Jimmy Rollins is my favorite player on my favorite team in the history of sports. I’ve watched him go from a name on a minor league roster to the MVP to the franchise leader in everything Mike Schmidt isn’t the franchise leader in. He’s grown up as a player as I’ve grown up as a fan, and a big reason why it’s so hard to let him go is that I don’t really remember what baseball was like before he was here.
His greatest moment came when he inaugurated the five best consecutive years in franchise history on January 23, 2007. On that day, he stood in front of the world and boldly proclaimed “I think we are the team to beat in the NL East — finally, but that’s only on paper.”
It’s the only quote by a Philadelphia athlete that I could find that has its own Wikipedia page. Search “Fo’, Fo’, Fo’ ” and you get the 1982-83 Sixers. “Practice?” gets you Allen Iverson. “For who, for what?” gets you a middle finger from your computer. “Team to Beat” gets you this.
And you know what? This is probably bullshit, but I feel like a Phillies player having the confidence, the stones to say something like that to the press meant something, that it demolished a mental obstacle to the Phillies actually playing in October.
As a fan, who’d witnessed a World Series trip at age six and despaired of ever seeing the Phillies in the playoffs again, that moment meant a lot to me. It’s when I started believing in what had actually been a very good team for several years. I’d made up my mind that the Phillies would never make the playoffs, that they’d come a game or two short, every year, and I’d be fine with it as long as they played spoiler to the Braves every now and again.
But Rollins dared to show confidence in the team and remained a vocal leader despite often being only the fifth- or sixth-best player on the roster. Chase Utley had the eight-win seasons, Shane Victorino got the big clutch hits, Ryan Howard hit the big home runs, and Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels each had their own sterling playoff moments. But Rollins shaped the character of that team and expanded our idea of what we might reasonably expect. Then he went out in 2007 and made good on that promise with the kind of season that makes people believe that maybe, just maybe, there’s something ineffable and magical about sports that can’t be quantified.
But the old cranks who are afraid of math are right–as we learn how something works, as its mysteries are revealed, we lose a little of our capacity to wonder. It’s fun to think that athletes are imbued with some special capacity that you can’t understand unless you witness it with your own eyes. I’m an empiricist and a rational thinker, except when Jimmy Rollins is involved, because after he declared the Phillies the team to beat, I will forever believe in his ability to do magic.