Jimmy Rollins and J-Roll: An appreciation

Jimmy Rollins will be a free agent after this season. (Jae C. Hong/AP Photo)

One of the great aspects of working in this industry is the opportunity I get to interact with the people who consume our product. Greater still is the passion those people possess for the material we cover. As a result, I get asked lots of questions. Who do you think the Phillies will trade for? How many wins do you think they will finish with? Why do you talk so much, and could you shut the hell up?

But, aside from that last one, the question I get most is, "Are you a Phillies fan?"

My answer always leads to a long, meandering discussion that follows the same trajectory of those debates we all used to have with other five-year-olds about the merits of existential nihilism. Replace the milk cartons and coloring tables with pint glasses and barstools and it is essentially kindergarden without the naptime.

I have yet to come up with a better way of explaining it than the old sausage factory analogy. Sports fans get to enjoy sausage after it is already neatly packaged and placed on the supermarket shelf. Sports writers, on the other hand, spend their days inside the factory, watching the way the sausage is made. And when you spend enough time on the back end, it becomes hard to separate the sweet taste of animal grease from the process that produced it. Hey, I still love eating sausage as much of as the next guy. I just wouldn't consider myself a sausage "fan."

In hindsight, there are probably a lot of ways in which I could have better worded that previous paragraph. But I assure you that I am talking about breakfast meat. Or, rather, professional sports. While the majority of sports fans spend the bulk of their time watching the three or four hours of actual competition, the majority of sports reporters spend the bulk of their time watching the underbelly of the business.

The analogy is probably a little severe. I don't want you to think that there is a secret back room at Citizens Bank Park where Ruben Amaro Jr. and Scott Proefrock spend every Dollar Dog Night grinding up old ballplayers (although, to be honest, I'm still a bit unclear as to the exact definition of "optional waivers"). The point is, I like to see the Phillies do well, because I like the emotion it produces, both within the clubhouse and the community. But when 45,000 people are at Broad and Pattison on a Saturday afternoon, I'm on the golf course with my iPhone turned off.

All of that is a long-winded way of expanding on the story in today's paper that provides a cursory look at Jimmy Rollins' performance this season as well as his future in Philadelphia. A lot of people tell me that not having a favorite team sounds like a sad and jaded existence devoid of positive emotion. And, often times, they are correct. But players like Jimmy Rollins are the reason why I still love watching and writing about sports.

In my 12 years in the business, Rollins is one of the most fascinating athletes I have ever covered. First and foremost is his raw physical ability. The way he can backhand a groundball on the outfield grass, set his feet, and throw a dart to first base amazes me every time I see it. The way he can chase down a chopper up the middle and spin and throw with perfect accuracy is just as mind-boggling as Peyton Manning fitting a football into an opening the size of an aerobie 30 yards down the field.

But my appreciation for Rollins extends beyond the baseball field. From a sports writer's perspective, Rollins can be a pain in the ass to cover. When he does talk to the media, he usually has something enlightening to say. You just never really know when he is going to feel like talking. After a game in which he does something notable, you stand around the clubhouse waiting him to arrive at his locker, and then you stand around waiting for him to shower and change into street clothes, all the while feeling like you are standing in the middle of somebody's living room. The clocks in the Phillies' clubhouse are five minutes fast. Probably because Charlie Manuel hates it when people are late. But it also makes sports writers feel like they are closer to their deadline, and often prompts them to dash back upstairs before Rollins and others are ready. And even if it doesn't, there is no guarantee that Rollins will talk.

Like I said, the whole process can be a pain in the ass. And if you read a story in the Daily News that doesn't have a quote from Rollins that appears in every other Phillies story, it means that I wasn't in the mood to take part on that particular night.

But it doesn't bother me, because Rollins makes it feel more like a game than a middle finger. Which is how he makes a lot of things feel. Rollins is one of the smartest, most self-aware players in baseball. He understands the way the media works. When he says something, he knows exactly how it will be played in the next day's paper, on that night's news. You can see it in the devlish grin that always occupies his face, like a wise-ass high schooler who knows he is giving his teacher fits. It always seems to me that Rollins gets a kick out of how serious people take the things he says. And I like that. Because in an industry where so many athletes take themselves way too seriously, Rollins seems to have a pretty good handle on the real-world importance of what he does.

