Legacy in limbo

ASSOCIATED PRESS Jimmy Rollins has marched to his own drummer throughout his stellar career.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Jimmy Rollins has marched to his own drummer throughout his stellar career.
Posted: February 11, 2014

AS TWILIGHT gathers on the horizon of his career, it is fascinating to consider what the legacy of Jimmy Rollins might become.

Not since Richie Ashburn have the Phillies employed a player as charismatic, as universally appreciated . . . to a point.

Rollins is poised at a critical point.

His decreasing production and his increased salary have eroded his popularity, even though he finds himself a victim of circumstance and poor planning.

Often, as stars begin to fade, replacements dovetail into the franchise's framework and either obscure or delay the fading: consider what Robinson Cano did for the Yankees.

Rollins enjoyed no such relief, no such camouflage from younger players. To make his shortcoming more glaring, his cornerstone peers have declined even faster than he. Chase Utley missed great swatches of the past four seasons, Ryan Howard of the last two. Not coincidentally, Rollins' numbers dipped, too; and, of course, the team won fewer games.

Successful manager Charlie Manuel was replaced. Spendthrift general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. enters 2014, like Rollins, under siege.

Rollins is in the last big-money season of a 4-year, $38 million contract extension that guaranteed him $11 million each of the first three seasons. He can exercise his player option for 2015 for $5 million, but he can vest that fourth season at $11 million by making 434 plate appearances in 2014 and being deemed healthy to start the 2015 campaign.

A big season, or, better, two, will mitigate the impression Rollins has left during the Phillies' slide. The expected good health of Utley and Howard could help, to that end.

Seldom, though, do 35-year-old players at a position of extreme wear and tear compile elite results.

Rollins might not have been worth $22 million the past two seasons, when he hit .251 with a .317 on-base percentage and scored 83.5 runs per season . . . but he was probably worth way more than the $35.8 million he made from 2004-09, when he hit .280 and averaged 19 homers, 41 doubles, 11 triples, 113 runs and 38 stolen bases. Things like total value have a way of working themselves out, given the right massaging.

Rollins is uninterested in massaging.

He declined to comment for this column.

Likely, he will address the press at his annual state of the J-Roll address, which he usually conducts a day or so before full-team workouts begin. That is Feb 18. this year, and it falls on a Tuesday; so, expect a charming, sunglassed Rollins to hold court in Clearwater, say, Sunday afternoon-ish.

It is a strange situation to witness, even after Rollins' uneven ride.

Rollins promised a division (they won the NL East). He criticized the fan base (he was right). He dogged it and was benched, twice (he accepted the punishments). He shrugged at strikeouts and scoffed at on-base percentage; but he pointed at runs scored, and helped recalibrate how those numbers are weighed.

He compiled a mountain of equity because, through it all, there was this deep and somehow surprising well of talent; unexpected power; game-changing speed, both as a basestealer and a baserunner.

There was, too, a foundation of constancy. He plays defense as well as any Phillie in history, and does so at the most demanding position, shortstop. He occasionally is breathtaking, especially up the middle; he has startling arm strength; and is, thanks to quick hips and near-perfect running form, essentially a fourth outfielder.

He nearly never makes an error. Among shortstops with at least 10 years of service Rollins ranks No. 2 in feilding percentage, behind Omar Vizquel, whom Rollins, 35, could catch.

He won an MVP award, which Derek Jeter never managed. He went to three All-Star Games, his first, as a rookie, a year in which the rookie of the year award went a guy named Albert Pujols (Rollins finished third). He won four Gold Gloves and deserved at least one or two more, but Vizquel was still playing well. Rollins mentored troubled Marlon Byrd to a fine rookie season, then guided sensitive Ryan Howard to rookie of the year and MVP runs in successive seasons.

Rollins plays the way he lives: with joy, with confidence . . . and with a self-assured professionalism defined by himself, and no one else.

Baseball's purists generally do not align themselves with his definition; therefore, they find themselves offended by him. They tend to prefer stoicism, unless that stoicism gives way to rage at failure, in which case that rage displays how much the player in question truly cares.

Jimmy smiles when he makes a great play. He exults when he collects a big hit. When he fails, he does not break bats, or throw helmets, or destroy urinals.

Come to think of it, that might be a much better example of behavior for, say, kids.

He also does not pander to the desires of a critical and touchy media corps. Fairly or not, this, too, affects his image.

Again: That image is eroding.

By his indifference at perceptions of him. By his rationing of effort, even as his bosses grind his 5-8, 180-pound little body season after season, game after game. No active shortstop with at least six seasons of service has averaged close to Rollins' 147 games per season at short. By dismissing the tenet that harder work and longer hours improve results, a credo that does not necessarily suit every athlete, or, for that matter, every person.

He is who he is, and he likes that.

Meanwhile, he started a family to which he is devoted. He funded his charity. He diversified his interests and learned businesses he can pursue when, as a still-young man, he leaves baseball.

But how will he leave Philadelphia?

As the one clubhouse constant during the franchise's glory years? As an overpaid, disconnected veteran? As an obstacle to the franchise's progress? The Phillies are suddenly rich with promising infielder prospects, but Rollins cannot be traded without his consent. He has shown no intention of consenting.

In an epoch of sports stars who consciously commit steroid abuse, drug use, attempted filicide and homicide and suicide, Rollins has never caused a whiff of controversy. He is from a vicious city, Oakland, so he had the same excuses so many of them use.

Not. A. Whiff.

Rollins is a happy, uncomplicated man. He plays a game he loves with joy. He dislikes to lose, but he understands losing happens, sometimes with alarming frequency in a game as complex as baseball, and so he does not dwell on losing.

He relishes competition and winning, but neither the competition nor its outcomes define him. That might be impossible to understand for the most fanatical of fans (or teammates, or coaches) who wallow in the impossible ideal that only winning matters.

For Rollins, there is always a game tomorrow.

Such a perspective is invaluable in a baseball clubhouse.

Or, really, any house.

Perhaps that should color his legacy.


Email: hayesm@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @inkstainedretch

Blog: ph.ly/DNL

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