Part 8: How Ringmaster Ruben Tamed the Elephant

by Timothy Malcolm

All this beautiful madness. All this calamity, the kind that baseball loving Philadelphians still found alarmingly introductory. This used to be a football town. This used to be a town fit for the unfamiliar chill of fall, with leaves swirling and mouths tucked deep inside collars. Now, even in December, it’s spring everyone talks about. And it’s because of all this beautiful madness.

The madness of a made man like @FanSince09. The madness of a crowd grousing about a moose as a potential basketball mascot. The madness of social network mavens to adopt an imprisoned rapper as a rallying cry. These are the things people do when spring remains afar.

Then something happens. Something that draws every face close. Something that both relieves and reinvigorates: a major announcement.

@jcrasnick Jimmy Rollins has agreed to 3-year deal with #Phillies with vesting option for 4th year, says BB source

The tweet from Jerry Crasnick of ESPN.com signified the tweet every red-blooded, red-shirted Phillies fan longed to see. Rollins, the shortstop, the leader, the backbone since 2001, and yes, the elephant, was back with the Phillies, safe and sound, once again manning the most important position on the diamond for baseball’s best team. It was, as most people thought, how it should be, and how it should always be. The elephant had been caged, and in the process, had been tamed, and by a ringmaster so used to sweeping gestures and terrific tricks. Somehow, someway, Ruben Amaro had tamed Jimmy Rollins.

It seemed impossible that Amaro could tame Rollins, and it seemed inevitable that Rollins would whip Amaro into a corner. The elephant asked for five years, thus, the elephant would get five years. Amaro’s track record stated such. He handed three years to a Raul Ibanez that was turning the wrong side of thirty-five. He handed four years to a Jonathan Papelbon, a closer, or more specifically, a man who would take part in less than five percent of the 2012 Phillies season. Amaro handed cushy contracts like complementary towels. So if Jimmy Rollins, the cornerstone, the smiling and smirking face of the Phillies for a decade, wanted five years, it seemed inevitable that he would receive the freshest, cleanest white towels around, emblazoned with a monogram and folded to detailed specifications.

But that didn’t happen. Amaro waited. He saw the Brewers settle for offensively challenged shortstop Alex Gonalez. He saw the Cardinals reunite with veteran ball shagger Rafael Furcal. Nobody touched Rollins. The elephant said the Brewers showed interest, but who knows. It never amounted to much. Nobody touched Rollins, and it became painfully obvious to the elephant that no team wanted to drag him into its kitchen. The more Amaro waited, the better it looked.

Meanwhile, Ringmaster Ruben pulled a coup. An odd coup, and yet, a sinister, sly coup. In retrospect, an outlandishly outstanding coup. The Phillies announced just three days before that they had signed pitcher Dontrelle Willis to a one-year, $1 million contract.

Willis, who starred as a spastic starter with the Florida Marlins, then floundered with mental hiccups in Detroit, rectified his career just slightly while in Cincinnati. Like vinegar, his fastball stung just enough. And with some sauce, his slider dipped just enough. Against left-handed hitters, Willis proved dominant, and it’s that trait that the Phillies spotted when locking him to a one-year pact. The former kingfish would bite left-handed minnows from the Citizens Bank Park mound. And if he was lucky enough, he would bite those minnows while his best friend, Oakland buddy Jimmy Rollins, watched in wide-eyed wonder. Maybe for a moment. And maybe that moment was from fifty feet northwest. Dontrelle and Jimmy, together again. They must have dreamed it once. Maybe it mattered just enough for Rollins to swallow that pride, tear up that Milwaukee offer, sigh in resigned satisfaction, and sign his name under the Phillies logo once more. The band, back together. How it should be. How it should always be.

***

Late in the 2000 season, the Phillies brought Jimmy Rollins to Philadelphia. He stepped onto the sizzling Astroturf of Veterans Stadium, decked in a fresh pinstripe jersey, stood in the batter’s box against Florida Marlin starter Chuck Smith, and took a five-pitch walk. Five pitches later, Rollins trotted home, scoring ahead of a Bobby Abreu home run. Two innings later, Rollins led off against Smith, scorching a line drive down the right field line. With Rollins’ speed it was never a question. He slid into third base, his first Major League hit: a triple. Jimmy Rollins had arrived.

