PHILADELPHIA, Pa. -- What do the White Sox's first World Series title in 88 years, the Phillies' four-year reign as NL East division champions, and the Giants' first playoff berth in the post-Bonds era have in common?
The gritty centerfielder's presence on each of these teams is no coincidence. He is a proven winner. And he has devoted his life to spreading the gospel of winning to any Major League baseball team that will have him.
When Rowand arrived in Philadelphia before the 2006 season in a trade that sent Jim Thome to the White Sox to make room at first base for Ryan Howard, he joined a team loaded with offensive talent but unversed in the ways of winning. Among the team's core of Howard, Utley, Rollins, Abreu, and Burrell, only Abreu could claim playoff experience -- a whole three at bats in the 1997 NLDS. Rowand, meanwhile, was fresh off leading a White Sox team that boasted an ERA of 3.61 and on which his .736 OPS ranked 6th among regulars to victory in the World Series.
His impact on the Phillies was immediate. While Abreu was padding his doubles, drawing walks with runners on base, and fearing the rightfield wall, Rowand was hustling his way to a .321 OBP and hurling himself face-first into the centerfield wall. (The nearly 150 point gap in their career OPSes, moreover, was easily compensated for by Rowand's hustle, grit, determination, and winning aura). In fact, many experts point to the May 11th game against the Mets when Rowand made a spectacular over-the-shoulder catch on a deep flyball off the bat of Xavier Nady with two outs in the first inning as a turning point for the Phillies. So intent on catching the ball was Rowand that only the wall could slow his momentum. The Phillies would go on to win the game, but Rowand would be forced onto the DL for more than two weeks with a broken face. True, the Phillies posted just a 5-8 record in his absence, but the play was the team's first object lesson in winning. It was all a part of Rowand's plan for them.
Rowand returned on May 27th and posted a .689 OPS for the rest of his season until his burning desire to win again saw him collide with something on August 21st--this time his teammate Chase Utley. Rowand missed the remainder of the season with a broken ankle, but the Phillies were on the road to being winners now--never mind that they missed the playoffs and finished the season with their worst record since 2002. General Manager Pat Gillick, too, committed to assembling a team of winners, shipping off notorious losers Bobby Abreu and Cory Lidle to the Yankees at the trade deadline for three low-level prospects (but winners nonetheless by virtue of their association with the Yankees' storied franchise). Despite the disappointing end to the 2006 season, the Phillies were poised to make the jump to winning in the 2007 season.
Still, if asked to identify the watershed moment in their turnaround, most Phillies will reply simply "the barbecue".
Yes, the barbecue.
Not long after the end of the regular season, Rowand hosted the first of many of his team-building get-togethers. The mere act of being invited to a barbecue came as a shock to much of the team that until that point could best be described as having a poor working relationship, and little contact outside of the ballpark. The noxious odor of Billy Wagner and Bobby Abreu still engulfed the clubhouse. In some cases, players were openly hostile to one another--the double play combo of Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley most notably.
"I'm so sick of that soft-ass, So Cal, tree-hugging, animal-loving, surfer dude and his Jimmy Johnson plastic hair," Rollins once said.
"Jimmy can talk all he wants. But at the end of the day, I get to go home to Jen. Have you seen Jen? She's hot," Utley responded through the media.
But on this sunny October afternoon, the previously scattered teammates came together around burgers, bratwursts, and brews. The rest is history. The players described achieving a level of camaraderie they never thought possible.
"I learned things about the guys I never knew before," Rollins remarked. "Chase has never been surfing before in his life and he actually hates animals! He just does all that stuff to make Jen happy."
Chase too spoke glowingly Rollins: "Jimmy told me he has a girlfriend too. He showed me a picture. She's really hot!"
And of course, no Rowand barbecue would be complete without another lesson in winning. As Rowand and Howard were bonding over a game of tetherball, the taller Howard was able to beat Rowand handily. The taste of defeat, however, even in an ostensibly "friendly" game did not agree with him--he flew into a rage. Rowand is reported to have pulled the tetherball pole from the ground and launched it like a javelin over his fence and into his neighbor's yard. He then kicked over the grill and stormed into the house where his sobs could be heard emanating from the master bedroom for the better part of an hour as his teammates cleaned up the yard in awkward silence. Although the episode led many Phillies to quietly question their teammate's sanity, there could no questioning his desire to win.
As many expected, the Phillies finally made their big leap back into the playoffs in 2007. A bigger surprise, perhaps, was a healthy Aaron Rowand bolstering his leadership and winnitude with a productive season at the plate, as he posted an .889 OPS. Yes, it took a collapse of historic proportions by the division-leading Mets, but the Phillies had finally made it back to the postseason after a fourteen year hiatus. Where Lenny Dykstra was the proven winner that patrolled center field and showed the '93 team what it took to win, Aaron Rowand was there to finally fill the void in 2007.
Although the Phillies were swept from the NLDS by the red-hot Colorado Rockies, his work was done. Like a Mormon missionary on a remote Polynesian island, he was able to convince a people to whom his religion was a strange and foreign concept to accept it uncritically and devote themselves to it without reservation as if it was theirs all along. These Phillies could be winners on their own, it was time for him to move on.
In the 2007 offseason, he signed a five-year $60 million deal to teach the San Francisco Giants how to win and to play centerfield for them. While the Phillies were appearing in back-to-back World Series (winning one), Rowand was instilling his winning ways in the Giants, much like he had done with the Phillies and the White Sox before them.
If one were to view Rowand's tenure with the Giants solely in terms of production, then his .723 OPS and 89 OPS+ would suggest he has been below-average. But Aaron Rowand's value to teams has never been quantifiable. This season, for example, despite posting a .659 OPS over 357 plate appearances and losing his every day job in centerfield, he has the Giants in the NLCS. As stat geeks point to the Giants' top flight pitching rotation that includes young studs Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, and Jonathan Sanchez as a primary explanation for their success, the Giants players themselves are quick to defer to Rowand.
Now that another team appears to have adopted his winning ways, we can only wonder where his quiet crusade will take him next.