As you may have heard, Scott Rolen was voted into the Hall of Fame this week. Last month, I wrote how I didn’t feel Bobby Abreu merited enshrinement in Cooperstown. I really should have written about Rolen instead, because while I don’t think either man should be in the Hall of Fame, at least I like Bobby Abreu.
Beyond my personal bias against Rolen, I’ve admitted that my Hall of Fame standards aren’t very scientific, and it’s more of a feel thing. I think to merit inclusion in the Hall of Fame, a player needs to be undeniably great or have some sense of transcendence rather than simply being “worth” as many wins above replacement as some players previously enshrined.
Rolen was an excellent defender (Defense matters, but should it count that much at a non-premium position?) who put up good, but not amazing offensive numbers. For context, let’s look at the players’ Baseball Reference deemed as most similar to Rolen.
Those are certainly good players, but aside from Ron Santo, none of those guys see Cooperstown without paying admission.
You can point out that Rolen has a higher WAR value than Sammy Sosa and Manny Ramirez, and if it wasn’t for the PED taint, those guys would have easily gotten in. But if you asked a casual fan to select two Hall of Famers from the group of Sosa, Ramirez, and Rolen, my guess is that Rolen is going to be the odd man out. Did any baseball fan in an opposing city ever say, “Oh wow, Scott Rolen is in town! We have to get tickets!”
Actually, I imagine some people did indeed say that, but they were most likely Phillies fans who wanted to boo him after he forced his way off the Phillies.
My favorite Scott Rolen memory was buying my dad tickets to a Father’s Day game so we could boo him together when he returned to Philadelphia.— Bobby Hughes (@CoachBarney) January 25, 2023
The reason that many Phillies fans don’t like Rolen serves as evidence that he isn’t truly Hall of Fame worthy: He forced his way out of Philadelphia because he couldn’t handle being a team’s best player.
When Rolen played for the Phillies, the team offered him a lucrative contract extension, and said they wanted him to be the centerpiece of the next contending team. Rolen turned it down, supposedly because he didn’t believe the team was truly committed to spending the necessary money to field a contender. While the team’s history up to that point made Rolen right to be skeptical (even though he was proved wrong), I think his refusal to commit goes beyond mere distrust of the team’s finances.
He had a famously poor relationship with manager Larry Bowa who openly criticized Rolen’s play, and said he expected the team’s star player to be better. Team executive Dallas Green made similar statements on the radio. Bowa and Green are notoriously intense, and not every player can handle such criticism. That’s fine, but it’s not something you want from your supposed best player. (It’s noteworthy that one of Rolen’s teammates on the 2001 Phillies said that Bowa’s intensity helped his career.)
While I’ll give him credit for recognizing that a team with Scott Rolen as its best player wasn’t going to be a true contender, it’s a serious knock against his Hall of Fame case.
His poor personal relationships weren’t limited to Bowa. Before he left Philadelphia, an anonymous teammate called him a clubhouse cancer, and he went on to have even greater problems with Tony La Russa in St. Louis. La Russa has a long list of issues on his own, but he’s a Hall of Fame manager who has led three teams to World Series titles. He’s managed a lot of star players over his career, and the fact that his worst relationship ever was with Rolen maybe indicates that Rolen is difficult to work with. While plenty of “bad clubhouse guys” have made it into the Hall of Fame, it doesn’t help the case of a borderline case like Rolen.
See how Scott Rolen's feud with Tony La Russa led to the star third baseman's trade to the Blue Jays 15 years ago today: https://t.co/MouZknk0aq— Remembirds (@remembirds) January 14, 2023
In the end, the most damning argument against Rolen is that if not for baseball’s PED scandals, he wouldn’t have had a prayer of getting in. Many of Rolen’s peers who normally would have earned induction were disqualified in the minds of most voters. As Jayson Stark recently pointed out, many voters want to vote for somebody. And with the true greats disqualified for one reason or another, that somebody turned out to be a very good, if not really Hall of Fame worthy player.