Scott Rolen, We Salute You

The Cincinnati Reds folded against the San Francisco Giants in the NLDS, losing three games in a row at home after winning the first two on the road. Scott Rolen unceremoniously struck out to end Game Five and the Reds’ season, joining Alex Rodriguez and Omar Vizquel as the only players in baseball history to strike out to end a post-season series on two separate occasions. The 37-year-old eight-time Gold Glove award winner was also responsible for a costly error in Game Four, perhaps the biggest sign that he was running out of gas.

Bob Nightengale reports that Rolen is headed towards retirement:

twitter.com/BNightengale/status/256517931075244034

Rolen played an important role in Phillies history although he played on some very, very bad teams. He burst onto the scene in 1997, hitting 21 home runs with a .377 on-base percentage, 16 stolen bases, and incredible defense at third base. It was no surprise when he took home the National League Rookie of the Year award unanimously. The 22-year-old was already drawing comparisons to former Phillies great — and the best third baseman in baseball history — Mike Schmidt for his all-around baseball talent.

Rolen continued to improve year after year, becoming the backbone of the Phillies’ offense. Between 1997-2001, Rolen posted an aggregate 128 adjusted OPS (OPS+) and 24.9 Wins Above Replacement according to Baseball Reference. Only 18 position players (min. 2,500 plate appearances) were more valuable to their teams in that span of time; only ten were infielders. The comparisons to Schmidt persisted and fans fantasized about a long and productive career ahead of Rolen, the 6’4″, 255-pounder donning only Phillies red.

After the 2001 season, Rolen’s potential free agency loomed and the Phillies were scrambling to get him signed to a long-term contract. In November, they offered him a ten-year deal with potential earnings north of $140 million — a gargantuan contract even now, but especially eleven years ago. Rolen, however, declined the offer, citing the Phillies organization’s lack of commitment to winning. Rolen said, “I’m not seeing that their number one goal is to put a winning team on the field.”

Realizing that Rolen was setting his eyes on free agency, the Phillies swallowed their pride and dealt their cornerstone third baseman to the St. Louis Cardinals at the end of July 2002. Rolen went with Doug Nickle to St. Louis in exchange for second baseman Placido Polanco, reliever Mike Timlin, and pitching prospect Bud Smith. It was a rather unexciting haul for a player who had been and was expected to continue to be so valuable, but the Phillies did not have any leverage to work with when negotiating.

After arriving in St. Louis, Rolen described his new location as “baseball heaven“, a phrase which infuriated Phillies fans and made him persona non grata in the city of Philadelphia. In fact, even in 2012, ten years separated from his last at-bat in Phillies red pinstripes, he was still booed lustily as he lugged his aged, time-worn frame into the batter’s box at Citizens Bank Park. Rolen spent five and a half of those years in St. Louis, including as part of the 2006 championship team; one and a half in Toronto; and three and a half in Cincinnati. He suffered from injuries almost constantly, robbing him of hundreds of at-bats and spectacular plays at third base, but even as he contemplates retirement, there is a legitimate Hall of Fame case to be made on his behalf. With 66.3 career rWAR, Rolen narrowly trails Ron Santo in sixth place with the most among third basemen either in the Hall of Fame or listed on the ballot.

Player WAR/pos From To Tm
Mike Schmidt 103.0 1972 1989 PHI
Eddie Mathews 91.9 1952 1968 BSN-MLN-ATL-TOT-DET
Wade Boggs 88.3 1982 1999 BOS-NYY-TBD
Chipper Jones 81.2 1993 2012 ATL
Brooks Robinson 72.7 1955 1977 BAL
Ron Santo 66.6 1960 1974 CHC-CHW
Scott Rolen 66.3 1996 2012 PHI-TOT-STL-TOR-CIN
Graig Nettles 62.8 1967 1988 MIN-CLE-NYY-SDP-ATL-MON
Buddy Bell 61.6 1972 1989 CLE-TEX-TOT-CIN
Adrian Beltre 60.7 1998 2012 LAD-SEA-BOS-TEX
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 10/11/2012.

