Bill Conlin | NO. 1 ON A SHORT LIST

Rollins is city's best shortstop ever; his offense puts him ahead of Bowa

Posted: June 21, 2007

THE E-MAILER'S question was brief and to the point: "Is J-Roll one of the top 3 SS to play in this city??? If yes, where does he rank?''

Before responding, my knee-jerk reaction was to answer the question with a question.

"Who the hell is No. 3?''

Somebody's gotta be, right? Even if whoever was arbitrarily plucked from the sludge of 124 years of history doesn't belong in the same conversation as Larry Bowa vs. Jimmy Rollins. At that point, I realized it is no longer a fair debate between a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger, a little man who produced defense pitted against a little man who is a run producer. Like Bowa, Rollins is a superb defender. Unlike Bowa, Rollins has become a major offensive force.

In just the seventh season of his career and still only 28, Jimmy Rollins has emerged - no, exploded - as the premier shortstop to ever play in this town, including A's shortstops Jack Barry from their Deadball Era dynasty and Eric McNair and Dib Williams from their Jimmie Foxx, Lefty Grove powerhouse.

My response to the e-mail was equally succinct: "Bowa was a hair better on defense. On offense, no contest.''

Bowa played 2,247 games during his long career and finished with a respectable .260 average and 2,191 hits. However, in just 1,024 games, Rollins is already drawing within range of several Bowa numbers. It goes without saying that J-Roll passed Bowa's career home-run total of 15 very early in his second season and now has a robust 97, including 25 last year. Bowa had 262 career doubles, just 14 more than Rollins' current 248. The dynamic leadoff hitter - Bowa flunked Leadoff 101 several times - and occasional No. 3 guy is on a different offensive planet than the switch-hitting slap hitter who made national headlines when he hit his first and only grand slam. I think the Daily News headline over my piece was, "The Mouse Who Roared.'' Rollins can drive a baseball 425 feet from either wing.

So what about defense? Shortstop historically forgoes big offense for athletes with ballerina feet and rifle arms. Players like A-Rod and Derek Jeter have changed all that. Actually, Jimmy's fielding percentage on Opening Day stood at .981, a few bobbled grounders ahead of Larry's career .980.

Bowa had a cannon arm that allowed him to play deep on the Vet's marbles-in-a-bathtub turf. His rookie-year backhand was covered by Don Money, the very good player he replaced at short. Then a guy named Mike Schmidt showed up next to him with range to his left that was a license for Bo to cheat toward the middle. And the guys on his glove flank included Denny Doyle, Dave Cash, Ted Sizemore and velvety Manny Trillo. That said, Bowa's defense had just two levels: superb and "Omygod!''

Rollins broke in on the worn turf and the burial shroud they replaced it with - NexTurf. Then he moved to the emerald grass of the Money Pit, where he can play up a little more and show off what I consider the most accurate shortstop arm in the National League. On routine plays, Ryan Howard sees more quality strikes from Rollins than he does while batting.

With the numbers he continues to put up less than halfway through his useful service life, "Hall of Fame lock'' assertions should start before Rollins turns 30. Like Bowa, he is incredibly durable. And paired with the magnificently talented Chase Utley, the Phillies have their best middle infield ever.

The ballclub does, however, have a shortstop in the Hall of Fame, just don't ask me how. The Veterans Committee - which now elects nobody - anointed Dave "Beauty'' Bancroft in 1971. That was Bowa's second season. He made 11 errors.

Bancroft was the rookie shortstop for the Phillies' 1915 pennant winner. He had an astounding 64 errors, a figure he matched in 1918, one of four 60- plus error seasons. Look, I don't care if the gloves those days were the size of Phils' limited partner Claire Betz' change purse. The guy must have had paws like Edward Scissorhands. On the other hand, he never hit .300 for the Phillies in an era when the superstars routinely hit .400. As for his baserunning skills, Beauty stole 15 bases in 42 attempts that rookie year. Maybe he gets credit for the "Don't steal'' sign.

He was traded to the powerful Giants in June of 1920 and got to play in three more World Series for manager John McGraw, batting a robust .172 in the Fall Classic. Beauty spent four seasons as player-manager for the Boston Braves with a winning percentage of .407. His final fielding percentage was - no laughter, please - a sinful .944.

The other candidates for No. 3 all-time Phillies shortstop include Dick Bartell, Granny Hamner, Bobby Wine, Ruben Amaro, Bobby Pena, Steve Jeltz, Juan Bell, Kim Batiste and Kevin Stocker. Your votes are welcomed.

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Send e-mail to bill1chair@aol.com. For recent columns, go to http://go.philly.com/conlin.

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