In the midst of a player’s career, it’s almost impossible to have a totally clear sense of how he’s likely to be remembered. First and most obviously, new information keeps changing the narrative. In 1998, Mark McGwire was the huggable slugger whose pursuit of the single-season home run record erased the lingering damage of the 1994-95 strike. His later confession of steroid use soiled those memories, and served to keep Big Mac out of the Hall of Fame. Likewise Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, the two greatest stars of that era, now both widely despised as cheaters. Somewhat less dramatic are players like Steve Garvey or Don Mattingly, widely regarded as future Hall of Famers during their careers, whose on-field (and in Garvey’s case, off-field) reputations faded with the passing of time.
It takes time, in other words, to figure out who these people really are within the full context of baseball history. But it’s the nature of fans to live in the moment, and the job of sports media types to construct narratives from those moments. In a game so replete with failure and disappointment, it’s not a shock that most of those narratives are negative. Even if the charge is utterly absurd—anyone who questions the toughness and composure of Cole Hamels should never be taken seriously again—the story can take on a life of its own.
As Jimmy Rollins drew closer to and finally broke Mike Schmidt’s Phillies franchise record for most career hits this June, Schmidt was outspoken in his appreciation and respect, and his joining Jimmy on the field after hit #2,235 was among the nicest moments of a miserable season. I think some of this must be Schmidt’s recognition of a fellow Phillies great who was unfairly maligned in his own time. For Schmidt, the charges were a tendency to come up small in the clutch, and a deficit of evident passion. For Rollins, it’s been his occasional unwillingness to run out ground balls or pop-ups, and his propensity to speak his mind.
In Schmidt’s case, the charges were simply false. This was the MVP of the 1980 World Series: he was the best performer in the most important games the franchise has ever played. As for his passion, this is a man whose bottomless commitment to and curiosity about the game kept him at an elite level deep into his 30s. With Rollins, it’s a little different: the charges are at least somewhat valid, but it’s also clear they don’t matter much at all. The same outspokenness that led him to criticize Phillies fans as front-runners and admit that he cared about the hit record underscored the "team to beat" statement that he did so much to make come true in 2007.
As for the "hustle" question: this is ground The Good Phight has covered before, but the key point is that maximum effort on every play of every game in which you appear is just vastly less important than making sure you’re able to play a lot of games—particularly if you’re as good as Jimmy Rollins.
J-Roll’s durability is perhaps his most underappreciated quality: in 13 full seasons, he’s played at least 150 games ten times, and in two of the other three he played 137 and 142. He missed eight games combined in the last two seasons, at ages 33 and 34. By comparison, Hall of Fame shortstop Barry Larkin played 150 games or more in just four of his 19 major league seasons, and was over 130 games in four others. That Rollins was there to grind out almost every game for fourteen years and counting at an exceptionally demanding position—he holds the NL record for most consecutive Opening Day starts at shortstop—matters a hell of a lot of more than how hard he busts it down on the line on a pop-up.
Maybe the most instructive comparison for Jimmy Rollins is with another high-profile Phillies leadoff man of the last quarter-century: Lenny Dykstra.
I’ll forego detailing the obvious off-the-field contrast; you surely know as well as I do that Dykstra’s a pretty despicable character, while Rollins by all accounts is community-minded and fan-friendly. But I think the comparison is interesting because Dykstra the player was almost the beau ideal of the talk-radio fan: a max-effort guy who played with total abandon. Unfortunately, he played just two full seasons for the Phillies, and ended his career with 40 games during his age-33 season in 1996… for which he collected $6.2 million. He took home another $12 million in 1997 and 1998 while not seeing the field at all.
Now, this isn’t to denigrate what Dykstra did in those two full seasons: Baseball-Reference values his 1990 campaign at an astonishing 8.9 Wins Over Replacement, and his MVP runner-up year in 1993 as worth 6.5 WAR. (Oddly, B-R loved Lenny’s defense in ’90, crediting him as worth more than three wins just with the glove; they peg him as a slightly below replacement defender three years later.) Only in his MVP season has Rollins come close to that level (6.1 WAR). But he’s put up so many above-average to all-star seasons—usually out-producing his contract by far, no less—that he’s likely to earn some Hall of Fame consideration after he finally hangs up his spikes.
Does he deserve that honor? I go back and forth. Jayson Stark recently did a pretty good job of setting out the arguments for and against. My gut tells me he won’t make it, at least not through the BBWAA door, but could have a great chance through some future iteration of the Veterans Committee.
What’s not in dispute is that there’s a spot waiting for him on the Phillies Wall of Fame. He’ll be remembered as the greatest shortstop in the 130-plus year history of the franchise, a durable gamer who delivered more hits than anyone who’s ever put on the uniform—including some of the biggest—and the heart of the team’s greatest run of success. In twenty years’ time, anyone who knocks Rollins for his supposed flaws will seem as foolish as someone who’d criticize Mike Schmidt today.