His second act, the 2001 season, started slow, but as summer slid into the Philadelphia haze, Rollins gained traction, raising his average above .300 while swiping second base at a daily rate. Even better, the Phillies were winning. While the Seattle Mariners stormed away from the American League, the Phillies resembled the real deal in the National League. Abreu turned into a five-tool performer. Young Pat Burrell launched bombs nightly. Scott Rolen morphed into the Most Valuable Player candidate the world had been awaiting. And it became clear that when Rollins produced at the top of the lineup, the Phillies won baseball games. Not since Lenny Dykstra had the Phillies employed such a game-changing lineup leader. But Rollins was not Dykstra. He did not charge full steam into every single, every ground ball and every sixth pitch of a plate appearance. In fact, Rollins rarely saw six pitches in an appearance. He liked swinging the bat. Savored it. If the big boys could hit the ball, the little guys like Rollins could do it, too. So he swung, hit liners, dribbles, gappers and occasional home runs. Whatever got the job done. No time for waiting. Patience is for fools.

Sometimes it paid off.

September 17, 2001. The first game after the attacks of September 11. The start of a heavy series at Veterans Stadium against the first place Atlanta Braves. The four-game set, which could push the Phillies into first place, began with Harry Kalas, standing at home plate, reciting a poem about America’s resolve. Some young man whipped around Veterans Stadium nightly with an oversized American flag. Cameras caught manager Larry Bowa, the most volatile man in baseball, weeping while listening to the “Star Spangled Banner.”

Aces Robert Person and Greg Maddux stepped to their rubbers. Chipper Jones drilled a home run. Scott Rolen responded with a home run. Bobby Abreu tripled and scored on a groundout. Alex Sanchez responded with a triple, scoring on a groundout. The struggle continued until the seventh, when Rolen broke through. The biggest hit of his career, the kind that defines a ballplayer’s career, the kind that wins awards.

Rollins manufactured an insurance run in the eighth inning, helping put the game away for the Phillies. The crowd danced. Loudest crowd in eight years. Rollins was learning, and what a way to be learning.

Two days later, with the Phillies trailing the Braves by a game and a half, Rollins led off, and actually saw a sixth pitch against John Burkett. But he would not walk. He lined a single into right field. No time for waiting. A few pitches later, he took off for second, but Javy Lopez gunned him down. Rookie.

Retribution came five innings later. Leading off the sixth, no time for waiting, a liner to the gap. A double. First pitch. Off to third on a sacrifice bunt. An Abreu walk put pressure on Burkett with Rolen waiting on deck. And yet again, as he did so many times, Rolen drove home the run, bringing in Rollins with a single. The Phillies would win, 5-2.

But it fell apart from there. Hollow pitching. Inconsistent offense. Unproven stars. Abreu and Rolen, as good as they were, would prove wasted in a Philadelphia still needing an overhaul. Rollins would have to watch it all unfold: Rolen’s trade to St. Louis, Abreu’s trade to the Bronx, the Jim Thome era, staff aces that limped away from August with ballooning earned run averages, stadium changes, poor attendance and malaise beyond malaise. The energetic optimism that fueled those mid-September nights of 2001, when tragedy spurred strength and every moment seemed etched in time – those were all distant memories, but Rollins pocketed every one of them. If the Phillies found a way back to those halcyon days, Jimmy Rollins would make sure they would cross that finish line.

***

The question, as the matter settled and the kitchen cleaned itself, is if it is enough. Is Jimmy Rollins satisfied with three years and $33 million? Ruben Amaro did not hesitate to satisfy Ryan Howard with a monstrous five-year, $125 million pact. Amaro did not hesitate with Raul Ibanez, who actually received a higher per-season contract, and at an older age, without the history, while playing in left field, baseball’s version of a mailroom. Placido Polanco. Cliff Lee. Jonathan Papelbon. Money falling from the sky. Cushy towels of the finest fabric. And Jimmy Rollins received the three-star towels. Add the fourth year – the pocket moisturizer. But is that enough? Is Jimmy Rollins satisfied with being a quarter of Ryan Howard?

***

When the capacity throng at Citizens Bank Park surrounds Jimmy Rollins, he will wear a fine Italian suit. He will don designer sunglasses. He will clutch the microphone like George Carlin, suspending all in his charming grasp. And underneath the sunny sky, like the one that blanketed that Halloween afternoon in 2008, Jimmy Rollins will eagerly accept his enshrinement onto the Phillies Wall of Fame. The highlight reel will run, and it may ultimately climax on September 30, 2007.

