Editor's note: All day today we're celebrating Scott Rolen's career and legacy with Scott Rolen Honorary Retirement Day.
As the Phillies finish a second straight losing season with questionable prospects of turning things around anytime soon, you might think this is a particularly depressing time to be a fan of the team. If so, you probably weren’t around for 1996.
The Phils were finishing their ninth losing season in the previous ten, and it was crystal clear that the exception—that improbable run to the World Series in 1993—was a beautiful aberration, not to be repeated. Other than unsupported ace Curt Schilling, their best players were journeyman catcher Benito Santiago, who set a career high with 30 homers, and 37 year-old ‘93 holdover Jim Eisenreich, who batted .361 in 373 plate appearances. Relief pitcher Ricky Bottalico was the team’s lone all-star representative, even though Philly hosted the game.
On August 1, the Phillies cast some light into that pit of despair by promoting their best prospect, 21 year old third baseman Scott Rolen, who had torn up the top two minor-league levels just three years after the Phils used their second round pick on him. Rolen made 146 plate appearances in ‘96—the absolute maximum allowed without losing his rookie eligibility—before an errant Steve Trachsel pitch broke his arm and ended his season on September 7. His final numbers were modest: .254/.322/.400, with seven doubles and four homers. But the performance was enough to give fans hope that the wait for the Phillies’ first really good homegrown regular since Darren Daulton might be coming to an end.
The next year, Rolen delivered on the promise. On a team that briefly looked like it might approach the ’62 Mets’ loss record—they bottomed out at 30-72 before surging to 38 wins in their last 60 games—the 22 year old was their youngest regular, and unquestionably their best: he paced the club in games played, plate appearances, runs scored, homers, RBI, steals, and walks. Rolen was honored as the Phillies’ first Rookie of the Year since Richie Allen in 1964, pacing a first-year class that included stars Vladimir Guererro and Andruw Jones.
As the young team went through what we might now call pre-contention growing pains over the next few years, Rolen kept putting up big numbers: a .290/.391/.532 triple-slash with 31 homers in 1998, a .920 OPS in 2000, 107 RBI in 2001. But the stats weren’t totally the point: Rolen was a brilliant instinctive ballplayer. In the field, he had an almost Ripken-like instinct for where to position himself to make plays; on the bases, he was terrifying, a 250-pounder flying to take the extra bag, and always getting it. Not only was he excellent in his own right; the completeness of his game gave the sense that the Phillies might actually know what they were doing as far as drafting and player development.
Rolen provided a reason to watch the team even through those mostly unpleasant years, and I found him an incredibly easy guy to root for: the child of schoolteachers, clearly thoughtful and fan-friendly, a proud dog owner long before Pat Burrell. As late as 2000, it would have seemed unthinkable that he’d essentially talk his way out of Philadelphia. But when Larry Bowa replaced Terry Francona after that season, the die was cast: whatever the causal relationship, the team improved dramatically under Bowa, barely missing the playoffs and briefly making him the toast of the town. Bowa and Rolen quickly developed a very public mutual loathing, and in spring 2002, he rejected an exceptionally generous extension offer. The only question then was just when he’d be dealt, and what if anything Ed Wade could bring back for a 27 year-old superstar.
Rolen’s rejection of the contract, and his disdain for Bowa, both struck at the city’s well-known insecurity complex: he spent his next ten years drawing boos every time he passed through Philly. My guess is that if you polled Phillies fans from, say, 2003 through 2010 as to what opposing player they most hated, Rolen would have been atop the list (perhaps alongside J.D. Drew, his later Cardinals teammate and that other ghost of 1997).
What’s crazy about this is how closely his game resembled that of the hands-down most beloved Phillie of the last decade-plus: Chase Utley. Power at a premium defensive position? Check. Preternatural instincts in the field and on the base paths? Check. Year-in, year-out consistent production? Check. They even both had chronic health conditions--Chase's knees, Rolen's back--that kept down their counting stats and likely will leave their Hall of Fame cases in doubt.
But if you don’t want to take my word for it, take the word of a guy who played with both:
No look at me see how or any of the me first mentality taking over all parts of baseball sports ect. One of my greatest honors was putting..— Roy Halladay (@RoyHalladay) July 22, 2014
My heart and hustle trophy along side the definition of the award— Roy Halladay (@RoyHalladay) July 22, 2014
Their must be one on every team I seen two in my life Scott Rolen and most of all Chase Utley! […]— Roy Halladay (@RoyHalladay) July 22, 2014
From a Phillies fan’s perspective, is there any better compliment?