Commentary

Column: Pete Rose vs. Scott Rolen is the perfect Phillies narrative

Pete-Rose.jpgThere have been few certainties in Phillies history.

Despite more than 130 years of existence, the Phillies have won just two world championships and have employed just two players that most experts would enter into a short list of baseball’s 50 greatest players. Everything else is very debatable. Pete Alexander or Robin Roberts? Ed Delahanty or Chuck Klein? Is Richie Ashburn a hall of famer? How about Dick Allen? And get ready for Chase Utley.

This isn’t the Yankees. There are no canyons or kempt pastures for our feted names. And we’re not the Red Sox, able to squire David Ortiz around the league for a 162-game love parade. We had to stumble through Ryan Howard’s final season with the Phillies just to get one 10-minute explosion of tears.

So with so few certainties and so many debates, it’s poetically appropriate that the Phillies themselves would inflict such a decision on us. From now until March 15, you’re being asked to vote for this year’s Wall of Fame honoree. And, to excuse the other names on the list, the decision is between two perfectly opposing candidates: Pete Rose and Scott Rolen

Both Rose and Rolen spent an abbreviated amount of time in Philadelphia, earning their plaudits playing for teams that – in those times – represented some perfect achievement of the sport. Their styles were decidedly different, as their looks and talents were decidedly different, and that played a major role in how Philadelphians perceived them. To be blunt, Rose is a Philly guy, Rolen ain’t even close.

A Philly guy

Pugnacious is a word that describes Rose to a fault. Not only was he a ready combatant against an umpire, an opposing catcher or the man itself, but the word itself conjures up the image of the bowl-cut, pug-faced brute who seemed to not give a damn that he wasn’t classically anything. Except a hitter. Pete Rose could hit.

By the time he reached Philadelphia he had 3,164 hits and was seeking the National League record. He was also coming from Cincinnati, the team he helped define as an oiled machine that could wipe out a team in minutes. They did it to the Phillies in 1976, slicing and dicing a 101-win franchise-best team in the National League Championship Series. Rose was Cincinnati, and you’d think he would’ve been treated poorly in Philly.

Nope. Rose’s merciless style of play warmed the hearts of Philadelphians tired of softies and pretty boys. He was sold as the final puzzle piece, the magic element that would push a very good Phillies team over the top. And while he had a great 1979 season (.331/.418/.430, 95 BB, 32 K), the Phils fell apart. Coaching changes and a late flame to the rear pushed the Phils over the top in 1980, and while Rose’s leadership certainly had something to do with that, he had a much more average season (.282/.352/.354, 66 BB, 33 K).

But Rose’s value was intangibles. He ran to first all the time. And stomped on the first base bag less anyone thought he wasn’t around. He pumped his fist and leaped and screamed on the basepaths with the same kind of showy exuberance as Latin players when they flip bats these days; and by the way, Philly fans loved when Rose showed emotion. And then there’s that play.

One out, Game 6, 1980 World Series. Two outs from their first world championship, the Phillies and closer Tug McGraw were on the edge. Bases loaded in a three-run game. Frank White at the plate. At any moment, terror, the same that had stricken Phils fans for decades. White popped it up foul. Deathly losing seasons in the 1930s and 1940s. Bob Boone got his glove on it. 1964. Boone bobbled it. Black Friday.

There was Rose, with his bare freakin’ hand no less, snatching the ghosts of seasons past from the unforgiving earth.

One out later, and it was over.

That’s Rose. The symbol. Without him, maybe the Phils never win that game or that series. Maybe we go 125 years before a championship. Maybe longer. Maybe Pete Rose was the most necessary player in Phillies history.

And all of that is a pretty narrative, one that fans who watched that series will spin repeatedly. Despite Rose’s pedestrian 101 OPS+ as a Phillie. Despite his laughable 1.1 WAR over his time in Philly. But screw sabermetrics, right? This is Pete Freakin’ Rose we’re talking about. He’s a Philly guy. He’s in.

Heaven’s messenger

Scott Rolen? Get the hell out of here.