In Philadelphia, though, that debate will be largely ignored under the black cloud of hatred that still permeates this city. Looking back on Rolen’s comments with the gift of time reveals that the third baseman was correct in his criticisms, however. The Phillies didn’t commit themselves to winning until after he was gone, when they had the new ballpark on the horizon and a throng of unhappy fans who weren’t showing up to games.

Following the end of the 2002 season, the Phillies signed third baseman David Bell to a four-year, $17 million contract and first baseman Jim Thome to a six-year, $85 million contract. GM Ed Wade also traded catching prospect Johnny Estrada to the Atlanta Braves for starting pitcher Kevin Millwood. Their 2003 Opening Day payroll went up to $71 million, well above the $58 million a year prior. The 2004 was even larger at $93 million following the acquisitions of Billy Wagner and Eric Milton as well as the signing of free agent Tim Worrell and the re-signing of Millwood.

In the meantime, the Phillies were drafting extremely well. Going back to 2002, the Phillies drafted Cole Hamels, Michael Bourn, Greg Golson, Lou Marson, J.A. HappJosh Outman, and Kyle Drabek, among others. Many of them were used to bring valuable established players to a team on the precipice of playoff contention. Eventually, the Phillies opted for a fresh face, firing Ed Wade and bringing in miracle worker Pat Gillick to lead the way.

2002 was the last time the Phillies finished below .500 and it is no coincidence. They have Scott Rolen to thank for that. He gave the Phillies the baseball equivalent of an intervention, telling them to straighten up and fly right. And they did. Even though he wasn’t on the payroll, it is quite possible that the Phillies’ success between 2007-11 — the greatest era of baseball in franchise history dating back to 1883 — never happens without him leaving in acrimonious fashion.

As Rolen heads into retirement, he deserves our respect and admiration. He was one of the best third basemen we have ever seen period, and one of the very best to ever play in this great city. He is a player you will, no doubt, tell your kids and grandkids about many years down the road while doing your best Dan Baker impression.

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27 comments

  1. LTG

    October 11, 2012 07:06 PM

    Count me among those that think Rolen is an HOFer.

    Also, it’s not clear to me that 2007-11 (this should be open-ended but let’s stipulate for now that it’s over) is the greatest era of Phillies baseball. The 1976-83 Phillies had great records, won pennants, had HOFers, won a WS, lost a WS. Comparing the finer details becomes harder because the playoff systems are different, the eras are different, etc. But we should probably be saying that 2007-11 is one of the two greatest eras of Phillies baseball.

  2. LTG

    October 11, 2012 07:29 PM

    Also, while I hold no grudge against Rolen, I’m not sure he was correct that the Phillies were not committed to winning. In retrospect, they seemed to be patiently waiting for their store of young talent to flourish. And Rolen just seemed to get impatient with that process. 2001 was a winning season in which the Phils finished 2 back in the East. That the FO learned to take winning seriously from Rolen is a nice encomium, but it strains belief.

  3. PhillyMike

    October 11, 2012 08:14 PM

    If you mean the one-fingered salute I agree.

    I’m sorry, but I don’t think Scott Rolen’s time in Philly should be rewritten like he was some poor guy stuck in a bad situation. He never liked being Philly and his attitude always reflected that fact. He complained about everything – the fans, the field, the team, the manager – until he made it clear he wouldn’t sign any contract offered. If I remember correctly, they signed Abreu to an extension after Rolen turned his down, for a pretty good amount of money, before the 2002 season. Even then, his complaint about management rang hollow, the 2001 Phillies weren’t a bad team, finishing over .500 and with Rollins, Burrell and Abreu had a core of young players to build around.

    I don’t know if he was a better public person in other towns, or if he was a better teammate, but he earned his dislike in Philly.

  4. Matt C

    October 11, 2012 08:56 PM

    Amen, Bill. I always thought Rolen had the organization’s number and never really blamed him for leaving.

    It should also be noted that playing on the awful concrete/turf at the supremely crappy Vet probably exacerbated those injury problems and shortened his career. I believe that’s at least part of what he meant by referring to STL as “baseball heaven” — real grass!

