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?