No, we really said that. Hell, I really said that, on Aug. 15, 2003, when he returned to Veterans Stadium for the first time after the Phillies traded him to St. Louis. He called that place “Baseball Heaven,” which cemented to us how Rolen really felt about Philadelphia, the dirty and blue-collar roughhouse that Rose used as his own personal dance party. Rolen wasn’t one of us. Never was.

He was born in Indiana, you know, “Small Town,” with “little pink houses for you and me.” He was a gifted athlete from the jump, capable of winning numerous Gold Glove awards at a demanding position while swatting 30 or more home runs each season. And he looked the part – attractive, boyish, corn-fed, charming, aw shucks and all that good stuff. We anointed him the second coming of Mike Schmidt because why not? He was designed to be the second coming of Mike Schmidt.

And he instantly played like him. He dominated en route to winning the Rookie of the Year award in 1997 (.283/.377/.469, 21 HR, 92 RBI), then turned into a star in 1998, winning a Gold Glove at third while hitting 31 home runs with a .391 on-base percentage. Injuries would sidetrack Rolen the following couple years of his career, but he still put up great numbers (26 home runs each in 1999 and 2000 despite limited time; a total 9.1 WAR).

Moreover, he did this on bad Phillies teams. Sure he had good offensive talent around him, but the pitching stunk, deflating the Phils before mid-summer. It was only in 2001 did the Phils finally strike gold on some found money (Robert Person, Dave Coggin) and Rolen assumed his place as team leader, putting up a .289/.378/.498 mark with 25 home runs and 107 runs batted in. It also featured his crowning Philadelphia moment, his gigantic home run in the sixth inning against Greg Maddux on the first game played after Sept. 11, the blast that beat the Braves and put the Phils within striking distance of the division lead.

That home run, at the time, felt like the moment the Phils moved from late 1990s cellar dweller to real contender. Like Rose’s iconic snag, it symbolized something greater for a certain cohort of the fanbase, the ones that had to live through false hopes and false starts since being born after the 1980 title.

Rolen was beginning to make himself the king Phillie for a new generation, much in a way that Rose symbolized the team for an older generation. And here’s where their styles merge – they both played all out, both giving it all for baseball, diving and dashing and charging hard. It’s only Rose didn’t have Rolen’s chronic back issues.

And in Philadelphia, Rolen didn’t have a front office willing to do what it took to make a leap.

That’s when it soured, when Rolen was dealt to St. Louis and hailed “baseball heaven.” It’s when we instantly loathed the smirking, sniveling Rolen, forgetting that all of that was why we loved him just a year earlier. And we forgot that Rolen hit .282/.373/.504 as a Phillie with 150 home runs and 559 runs batted in. He did this in 844 games, more games with the Phillies than with any other team.

Like it or not, Scott Rolen was and is a Phillie.

Rolen’s time?

You can see where I stand here. I’m 32, born in 1984, when Rose was off in Montreal trying to break the all-time hit record. And I’d visit the Vet on many nights, with maybe 5,000 people around me, and cheer my heart out for Scott Rolen, the one obviously great player on the field for us. I was and am a Rolen fan.

But Rose has his place. And for another generation of fans, especially, that place is cement strong. And it’s probably a Wall of Fame plaque that he’ll likely win this coming August.

He’ll show up, because of course he will. And he’ll shout out Schmidt and Bowa and Lefty, and give us a moment to remember Tug. Then they’ll show that catch repeatedly. And it’ll allow us all to reach back and allow our nostalgia to drown us once more, the perfect medicine for a constantly questionable reality.

If Rolen is voted into the Wall of Fame, it’s debatable whether he’d show. Maybe time heals, and maybe he’d show, but he’d probably give some broken remarks about how glad he was that the Phils drafted and developed him. He’d shout out Mike Lieberthal, I guess, maybe Pat Burrell. Nobody else, though. It wouldn’t be very interesting. And maybe that’s the point. Maybe it’s not enough nostalgia, so time to drum up the Pete Rose calls.

That’s even if he’s voted in at all.

Next year we’ll probably have Bobby Abreu. He never said anything bad about us.

Let the debates continue.

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