    IMO it’s a Hall-worthy career, and we should honor Rolen for the good years he did give this town.

  5. Tomg

    October 11, 2012 09:40 PM

    Go back and re-read the comments on your Jayson Werth post. Werth gaves us a freaking World Series win, and yet there are still those who claim their irrational hatred of him is what he deserves.

    So, um … Good luck trying to rehabilitate Rolen’s rep with Phillie fans. “He was a great player for us? Pffffftt! Since when is that relevant? He hoited our fee-fees!”

  6. Bill Baer

    October 11, 2012 11:56 PM

    @ LTG

    I think that’s certainly fair to include that era in the conversation as well. I shouldn’t have been so absolute in my phrasing.

    I disagree with your assessment on the organization’s commitment to winning. I could be wrong, but I’m not aware of anything that indicates they were patiently awaiting that prospect harvest.

    I also disagree that their success in 2001 indicates that they were a team on the rise. They had an in-their-prime Rolen and Abreu as well as a rising Pat Burrell, but they still finished tenth in batting average, eighth in on-base percentage, and 11th in slugging percentage. The pitching staff was half-decent but it was comprised of players they had thrown at the wall just to see who could stick — a 31-year-old Robert Person, a 35-year-old Jose Mesa (fresh off of three consecutive seasons with an ERA above 4.50), Amaury Telemaco, among many others.

    That the 2001 Phillies won 86 games with half of their position player WAR coming from Rolen and Abreu (10.3/20.2) and 60% of their pitcher WAR from Randy Wolf and Robert Person (3.1/5.3) shows how awful the rest of the roster was.

  7. johnnn

    October 12, 2012 12:04 AM

    ahh.. i was hoping the Phils would sign him to a one year deal for ’13. just because it’d be so interesting to see how the fans reacted. could’ve been a sorta bizarro version of the Thome signing last season.

  8. Frank Reynolds

    October 12, 2012 12:40 AM

    Maybe it’s because I am a Phillies fan but I don’t think Rolen gets enough recognition for his sucess. I just don’t see or hear a lot talk about him on the national level. He was defiantly a good baseball player. Although he had a pretty good 2010 I thought he was pretty much running on fumes the last couple of years. So this is not a suprise.

    As far as his time with the phillies I have mixed feelings. I also tend to agree with others that was signs of change coming before he left. They broke ground on the new stadium a year before he left. For me that stadium played a huge role in change. I realize that the new stadium made them more money, thus more money to spend. It also forced them to spend money. It just seemed like he jumped ship too quick. I just think he did not like here and made up excuses to leave. He dissappointed me when he left. At the time it was clear he was not going to stick around but I was still hopeful when Jimmy and Scott started the 2002 all star game in phillies uniforms. I don’t hold any kind of grudge against him. I respect his game but I question his character.

  9. Frank Reynolds

    October 12, 2012 12:42 AM

    *definitely

  10. ChrisD

    October 12, 2012 01:29 AM

    A lot of people are making the argument that the Phillies “had” to spend more because of the new stadium but Baltimore built a new stadium then promptly resume sucking after a couple years. I remember thinking we’d get a couple season winning bump and that would be it. Hard to blame Rolen for thinking the same.

  11. pedro3131

    October 12, 2012 05:50 AM

    Listening to him strut out to the batters box to Rollin on the River was one of the fondest moments of my childhood.

  12. BenJah

    October 12, 2012 07:54 AM

    i would LOVE to have rolen next year in the 3rd base mix. not signed to significant money and/or expected to play every day, but a part-timer to mix and match.. dare to dream

  13. Richard

    October 12, 2012 07:59 AM

    Baltimore did not “promptly resume sucking”. A few years into the life of Camden Yards, they won the AL East two years in a row, and had the highest payroll in baseball. They resumed sucking when, in the wake of this, Peter Angelos started Steinbrennering all over the place.

    As for Rolen, on the one hand, it seems to me that a 10-year $140 million contract offer might be a subtle hint that the organization is trying to change the culture. Still, I think it’s a lot to expect players to always have the best grasp of things outside their own situation. I don’t blame him for being disaffected, and I think people need to get over it.

