So far, Jimmy Rollins is 2-for-2.
Before the 2007 season began, Rollins prophetically said the Phillies were “the team to beat,” painting the target on them despite not owning a division title in almost 15 years. When the season ended, the Phils stood atop the division.
And before the 2008 season began, Rollins gazed into the ball again and pulled out this wacky claim: The Phillies would win 100 games in 2008. In the regular season they won 92. In the postseason they won 11. Together: 103. Oh, and a World Series championship.
In 2007, Rollins backed up his words with outstanding play, a historic campaign that netted him a National League Most Valuable Player award. What would he do for an encore, for that 100-win promise?
Eight games in, an injury. The sprained ankle kept Rollins from play during April and some of May.
Sixty-one games in, a benching. Rollins jogged to first on a ground ball out, and Charlie Manuel sat him down. All seemed fair.
One-hundred and one games in, another benching. This time Rollins arrived late for a game at Shea Stadium.
Then, one-hundred and eighteen games in, the real knockout punch: Rollins remarks on “The Best Damn Sports Show” that Phillies’ fans only care when the team plays well. He calls them “frontrunners”
That’s what Malcolm Gladwell would call the tipping point. At that moment, Phillies fans couldn’t withstand Rollins’ little bursts of character, especially after such an outstanding, prolific season previously.
Jimmy’s Fatal Flaws
But of all the quotes and moments that filled Rollins’ rollercoaster 2008 season, the most important came in July, as the team struggled to score runs and win games. Rollins said the team wasn’t worried: “We turn it on late.” At the time I blasted Rollins for his cantankerous style, wondering if he even enjoyed playing baseball. Team leader? Please.
But add up the quotes and moments, and you get the portrait of a man who is extremely confident in his abilities and desirable of the spotlight. Coming off his best year, Rollins quickly disabled himself, hampering his abilities. He tried to crawl through the pain, pinch hitting in a few spots before finally succumbing to the disabled list. No way he’d stop playing — no way he’d give into pain, or anything external.
Rollins is a classic individualist, a controller, an egoist. He’s grounded enough to know not to go completely overboard, but at times his intelligence mixes with his inclination, and the deadly chemical is “can’t be no punk,” or “we turn it on late.” Those aren’t things a man in his capacity should say out loud, but it happens.
I’d bet Rollins was upset he wasn’t producing at 100 percent in 2008. The injury lingered all season, like that troll with one finger hanging on the airplane. He just couldn’t shake it. And coming off such a spotless season, he couldn’t bear being just another ballplayer.
But what separates good from great is what helped the Phillies win their second world championship. With major pressure on the Phils in game one of both the Division Series and League Championship Series, it was Rollins who poked home runs into right field, easing the tension and putting the boys into their game. A good player with such a tough season of ups and downs may have shrunk in those situations. But Rollins is a great player. A Hall of Famer? Still don’t know. But a great player who led his team to a championship, despite not performing at 100 percent.
At the parade, I found it intriguing that Chase Utley, Shane Victorino, Brett Myers, Pat Burrell, Ryan Howard and others spent the day in their fine casual clothes. Utley sported a t-shirt and jacket, Victorino played it cool in his Express T-shirt, most donned designer shades — JC Romero had on his oversized Kanyezys. But Rollins sported his red world champions sweatshirt. He looked like anyone else.
Yes, some of these Phillies players are almost mythical. Burrell was a born hitter, cool and suave. Utley may play all-out, but he seems too handsome, too neat, too Cali for Philadelphia. He’s too good. Even Howard, with his great stature and downtown smile, seems larger than life. But Rollins is a small guy. He’s cocky. Sometimes he’s lazy. Sometimes he can’t time New York traffic. And sometimes he opens his big mouth before he thinks it through. But what Philadelphian isn’t cocky? Or lazy? Or big-mouthed?
Rollins is Philadelphia — scrappy, boisterous, dramatic. To see him wear that sweatshirt was to see him in his natural habitat. Despite everything he said and did in 2008, he came out real. And despite a tough year at the plate — though he was outstanding at shortstop — Rollins deserves our respect.