Rollins about to swing into Phillies history

Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)

It is a swing with two sides that has been analyzed, ostracized and celebrated ever since the Phillies made the 5-foot-8 shortstop a second-round pick in 1996. It belongs to the switch-hitting Jimmy Rollins and in the very near future it will be the swing that has produced more hits than any other player in the franchise's 132-year history.

Raise the subject of Rollins' swing and prepare for some strong opinions. Rollins has been hearing them his entire life. He did not want to talk about his pursuit of Mike Schmidt's franchise record for hits that he is likely to set this week at Citizens Bank Park, but he did recently volunteer that he was once told by a minor-league coach that "you'll never make it to the big leagues with that [expletive] swing, kid."

The coach was left unidentified, but Mike Arbuckle, the scouting director when the Phillies selected Rollins, admits that there was much debate about how the young shortstop should approach his work at the plate as he quickly climbed through the farm system.

"Absolutely," Arbuckle said. "We all were concerned. When he was playing in Clearwater and we'd see fly-ball out after fly-ball out and then we'd look at his size, we wondered if this guy would hit for enough average to make it. I don't know who that coach was, but I think everybody questioned a smaller player like that hitting the ball in the air a lot. That was a common feeling throughout the organization."

Even though Arbuckle and others had concerns about the lift in the little shortstop's swing, the Phillies' former scouting director did have enough confidence to make Rollins the 46th overall player selected in the 1996 draft. History has shown that he is by far the best player selected in that draft.

"I remember another scout telling me that he could never take someone that little that high in the draft," Arbuckle said. "I didn't think he was little. He's short, but he has strength. And that's the way it has played out."


Is Jimmy Rollins a Hall of Famer?

Arbuckle knew Rollins would be fine after he saw him play in an instructional league game down in Florida. The debate about his swing was raging at the time.

"His team was down by a run and there was a runner on," Arbuckle said. "He jacks the ball out of the park and his team wins. Everybody from the organization was there and it was almost like Jimmy was saying, 'There, I will show you. Here is the type of hitter I am.' "

James Rollins, a ship receiving clerk who still holds down that job in Northern California, never would let size get in the way of his son's dreams.

"Size was never an issue for him," James Rollins said. "We always told him size didn't matter. Maybe he couldn't be an offensive tackle, but we taught him when he was young that he didn't have to be big to be a competitor."

Rollins, just two years after causing some organizational angst by hitting .244 at high-A Clearwater, made his big-league debut on Sept. 17, 2000, at Veterans Stadium. He was 21 years old. Reggie Taylor, a long-forgotten failed first-round pick, also made his debut that day, but it was Rollins who generated the ballpark excitement for a team in the midst of a miserable season.

He walked in the first inning and then tripled off Chuck Smith for his first major-league hit in the third. Four innings later, he singled, stole second and scored on a Pat Burrell single.

"He played a heck of a game," said Terry Francona, who was a lame-duck manager at the time. "You certainly don't judge a guy on one game, but it looks like with his speed and what he does at shortstop, it may give us another dimension. It'll be interesting to see how he progresses. Everybody expects him to be the shortstop here. It's just a matter of when he's ready."

He was ready that day and he has been the Phillies' shortstop ever since, missing just 8 percent of his team's games since 2001 with a huge chunk of his absence coming in 2010 when he battled a variety of leg injuries.

"What he's about to do is an accomplishment of staying healthy, staying on the field and staying consistent," said Schmidt, who intends on being in attendance when Rollins breaks his record. "I'm happy for him."

Schmidt, like a lot of other people, still wonders if Rollins was best suited for the leadoff spot in the Phillies' order, which is where most of his at-bats have come.

"We were kidding in the clubhouse that we have the same career batting average," Schmidt said. "Jimmy would really be a better three-hole hitter than a leadoff hitter. But he does always score 100 runs. It doesn't look like he does, but at the end of the year he does it. I don't know, maybe we've misinterpreted his career stats. I do think a lot of teams would like to have Jimmy Rollins as their shortstop."

The leadoff issue was always a hot-button topic surrounding Rollins. Former general manager Ed Wade said some people in the organization thought Rollins should emulate Juan Pierre, a similar-sized centerfielder who reached the big leagues the same year as the Phillies' shortstop. Pierre finished with a .295 career average and .343 on-base percentage. Rollins is a career .268 hitter with a .328 on-base percentage, but he is a superior run producer because of his power. Rollins' 205 home runs are tied for 300th on the all-time list.

"Juan Pierre was a great leadoff hitter and Jimmy Rollins is a different kind of great leadoff hitter," Wade said.

Rollins could also infuriate the masses and his manager at times when he decided a routine ground ball or a pop up wasn't worth running out. Former Phillies manager Charlie Manuel described that as a minor flaw in an otherwise passionate player.

"The only thing Jimmy has a tendency to do is trot down to first," Manuel said. "You can hold him accountable for that and you can talk to him about that. He understands when he is wrong and if he doesn't think he's wrong about something, he will tell you, but he won't fight you on it. He's got a personality about him. He's a very warm person and fun to be around."

Wade said when you weigh Rollins' pros against the cons, it's no contest.

"As far as how he plays the game, there's no excuse for not playing it right all the time," Wade said. "But you look at what he's done in his career and I think you can pave the bumps with all he has accomplished. Anybody paying attention to his entire career can set aside the faux pas and focus on the positives he has meant to the organization."

Rollins, 35, has also been a lightning rod because of the things he has said.

"Sometimes it probably doesn't come out the way he wants it to," Phillies bench coach Larry Bowa said. "If you don't know him, you might think, 'That's a dumb thing to say.' "

There is one thing that Rollins definitely meant to say and it came before the greatest season of his career. He told the world that the Phillies were the team to beat in the National League East before 2007 and he backed up his words by having an MVP season. The numbers - .296 batting average, 212 hits, 139 runs scored, 38 doubles, 20 triples, 30 home runs, 94 RBIs and 41 stolen bases - were mind-boggling and they helped the Phillies win their first of five straight division titles.

The 20th triple came in his final at-bat of the regular season and chants of "MVP, MVP, MVP" rained down as he stood at third base.

"How good of a season was that? I can answer that real quick," Manuel said. "Try to compare what he did to anyone else who has played the game and you'll see what kind of season he had."

Only four players - Rollins, Frank Schulte, Willie Mays and Curtis Granderson - have hit at least 20 doubles, triples and home runs in the same season while also stealing at least 20 bases.

The hit, however, that Rollins will probably be most remembered for is not counted among the ones that led to the franchise record he is on the verge of setting. With the Phillies down by a run with two men on and two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, Rollins stepped to the plate in Game 4 of the 2009 National League Championship Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Bowa, a coach with the Dodgers at the time, was watching from the visiting dugout.

"I was sitting there thinking, 'Don't throw anything down around the plate because he's going to hit it,' " Bowa said. "I didn't get it out of my mouth and he crushed it."

It was a 1-1 pitch from Dodgers closer Jonathan Broxton and it found the right-center-field gap at Citizens Bank Park. Two runs scored and the Phillies celebrated that sweet, sweet swing that has been the topic of so many discussions over the years.

Soon, it will be the swing that has produced more hits than any other in Phillies history.