Critics will say Matt Holliday put up better numbers. That may be true. But the 2007 baseball season belonged to Jimmy Rollins. The shortstop stole every moment, headlined every story, owned every memory. His legs ran over every scorebook. His bat drove home every winning run. His glove found every wayward ball. Rollins played 2007 like Dwight Gooden played 1984. Like Barry Bonds played 2003. Like Ted Williams played 1941. And on September 30, the very final day of the season, in his very final season-record plate appearance, Rollins sliced a ball into the right field corner. He dashed to second base. Slow fielding. He turned toward third base. A half-hearted throw. A furious slide. Rollins, feet first, landed his leading cleat on third base, then raised his arms to the heavens, a moment perfectly meant for cameras, as if the man had been planning it for years. His twentieth triple. After thirty-eight doubles and thirty home runs. He swiped forty-one bases, caught only six times. The absolute peak of his powers.

The night Scott Rolen slammed that second home run, against Greg Maddux and the Braves, directly after September 11, 2001, the crowd at Veterans Stadium roared. A defining moment capped by a roar that acknowledged baseball’s ability to spur hope in a populous shaking with fear and uncertainty. A culminating moment, for sure. Six years later, Citizens Bank Park represented dislocated memories. Its greatest night was the rainy June evening Jim Thome swatted his four-hundredth home run. Otherwise, the red steel and brick castle represented aggressive mediocrity and tight wallets. Up until September 30, 2007, Jimmy Rollins was merely a resident, a witness to aggressive mediocrity.

But the triple happened. You could swear the roof had blown off the building. Announcers reveled in joyful tears. Teammates leaped and shrieked like little leaguers. And the fans roared, harder and louder than ever before. this was baseball’s ability to spur hope in a populous, but not one shaking wi h fear and uncertainty, but one injured and uninspired by decades of aggressive mediocrity. And Jimmy Rollins was no longer witness. He was the moment.

***

At his press conference two days after signing the three-year contract, Rollins – wearing a fine suit – spoke of legacy. He understood the meaning behind continuing a career not in Wisconsin powder blue, but in red pinstripes, the suit he truly had come to define. The one he slipped on that day in 2000, the one that made him the moment.

“You think of everything else that you’ve done and what you’ll be able to do going forward, and where it makes more sense to do those things,” Rollins said. “And for me, it’s here.”

***

Shane Victorino swatted the grand slam heard ’round CC Sabathia in the 2008 National League Division Series. And Matt Stairs hit the legendary home run in the National League Championship Series. But in both series, Jimmy Rollins led off the clinching games with home runs. A veteran, hurt for a spell in 2008, Rollins busted the ice with his cool clouts. He led the charge. Those early days setting the table for Bobby Abreu and Scott Rolen. That 2007 season pacing every key victory. Just like those days, when the Phillies needed him, Rollins led the charge.

And in the 2009 National League Championship Series, with the Phillies facing a tied series, at least one daunting date back at Dodger Stadium and potential heartbreak, Rollins led the charge again. He drove Jonathan Broxton’s fastball into the gap, capping an incredible ninth inning rally, closing an enormous victory and creating his finest moment. Like that afternoon in 2007, the crowd roared, and louder than man’s thoughts can process. This moment was impossible years before. It was impossible in the days of Abreu and Rolen, when Rollins simply hustled to the next base. But in 2009, deeply entrenched in the era of Jimmy Rollins, this moment was not only possible, but happening with outrageous regularity. This had become Citizens Bank Park.

***

But is Jimmy Rolins satisfied with three years and $33 million?

Legacy is not money. One day, the money fades, and all that remains is memory. We do not remember what Rollins was paid in 2001, but we do remember his energetic play sparking an unlikely run toward contention. We do not remember what Rollins was paid in 2007, but we do remember his unhinged leadership. We do not remember what Rollins was paid in 2009, but we do remember a double that shook the foundation of Citizens Bank Park.

And we will remember Citizens Bank Park, because that will stand for as long as we live. When we visit, decades later, maybe when that shortstop stands in the middle of a throng, Italian suit, designer shades, the red steel and brick will sing of those memories. The days and nights that crowd roared louder than our thoughts. The days and nights Jimmy Rollins was the moment. When our beautiful madness reigned, when our expectations exceeded our fathers’ wildest dreams, and when Ringmaster Ruben tamed the elephant, the leader of our outstanding circus.

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