the day Rolen departed Philadelphia, get over it. He was never meant for this town. The only question now is, was he ever meant for any other one?


RickSchuBlues said...

Well, we've finally found a point of I admittedly am one of those fans who never got over Rolen having to leave four years ago.

I don't know if it's as simple as concluding that Rolen is a malcontent. Or that he was not meant to play in Philadelphia. I think he had a legitimate beef with Bowa, and he has one now with LaRussa (although bear in mind, it's the first blip of discontent he's registered in over four seasons under him). Moreover, I think his problem was the Phillies organization, and I think he had every right to complain about it the way everyone else on every blog and forum has done for over a decade. The team wasn't doing all it could to produce a winner, and there weren't many in Philadelphia at the time who didn't believe exactly the same things which Rolen was articulating. Why fans chose to stand behind the management instead of Rolen is endlessly baffling to me. They perhaps focused on the clash between him and Philadelphia icons Bowa and Green and felt they had to side against him. As to the notion that Rolen didn't like the city: I believe that's a myth. I never heard that either said or implied from him. Things seemed to be fine for him the first few years of his career here. The back/turf issues and the arrival of Bowa changed all that.

I think it could have all turned out very differently if the Phillies were a competent organization. Scott Rolen was and is a once-in-a-generation type player (although the Phils are lucky to have at least two others of this calibre on the roster presently); he played the game extremely well, extremely hard, and extremely admirably in all facets. One of the greatest defensive players to ever don a uniform, he should have been the rightful heir to the legacy of Mike Schmidt. In my mind, the Phillies screwed that up, not Rolen. I hold the organization entirely accountable for his departure.

Tom G said...

I have to agree with RSB. His best line is "Why fans chose to stand behind the management instead of Rolen is endlessly baffling to me." Can anyone think of another instance where the fans took management's side?

Think about it though, the Phillies are still haunted by that brouhaha. In an effort to prove they really really were committed to winning, they overpaid -- to varying degrees -- players like Abreu, Burrell, Lieberthal, Thome, and Bell.

Maybe it's not the Curse of Billy Penn. Mabye it's the Curse of Scottie Rolen.

Tom Goodman said...

I don't think fans stood behind management at all in this instance; to cite the headline of my previous post ("Is That For Or Against?") the fans were reacting against a player who left them regardless of who was at fault! They weren't FOR management; they were AGAINST Rolen. I don't give the fans as much credit for understanding the issues here as you do, RSB. Remember, nuance and subtlety are not characteristic of fans who boo one of the best players (Abreu) on Opening Day for not having been traded. In their minds they see all players as for or against 'em. JD Drew and Scott Rolen were lumped together as players who for whatever reasons rejected them. Being rational is not part of the equation, for them or, for that matter, Rolen. He just wanted out. Bowa and Green are colossal jerks, no doubt about it and Rolen used their criticisms as his leverage out of town.

Finally, though I have said this in the post, it bears repeating: Rolen wanted them to build a winner but refused to be part of that equation. He could have been part of the solution but decided to remain part of the problem. You can't have it both ways.

Anonymous said...

As a Cardinals fan, I think it is pretty childish to continue to boo Scott Rolen each time he's playing against the Phillies. One thing I think that St Louis fans have over some of the other teams is sportsmanship. They couldn't even boo Barry Bonds wholeheartedly the first time he came to bat in their last series, much less a player who was traded to another team for whatever reason. I say grow up Philly, you all look like jerks when you can't show good sportsmanship. It makes losing the 10,000 th loss even worse that it was to Rolen's new team, maybe you should spent more energy chanting some positive meditation crap instead of the weak dumb moans of a bunch of lemon faced spoil sports.