Bowa and Rollins, together again

Larry Bowa, Phillies coach and former shortstop, confers with current shortstop Jimmy Rollins. Bowa was the manager when Rollins was a rookie in 2001, and the two often butted heads.
Larry Bowa, Phillies coach and former shortstop, confers with current shortstop Jimmy Rollins. Bowa was the manager when Rollins was a rookie in 2001, and the two often butted heads. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff)
Posted: February 24, 2014

CLEARWATER, Fla. - The two best shortstops in Phillies history are together again.

The older one was perceived as being great because he squeezed every ounce of his ability from his once scrawny body to become a five-time all-star and three-time Gold Glove winner. He got so good that he finished third in the National League MVP voting in 1978.

The younger one was perceived as being great because he had so much pure talent - five tools incomprehensible for a man of his size - and it allowed him to become a three-time all-star, a four-time Gold Glove winner, and the 2007 National League MVP.

In each case, the perceptions sell the short men short. Larry Bowa's work ethic was strong, but his ability and baseball IQ were also immense. And Jimmy Rollins' skills are off the charts, but it was his hard work and high baseball IQ that elevated him to a place among the game's elite.

Bowa, when he had the chance, made sure Rollins got everything he could out of himself. Before Rollins' rookie season in 2001, Bowa was named the Phillies' manager. He watched the kid from Northern California in the Arizona Fall League and was convinced he was ready to play in the major leagues as a regular at just 22 years old. The manager pushed the rookie shortstop. The rookie sometimes pushed back.

"I do have a good relationship with him, but let's face it, his first year we bumped heads," Bowa said shortly before the Phillies arrived in spring training. "He had his way of doing things and he had been very successful everywhere he had played. He was going through an adjustment period and we went back and forth and he ended up doing it the way he wanted to do it."

The season was 10 games old and the rookie shortstop was hitting .200. The Phillies had an off day and the first-year manager thought it would be a great time to get his shortstop some extra work away from the bright lights and hectic schedule of a game day. The rookie shortstop had other ideas.

"[Rollins] was really struggling," Bowa said. "I said, 'I'm going to be here tomorrow, so come on in and hit.' He said, 'I don't want to hit.' I said, 'I want you to come in and hit. You need to work on swinging the bat right now. You're hitting a lot of balls in the air and you're not utilizing your speed.' Reluctantly he came in."

Rollins remembers the day like it was yesterday.

"It was an off day," he said. "I was there. I remember it. I remember being ticked. 'You want me to come in on an off day?' "

Bowa recalls it as being an unproductive session in terms of what Rollins got out of it that day, but a meaningful one for their relationship.

"I knew he didn't want to be there," Bowa said. "I went up to him afterward and said, 'You know what, Jimmy, that's my fault for making you come in here because we got absolutely nothing out of this.' It was almost like something clicked that day. I was honest with him and I took the blame. I said, 'I had no business making you come in.' There was a part of him that trusted me after that."

Rollins, in time, understood the motivation behind Bowa's hard-driving direction.

"At the time, you kind of have mixed feelings about it," Rollins said. "But after it's done, he just wanted me to be the best and be at my best. He saw something he felt he needed to push and that was the purpose for him to get me out there on an off day when everybody else got to chill."

Rollins made his first all-star team as a rookie, hit .274 with 29 doubles, 12 triples, 14 home runs, 97 runs scored, and a league-leading 46 stolen bases. He had arrived and he was going to get better.

Jimmy Rollins has been so good over the course of his 14-year career that Larry Bowa acknowledges his own place as being No. 2 on the franchise depth chart at shortstop.

"The big thing about Jimmy is that Jimmy can be as good as he wants to be," Bowa said. "I call him a red-light player. When games are on the line, Jimmy can be as good as anybody. When Jimmy goes bad, it looks like his concentration vanishes. I have a hard time relating to that because I had to really stay on top of my game and he's got so much ability that literally he can give 80 percent and still look good. I think he's that good."

Rollins doesn't agree with everything Bowa says. In fact, he said he still doesn't entirely believe that Bowa thinks of himself as the franchise's No. 2 shortstop.

"I know what I set out to be, hearing all the Larry Bowa stories, and my aspiration was to be better," Rollins said. "So when they mention shortstops in this organization, I want them to mention my name first, but I honestly don't think about it. He said it, but it's like, 'Whatever, dude, I still don't believe you.' It's just more of a respect thing for him and me."

Rollins strongly disagrees with Bowa that his concentration wanes when he goes into a slump at the plate, and his point is valid when you consider his concentration never seems to disappear when he's playing defense.

"That has never been the case," Rollins said. "Never has, never will."

So why does he think Bowa has that perception?

"It's the same way that people think I'm lazy," Rollins said. "It's just something people come up with. They see something and - you never can know what's going on inside a guy's head - but honestly I would be dumb to be at the plate and not trying. Not competing at the plate, that's not an intelligent thing to do and I'm an intelligent guy, whether people know it or not."

The two best shortstops in franchise history were together for four years as manager and player and they developed a strong bond even though one pushed when the other one didn't always want to be pushed. Bowa and Rollins briefly reconciled with Team USA last year during the World Baseball Classic and now they are together again.

It's late in the game for both of them. Bowa is 68 and, amazingly, in his fourth tenure with the team. He is manager Ryne Sandberg's bench coach and has been given the green light to push Rollins or any other player on the roster. Rollins is 35 and coming off the worst non-injury season of his career. He needs 434 plate appearances in order for an $11 million option to kick in next season.

More important, the Phillies need Rollins if they are going to defy Father Time and make one last run at a World Series title.

Bowa could be seen early in camp pushing. Rollins had a 20-pound vest attached to his chest as Bowa slammed grounder after grounder at him.

"Still can't get it by me, Bo," Rollins playfully taunted.

Rollins welcomes the challenge he'll get from his former manager.

"I think the role makes a difference in terms of the impact of the things he is saying," Rollins said. "You can say things and when you're the manager they're received one way and if you're the coach they're received another way. The manager, whatever he says, goes. With a coach, you know what he says goes, but you can mess with him, and that's what Bo loves. He loves to be able to mess with guys, so that's a good thing right there."

They both want the same thing. They both want to be the best. They both want to win. Time is running out for each of them.


bbrookover@phillynews.com

@brookob

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