  14. badnewsboars

    October 12, 2012 08:54 AM

    In your list of HoF 3rd basemen, George Brett is not listed. Are his stats below the list?

  15. Frank Reynolds

    October 12, 2012 10:58 AM

    @Chris D
    Do you have any idea how Camden Yards was funded? I don’t know how much money the state/city paid for that stadium. I don’t know how much debt the O’s had to put out for that stadium. That makes a difference. Also Camden Yards was also a bigger attraction. I don’t recall the phillies organization trying to attract people outside the traditional market to run bus trips to citizens bank park. The O’s did that.

  16. LTG

    October 12, 2012 11:27 AM

    “As for Rolen, on the one hand, it seems to me that a 10-year $140 million contract offer might be a subtle hint that the organization is trying to change the culture.” Truth by understatement.

    Anyway, the Phils of 2001 had Myers, Padilla, about to enter the rotation with Wolf. That was going to be their stable pitching after a year of duct tape and fiberboard. There’s no reason to think they were not already considering acquiring another pitcher like Millwood at the time, but waiting until the other pieces were ready. They also had Rollins about to break through, Burrell breaking through, and Marlon Byrd about to flash in the pan (but was thought to be a solid starter for the future). Plus, they had already drafted Utley and by the end of 2001 Howard. These are the reasons to think the Phils had a long-term plan that constrained their actions prior to 2001. It’s not as if they FO had oodles of income to spend on players then. They needed to build a cheaper good team in order to build an expensive good team later. Or, at least, so this narrative goes, one which I only offer to rebut the one in the article. I do not claim to know that this was what was happening. Only that, from the fan’s perspective with the benefit of history, this is at least as plausible as the “Oh no, Rolen said we don’t want to win so we better do something to make it look like we do” narrative.

    I also don’t believe that, if I’m right, Rolen should be criticized for what he said. He was not in a position to know about the organization’s plans. For all the evidence he had, and we too at the time, the most reasonable conclusion probably was that the Phils were not committed to winning. That’s why what he said felt true (and more hurtful for it because his decision would only perpetuate losing). Nevertheless, however plausible the claim was at the time, it’s not as clear now that he was right nor that the Phils acted in light of his criticism.

    Finally, would we really want a FO that acted on one disgruntled player’s griping and refusal to resign? Especially when that player had other reasons (Bowa, astroturf, urbanophobia) to want to leave. If the narrative in the article is true, it seems to me a reason to blame the FO not to praise it.

  17. LTG

    October 12, 2012 11:31 AM

    The short version:

    BB, your narrative is of the form post hoc, propter hoc. You yourself would never allow such reasoning in current baseball analysis. Why would you use it when retelling baseball history?

  18. Phillie697

    October 12, 2012 02:15 PM

    No offense, but I much rather tell my kids about Chase Utley than Scott Rolen. My kids can learn about Scott Rolen themselves if they so choose.

    This isn’t about whether he was right or not. This is about who I rather remember when I think back to the Phillies in the first decade of the 21st Century, and no, it ain’t no Scott Rolen. I have no problem admitting that he was a good player, but that’s the extent to which I’ll “honor” him. From whom loyalty was not received, none shall be reciprocated in kind.

  19. Scott G

    October 12, 2012 02:26 PM

    Phillie,

    So you won’t honor Werth? I seriously will never understand when people knock players for doing what THEY want to do.

    I often find myself wondering why I actually live and die with the Philly teams as much as I do considering none of them really feel the same way. They’re not from here. Aside from maybe wanting to win because it’s more fun, and playing well for their own gratification and pay, do you think they really care that they play for the “Philadelphia” Phillies, Eagles, Flyers, or Sixers?

    I’m probably most emotionally involved in the Flyers, and that’s probably the worst case scenario. Most of them aren’t even from this country!

    When they say they love the fans or love playing here, don’t you think it’s just something to play to the fans/something they’re fed by PR?

  20. Phillie697

    October 12, 2012 02:59 PM

    Werth and Rolen wasn’t the same. Werth was not given a ridiculous contract by the Phillies and turned it down; he went to the highest bidder, but wanted to stay. Rolen was given the king’s ransom, and said, fuck all of you losers. Different.

