Small package, big skills Jimmy Rollins: Big talent in a small package Jimmy Rollins stopped growing at 5-foot-8. His talent kept blossoming.

Posted: July 07, 2002

The grown-ups would always smile and tell the young boy he had to wait. Wait until the game is over and then you can swing the bat yourself. Wait until practice is finished and, after you pick up the balls that lay like dandelion blooms across the outfield, then you can field some grounders, too.

So, Jimmy Rollins would wait, but that didn't mean he liked it.

Rollins grew up waiting for the ballplayer in the family - his mother, Gyvonnie - to finish her softball games in the fast-pitch industrial and church leagues near their home in Alameda, Calif.

Gyvonnie Rollins was a middle infielder, fast and with soft hands, and her oldest boy saw almost every game she ever played. James Rollins, Jimmy's father, had been a wrestler and weightlifter, but never much of a baseball player.

So, the game that has taken Jimmy Rollins to its highest levels in a very short time - the 23-year-old will be the starting National League shortstop in the All-Star Game on Tuesday - came from his mother, even if he can't name a singular movement or trait he lifted from her play.

"I can't say I've taken things from her like that," Rollins said, "but definitely the love for the game. When you're young, you look up to your parents and say, 'I want to be just like you when I grow up.' But to this day, she says she's still better than me in baseball."

Perhaps, but the days of waiting on the sideline are certainly over for Rollins, who announced his major-league arrival last season, finishing third in the NL rookie-of-the-year voting after a season in which he fielded his position excellently and displayed an effective offensive combination of power and speed.

This season, Rollins started well, and built a huge lead in the fan balloting for the all-star team, but has cooled at the plate in the last month. He approaches this week's break, and the spotlight he has earned, not as an established major-leaguer, but as one who is still a bit of a mystery. Just how good will he be?

"Jimmy can probably go to as many All-Star Games as he wants to, if he keeps progressing," said manager Larry Bowa, the preeminent shortstop in Phillies team history. "He plays with enthusiasm and he's got great ability. Now, he's just got to improve on the little things."

But the little things are everything in baseball, where one hit a week added up over a full season makes about a 50-point difference in a regular's batting average. Bowa would like Rollins to bunt for hits a little more often, and would prefer that he be more selective at the plate, where the shortstop has a penchant for whaling away at high pitches.

Rollins takes the suggestions as they come. He is a 5-foot-8 baseball player and has lived with those who question his methods and his skill for a very long time. He looks around, finds himself in the big leagues, and knows he must have done something right.

"I planned on being successful ever since I was young. To me, this is nothing to be surprised about," Rollins said. "It's nice to be recognized by the fans, but I work hard and these are the things I planned on happening. It's come fast for me, no doubt about that, but I'm not surprised."

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Rollins was about the same size as the rest of the kids until his teenage years. He had long arms and long legs, so people assumed he would grow at least to his father's height. James Rollins is about 6-1, as is Antwon Rollins, Jimmy's younger brother and, until recently, an outfielder in the Texas Rangers organization.

But genetic fate had something else in store for Rollins, who ended up being built compactly like his mother.

"Those long legs kept on shrinking," Rollins said with a laugh. "I was short and skinny, but when I picked up a ball and a bat, there was nothing people could say. After that, they didn't care. They'd just say, 'He can play.' "

At Encinal High School in Alameda - where his parents emphatically did not allow Rollins to continue his Pop Warner passion for football - the little shortstop would end up setting nearly a dozen school records, including overall batting average (.484) and steals (99).

All those grounders after the softball games and all the work in the backyard gym with his father were paying off. Organized baseball might have to squint to find him, but they couldn't overlook Rollins.

"He had to catch your eye. He could do a lot of things," said Bob Poole, who was the Bay Area scout for the Phillies at the time, and first saw Rollins when he was just a high school sophomore.

Poole wrote effusive reports, but was careful not to emphasize the prospect's height and weight, feeling that Rollins needed to be seen to be evaluated and fearing that the organization might balk at his lack of size. The Phillies sent a crosschecking scout to follow up on the reports and the club gradually became intrigued with the little shortstop.

In 1996, with Rollins committed to a scholarship at Arizona State if he didn't like his draft position, the Phillies took him with their second-round pick. Poole signed him and has been proud of the player ever since.

"He went right through the organization and made a quick stop at each level," said Poole, who now scouts for the Houston Astros. "Things broke well for him, and he was able to get to the show and display what he had. But you could see from the beginning what he had."

While Rollins' mother may have influenced his love for the game, another player is actually responsible for his style. Sitting in the stands at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum as a youngster, Rollins found what he was looking for dressed in the dazzling, wedding-white uniform of the Oakland Athletics.

"The bottom line is just that Rickey Henderson was my favorite player," said Rollins, who studied every move and gesture of the man who would set a major-league record for career steals and for leadoff home runs.

"His flair, his style. The key word is impact. He's an impact player. You're afraid to walk him because he steals. You're afraid to pitch to him, too, because he can hurt you there," Rollins said. "Every time he steps on the field, you're like, 'There goes Rickey right there.' That was enough for me."

Rollins has some of those same gifts. As a rookie, he became the first player to lead the NL in steals (46) and triples (12) since Lou Brock in 1968. But he has arrived in baseball at a time when the stolen base - playing for a single run - has been devalued by a preponderance of home runs and big innings.

The prototypical leadoff hitter these days will be judged more by his on-base percentage than his stolen-base totals or his slugging percentage. In the last two weeks, Bowa has taken Rollins out of the leadoff spot, as the shortstop slogs through a batting slump (.213 since June 1, entering this weekend) and a stretch in which Rollins had drawn just six walks in the previous 26 games.

Rollins admits he hasn't felt comfortable at the plate recently, but he is confident that he'll end up confounding his doubters again. He's gotten this far by enjoying the game and playing it with Gyvonnie's verve and Rickey's style. Eventually - but not yet - he may have to incorporate Bowa's desire for the occasional bunt.

"You can get out bunting just as well as hitting," Rollins said. "It comes down to me. Do I want to bunt? Do I not want to bunt? Bunting is not a big thing of mine."

What you see isn't what you get with Rollins. It never has been. He likes it that way and plans to produce a few more big surprises from this small package - inviting one and all to disbelieve that he has it in him.

Contact Bob Ford at 215-854-5842 or bford@phillynews.com.

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