A dugout is a foxhole, a player is a soldier, a coach is a sergeant, a manager is a lieutenant, a GM is a captain, a president is a general, and Jimmy Rollins is a corporal for the Philadelphia Phillies. The game is a battle for the red pinstriped warriors, but can camaraderie help them triumph?
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Near the end of his baseball journey, Jimmy Rollins can see familiar faces daily during the seasonal grind: reminders of his early campaigns in Philly.
Before he arrived in town, there were questions about his fielding from scouts. Hard to believe, Harry. If you don’t know the famous words of Richie Ashburn to Harry Kalas, you missed the special interaction between these broadcast legends from Phillies teams past. Only Kalas of the pair lived to witness J-Roll atop the baseball mountain in 2008. But if you listened closely enough, you could almost hear Ashburn above the celebration in the TV booth: Hard to believe, Harry.
The Mustard Seed:
Rollins’ self-description is this section’s title but one seed alone would wither and die. That stated, when the shortstop was a September call-up in 2000, Terry Francona was in his final month at the helm: a 65-97 debacle for his fourth tour.
The following season, new skipper Larry Bowa was barking orders, while Bobby Abreu and Pat Burrell patrolled the outfield corners. However, riding the wave of his rookie shortstop’s enthusiasm, Bowa found a way to squeeze an 86-76 mark out of the 2001 squad: a pickup of 21 wins.
Every step along the minor league path, Marlon Byrd was two years behind Rollins, but they finally were in the same clubhouse at the Vet during September 2002. However, because Byrd went from .303 in’03 to .228 for ’04, their time together in the majors was only two full campaigns: By mid-April ’05, the Nationals acquired Byrd during their inaugural summer in Washington.
The second Phillie seed was Chase Utley, who arrived here three seasons after the shortstop. Unlike Rollins, number 26 did not find a spot for the taking, Placido Polanco was the regular second baseman. That place-to-play complication was not a short-lived one. Despite that blockage, however, the second cornerstone was on the 25-man roster for the 2003 opener. But, only hitting exactly .200 with limited April at-bats was Utley’s bus ticket back to Triple-A Scranton-Wilkes Barre until mid-August.
Many changes occurred from 2004’s Opening Day until 2006’s trading deadline. From April ’04 to the present, Rollins and Utley have been together. J-Roll had two double-play partners–Polanco and Utley–for almost two summers. While the shortstop played every day, Utley until his breakout ’05 campaign learned in Polanco’s shadow.
In the final tally, Bowa couldn’t push the club past 86-76, which the red pinstripes accomplished in three of his four tours with Rollins. After 160 contests in ’04 (85-75), Bowa exited and the team split the last two decisions without him. However, the rub was Bowa had Jim Thome’s long-ball power for ’03 and ’04: There were expectations, expensive and unmet.
Ryan Howard–the third Phillie seed–arrived a half year early because of Thome’s DL stint in ’05 and averaged .288 with 22 homers and 63 RBI for those last three months. Before Thome’s absence and despite Howard’s lofty minor league numbers, Wade could not find a realistic taker for the rookie first baseman. However, J-Roll and the Big Piece became fast friends and roommates at the veteran’s digs.
While the unresolved first-base issue carried into the offseason, the 88-74 record for ’05 was Wade’s swan song. Surprisingly, the GM search landed a top-notch executive to evaluate the personnel around Thome, Abreu, Burrell, Rollins and Utley. Inheriting the coveted homegrown talent of Utley and Cole Hamels that Wade refused to trade, new head honcho Pat Gillick knew they were keepers. Also, like his predecessor, Gillick was not able to move Howard. Instead, the GM dealt Thome to the White Sox.
With the mid-May roster addition of Hamels–the fourth Phillie seed–the final cornerstone was working his first MLB starts in ’06. The core four that began with Rollins in September 2000 was now with the parent club: Rollins, Utley, Howard and Hamels.
With July 31 approaching, the Phils were 46-54, and Gillick wanted to move Burrell’s salary and gain financial flexibility for 2007. But the Yankees would only take Abreu off Gillick’s hands, and Burrell maintained his four-month seniority over Rollins.
With the front office sights turned to ’07, the surprise happened: Shane Victorino hit .307 as the newly minted right fielder, and the team went 38-23 (.623) to reach 85 victories. Rollins, the Flyin’ Hawaiian and their teammates went 15 games over .500, which is a 101-win pace for a full 162-game schedule, and the flashy shortstop did not forget this accomplishment. By February ’07, J-Roll had already uttered his famous pronouncement, but most don’t remember its entirety.
According to an Associated Press article, here is the exact quotation from January 23, 2007. “I think we are the team to beat in the NL East–finally,” shortstop Jimmy Rollins said Tuesday. “But, that’s only on paper.”
In the 2007 postseason dugout, J-Roll saw who also learned how to triumph: Utley, Howard and Hamels.
The Camaraderie Factor:
Hal Bodley of MLB.com wrote that ’14 is a Phillies’ season of ifs, and their age is a frequent factor among many uncertainties. Basically, his premise for Rollins and his key teammates is to stay off the DL and perform up to their career standards. Although Bodley provides many well-known examples, he did not mention the scenario of opportunistic veterans. This situation, albeit a rare one, is a combination of experience and opportunity, and it occurred here long ago in 1983.
With the free-agent additions of Byrd and Abreu to the core four, it brings back memories of the Wheeze Kids some 31 years prior. The ’83 Phillies had a wealth of experience from parts of two championship foundations: Mike Schmidt, 34; Steve Carlton, 39; Pete Rose, 42; Joe Morgan, 40; and Tony Perez, 41. With a void at the top of the NL East after five months, they went 90-72 on the way to the Fall Classic after September’s 23-8 stretch drive. This 2014 squad has its championship core plus two former Phils: Rollins, 35; Utley, 35; Howard, 34; Hamels, 30; Byrd, 36; and Abreu, 40. That stated, their mind-set is on par with the NL pennant-capturing Wheeze Kids, and these ’08 champs will also be deadly if they have a shot at a wild card.
In other words, Rollins and the other five vets have enough energy, know how to win, and their history together kindles a camaraderie of a vintage variety.
Vocalizing recently about the franchise hits record, Rollins made clear that he will be here to set that organizational high point. However, a second world championship ring would be a first for a Phillie. If the six stars can find a give-and-take with Ryne Sandberg and Bowa, they can achieve a last October hurrah. If not, Ruben Amaro Jr. has said rebuilding is a consideration.
And, yes, these red pinstripes are younger than the ’83 group.
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