Because of this persona, Rollins can sometimes be a victim of our desire to fit everything we see into a simple, compelling narrative. Look, I appreciate unmitigated hustle as much as anybody. There are times when you see him jog out a ground ball or pop fly and know Manuel is sitting in the dugout cursing under his breath. There are times when you wonder why he swung the bat when he did. But I also think that his persona -- which, again, I'm convinced he does not take as seriously as everybody else -- tricks people into selectively retaining the memory of such moments.

Take, for example, his reputation for popping out on the first pitch. Last night, I posed a question to the folks who have made the unfortuante decision to follow my Twitter feed. I asked them who they thought led the Phillies in first-pitch swings, both this season and over the last five seasons. The overwhelming majority answered Rollins. Yet Rollins actually ranks in the bottom 10 of the National League this year in the percentage of plate appearances in which he swings first pitch. In fact, he ranks well below the NL average in each of the last five seasons. And when he does swing at the first pitch and put the ball in play, he is 19-for-56 (.339), which is slightly above the league average, and right in line with his career average of .340.

That's not to say that Rollins is a particularly selective hitter. But while a Twitter poll is not exactly scientific evidence of human behavior, chances are he is more selective than public perception suggests.

There are other examples. In spring training, he routinely stops to sign autographs, not just scribbling his name on a picture but laughing and joking with fans. When he makes pre-game appearances with kids in his program that rewards kids who excell in schools in disadvantages areas, he does not just treat them like a routine photo-op. Warmth does not begin to describe his personality.

Over the rest of the season, watch how many times Rollins heads to the mound to dry his hands on the rosin bag and say a few words to a pitcher who appears to need either a breather or positive reinforcement or both.

None of these images reinforce the narrative of a brash, hard-headed superstar who is too cool to run out ground balls and is not "Philadelphia" enough to warrant much hand-wringing about his current contract situation.

That's not to say that Rollins is a saint, or that he is worth a Derek Jeter legacy contract, or that the Phillies are not the Phillies without him.

The point is that Rollins is a three-dimensional person in a sport filled with two-dimensional athletes, which sometimes can get lost in a media environment that likes its athletes to be caricatures.

Even if Rollins was the person that central casting wants him to be, he is still putting up numbers that will make him hard to part with at the end of the season. Beyond Jose Reyes, who has as much of a chance at signing here as J.D. Drew, Rollins is far and away the best short stop who is scheduled to be on the free agent market. In terms of offense, the only option that would be even a palatable replacement is the Braves' Alex Gonzalez, and he is not even guaranteed to be a free agent.

Assuming Rollins stays healthy and maintains his current production, there should be no shortage of suitors for his services, given the offensively-starved nature of the short stop position. Look no further than the Giants for one such team, which could offer Rollins a chance to play for a contender near his native home.

Right now, it is impossible to forecast what will happen. On one hand, the Phillies have a surprising amount of payroll flexibility next season. If you assume they maintain a payroll of around $170 million and you factor in Domonic Brown in left field, Vance Worley as the fifth starter, Michael Martinez and John Mayberry Jr. on the bench, and young relievers Antonio Bastardo, Mike Stutes and David Herndon in the bullpen, the Phillies would have in the neighborhood of $34 million to spend on seven remaining roster spots: a short stop, a back-of-the-bullpen reliever, a back-up catcher, two more bench players, and two more relievers.

Of course, Rollins will be 33-years-old, and is likely in position to command his last substantial multi-year contract. If he is willing to go to the highest bidder, it could be difficult for the Phillies to retain him while offering a prudent number of years and dollars. In today's story, we offer some comparisons, with the range being the $8.125 million-per-year the White Sox gave Alexei Ramirez and the $16 million a year the Yankees gave Derek Jeter.

That's a big gap, and if bidding trends past the mid-point, than it will be plenty understandable if the Phillies decide they would be better off in the long run moving on to Plan B.

Whatever happens, for two more months, we will still have the pleasure of watching Rollins play. 


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