When I was a young boy, the ghosts of 1964 haunted the Phillies wherever I went. Little League dads talked about the micromanaging of Gene Mauch, heralded as a baseball savant who probably overmanaged his teams, how during the stretch he relied too heavily on Jim Bunning and Chris Short and how Chico Ruiz's steal of home in the bottom of the 15th inning of a road game in Cincinnati was the beginning of the end. The team was up 6 1/2 games with 12 to go and managed to finish third. That collapse stained the memories of Phillies' fans. The teams were mostly terrible for the longest periods of time, save 1950 when the "Whiz Kids" caught fire, held off the Dodgers only to lose #2 starter Curt Simmons to an Army call-up and get swept by the Yankees. After a thirteen year drought, they had something, only to see it keep jumping beyond their grasp to the point where antiquities scholars at Penn thought that Sisyphus or Tantalus had made a return to earth -- to 21st and Lehigh Avenues in North Philadelphia to be exact.
The team resurged in the mid-1970's, first thanks to the enthusiasm of an overflow second baseman from the Pirates named Dave Cash, who kept on saying "Yes We Can," to spur the team on. By the late 1970's, the team had a core of players that featured two future Hall of Famers in Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton and some other all-star caliber talent among the likes of Garry Maddox, Larry Bowa, Manny Trillo and Bob Boone. Finally, after some disappointments in the late 1970's, including a collapse in the 1977 NLCS against the Dodgers that summoned the ghosts of the '64 team to Veterans Stadium, they won the World Series in 1980. They appeared, by some stroke of fate, again in 1983, but the Orioles overmatched them. Then Schmidt and Carlton got old and some heralded pitching prospects -- now nameless, but at one time big names -- all fizzled, including one that went 5-0 in September of 1983 to help propel the team to the Series. Position player prospects also didn't pan out -- OF Jeff Stone was a meteor, and 2B Juan Samuel, who had Hall of Fame written all over him, neither could lay off or hit the outside breaking ball. By the late 1980's, the ownership group, led by President Bill Giles, was fielding a mediocre team in a rapidly declining multi-purpose stadium that seemingly always smelled like a combination hot dog stand/public restroom/subway and once called the club a "small market" team. In fact, it was its management that was small-minded; the market remained in the top five in the country in terms of population.
Somehow, a team of goofballs, bullies, cast-offs and role players came together in 1993 to upset the Braves in the NLCS and to battle a great Blue Jays team hard in the World Series. The team was exciting, true, but you would have liked them better if they formed your defensive unit for your NFL team rather than your baseball team. There was something unlikeable about them -- they didn't have the grace and craftsmanship of the 1980 team. They were smug, they were rough, and they just didn't care what people thought. Their manager, Jim Fregosi, wore a jacket no matter how hot the weather and he also used closer Mitch Williams in the ninth no matter how well the hurler was throwing. Catcher Darren Daulton was the spiritual leader, center fielder Lenny Dykstra the heart, with first baseman John Kruk the sergeant at arms. Curt Schilling, then a young pitcher, emerged as a big-game pitcher and uber-talent, but he talked too much for the rest of the gang and was pretty much an outcast. The part of the locker room where the leaders sat was called "Macho Row," and that's pretty much all you needed to know about them. John McGraw, Wilbert Robinson and the Baltimore Orioles of the 1890's would have loved 'em. Many Phillies' fans say they did, but that's only because they won and the city traditionally hasn't had many winners to cheer.
The team then staggered again until it realized in the late 1990's that the Vet was getting uglier by the year and the fans weren't coming to watch bad teams. They targeted building a new stadium to launch in 2004 and realized before then that in order to draw fans, they needed to get some players. Their farm system never has been that good, but they figured out ways to get the likes of Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. Ironically, the oft-maligned Ed Wade found these guys, the same guy who was run out of town in the mid-2000's because apparently he did not do enough. Sadly for Wade, he was not media savvy. On the radio and before the media, he looked more like someone who was about to have a colonoscopy (perhaps without anesthesia) than he was someone who was one of the lucky ones to be able to do what he does for a living every day. Put differently, Wade resembled the accountant who was about to give you some bad news.
At any rate, the team showed signs of improvement, brought in Pat Gillick, the architect of those wonderful Blue Jays teams, and made room for Rollins, Utley and Howard to lead the team. Fast forward to 2007, and Rollins was the MVP. The next year, the team won the World Series. Make no mistake, Rollins was the leader -- the first person the press talked to, the guy who took pressure off more reticent teammates, like Chase Utley, by talking to the press. He was small in size but not in heart -- he was a great defensive player and made himself into a very good offensive force as well. Many shortstops of his era were good fielders with light bats; Rollins spoke confidently and carried a big stick. He put up numbers, both offensive and defensive, rallied the fellows and played the most important position in the field. He did all well for a long period of time and should be remembered, forever, as one of the top Phillies of all-time. From the 1915 team there was Alexander, there was Klein in the 30's, Ashburn and Roberts in the 50's, Bunning in the 60's, Carlton and Schmidt and, well, then Rollins and probably Utley, too, when all is said and done.
Jimmy Rollins was a maestro, had a strong arm, ran the bases well, hit, hit with power, walked the dugout and talked with everyone. Among my fondest memories were periodic shots of his talking hitting and strategy with Manager Charlie Manuel, a noted hitting guru, in the dugout and his pre-game handshake behind second base with his double-play partner, Utley. Together, they formed the longest-running double play combination in National League history.
Yes, he had his faults and his lapses, a few times where he didn't run out a grounder or pop up the way he should have, but he played for 15 years in a tough city and played well for much of it. How many of us can say that we had so few "bad" moments on our jobs, moments where we failed to hustle or have a very good day? But fans tend to hold others -- especially players who make enormous sums -- to higher standards than they themselves can possibly meet, but players are people too. People who have issues with teammates, girlfriends, wives, family members, worrying about something. We all have been there, and we all get distracted. I probably have spent too much time on this, but if I have, it's only to defend Rollins and to refuse to permit those headlines from eclipsing what so far is a "borderline" Hall of Fame career. (You can go to an earlier post about my musings on both Rollins's and Utley's being borderline Hall of Famers -- both need a few excellent seasons to elevate them into a serious Hall conversation).
I'll remember Jimmy Rollins for his leadoff home runs, for his great defensive plays deep in the hole, for his throws, his stolen bases that fired up the team, his confidence that he intended to convey to his teammates with the hope that they pick up on it, grab it, and follow him to victories. He was not only a great player, he was a leader, the one that people rallied around, the one that refused to let vacuums exist and who seemingly was the one everyone looked to first and last.
Thanks, Jimmy Rollins, for the great play and for helping create some great memories for Phillies' fans. We will miss you, and we wish you much success as you finish your career in your home state of California.