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Jimmy Rollins Mattered

Whether you're into narrative or numbers, this was arguably the most important Phillie of the last quarter century.

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

I started writing some factual stuff about Jimmy Rollins a couple days ago: things that were going on in the world when the Phillies drafted him in 1996 (Bill Clinton was running for re-election; J.P Crawford was a year old), who their shortstops were through the lame years of the late ‘90s as he made his way through the minors (where have you gone, Alex Arias?), his early career progression before emerging as a star in the mid-2000s. But I realized all that misses the point I want to make: Jimmy Rollins mattered for the Phillies like very, very few other players have in the 130 years the team has taken the field.

At least as a means of explaining baseball outcomes, The Good Phight is pretty resolutely anti-narrative. Great as his 2007 season was, J-Roll probably wouldn’t have earned many MVP votes here: he wasn’t the best player in a loaded lineup, and the idea that his naming the Phillies "the team to beat" motivated a couple dozen extremely well paid professional athletes to achievements beyond what they otherwise might have done, is really just silly. On the other hand, our response to some of the crap hurled Jimmy’s way regarding "hustle" and such over the last couple years has been a consistent upraised middle finger. Part of that was his unquestionable historical significance; a lot of it was that he was still bringing it on the field.

Both those considerations make more palatable the bittersweet news that he won’t be continuing his career with the Phillies. That Rollins claimed the franchise hit record last season was a satisfying tribute to his many years of stellar play and outsized presence. That he’s leaving Philadelphia after putting up his best campaign since 2008 suggests he has more than a drop left in the tank. I’m not in the habit of rooting for the Dodgers, but he’ll be an interesting addition to that team as a player who backed up his talent and swagger with day-in, day-out hard work. And who knows: earn another championship ring, smack a couple hundred more hits, and he could yet punch a ticket to a Hall of Fame where a good story can go a long way toward securing admission.

Even that ultimate recognition, though, is somewhat off point for those of us who got to enjoy Rollins these past many years. Putting aside the narrative stuff—not so easy to do, because Rollins gave great narrative; beyond "team to beat," you had the 36 game hitting streak, "front-runners," the double off Jonathan Broxton in the 2009 NLCS, the debatable importance of running out grounders, and on and on—the guy did a crap ton of stuff on the field that helped win baseball games. He's all over the franchise leader board like nobody else other than Mike Schmidt, and few if any of his contemporaries could match his mix of speed, power and defense. All that talent, effort and desire created many amazing moments across his fourteen seasons with the team.

Whoever winds up coming back from the Dodgers in the trade, it’s a mortal certainty that they won’t have the impact or significance of Jimmy Rollins.