  21. Scott G

    October 12, 2012 03:46 PM

    Who cares? He didn’t want to play here. So what? Why do people from Philadelphia take that personally?

    Sure, I probably will like a player more who chose to stay here (mostly because I could still allow myself to openly root for him), but because he didn’t like Larry Bowa, or a field that was as hard as concrete, I should hate him?

    Rolen disliked Bowa. Bowa eventually worked for the Yankees. The Yankees are the devil. I don’t know about you, but the enemy of my enemy is my friend haha.

  22. Bill

    October 12, 2012 04:02 PM

    I know management thought Rolen was hard to get along with just about everywhere he went, but despite how much he and Tony L butted heads here in St. Louis, Rolen brought an excitement to the team that even Tony couldn’t deny. Was he the greatest third basemen that ever lived? Of course not. Defensively Brooks Robinson was the best I ever saw, and offensively Wade Boggs had no peer. But Rolen was much more fun to watch than either of them. Salute.

  23. Jesse

    October 12, 2012 04:49 PM

    Sorry, not buying. I’ll save my righteous indignation for the mistreatment of players whose only “crime” was not being the “right” type for Philly: Dick Allen, Abreu, Werth. Rolen didn’t like Philly and wanted out; I enjoy watching him fail as a result. It’s not really personal, but it’s fun to have villains in sports and a guy who asks to be traded from your team and clearly doesn’t like your city makes a good villain (even if his reasons were, as Bill notes, somewhat legitimate).

    Two asides: First, if you’re going to let Rolen off the hook, why not J.D. Drew? He didn’t do as much for the city, but he also didn’t specifically diss the city/team. He made a rational business decision and profited from it. Now, mind you, I will never stop booing J.D. Drew. I will boo him if we bump our walkers into each other in a retirement home 50 years from now. And I fully endorse the booing of Stephen Drew on the grounds that he’s related to J.D. Drew. But none of this has any logic to it. It’s just fun to have villains, and J.D. Drew makes a good one.

    Second, I was listening to WIP around the time of the Bynum trade (force of habit, what can I say?), and Cataldi said his one piece of advice to Bynum was “Be yourself,” because Philly fans like athletes who are authentic. And this struck me as one of the least true statements ever. I mean, was Aaron Rowand more “authentic” than Bobby Abreu? No, he just charged into a wall once, which dovetailed nicely with the city’s increasingly nostalgic view of itself as blue-collar and gritty (whatever those things mean). If Bobby Abreu waned fans to like him he should have pretended he liked to talk to the press or dove a couple of times for balls he couldn’t catch. It would have been phony, but people would have eaten it up.

  24. Mcneildon

    October 13, 2012 08:05 AM

    I was wondering yesterday how differently the last 10 years could have played out had Rolen accepted that contract. Under that scenario, there’s no Jim Thome in a Phillies uniform, no Placido Polanco, and no David Bell. Without Thome and Polanco (and Bell) there’s nobody blocking Chase Utley and Ryan Howard in ’03 and ’04. Their ’05 through maybe this year’s infield would have been Howard, Utley, Rollins, and Rolen. I would have liked to see how that would have worked. It could have been one of the better infields in the history of baseball. Maybe that’s a stretch, but it would have been better than what they had and it would have happened sooner.

  25. Jeff

    October 13, 2012 08:31 PM

    The “baseball heaven” quote is a smear by the Philly press, and needs to die. Rolen never said it.

    What really happened: writing about Rolen’s arrival, a St. Louis columnist opened an article by quoting song lyrics containing the phrase, “Heaven must be something like this.” The quote was clearly not from Rolen. The Philly papers attributed it to him anyway.

  26. Phillie697

    October 16, 2012 01:32 PM

    @Scott G,

    And I don’t want to honor Scott Rolen, so what/who cares? Why does it bother you that many Phillies fans choose not to honor him as a Phillie? We don’t feel loyal to him. Last time I checked, loyalty isn’t given by default; it’s earned.

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