Saturday, November 13, 2010

Hot Corner Gold Glover

Scott Rolen is the greatest defensive 3rd baseman that I have ever seen in my lifetime.

For any real fan of baseball, and especially for those who both know me and my passion for what I regularly call "The Greatest Game That God Ever Invented", you'll know that is no small statement for me to make.

It is also a fairly controversial statement. After all, this is the town where Phillies legendary 3rd baseman and Baseball Hall of Famer Michael Jack Schmidt played for all of his nearly 18 big league seasons, and I got to see him in every one of those seasons.

It is also controversial because my lifetime takes in the majority of the career of another Baseball Hall of Famer, the legendary Baltimore Orioles 3rd sacker Brooks Robinson. During their careers, Schmitty was a 10-time Gold Glover at 3rd base, including 9 in a row from 1976-1984 and Brooks won the Gold Glove a record 16 times at the hot corner, all consecutively from 1960-1975.

In fairness, it's difficult for me to comment on any first-hand witnessing of Robinson's greatness. I didn't really begin following baseball until the 1970 season when I was 8 years old and Brooks was playing at age 33 in his 15th MLB season. Even after that, in those pre-cable TV days the only time I got to see him was on the occasional Game of the Week or other national TV broadcast such as the All-Star Game or the playoffs. I will toss in this caveat, that my pick Rolen has a ways to go to match the number of Gold Gloves won by Brooks Robinson.

I did get to watch Mike Schmidt's entire career here in Philly. I was 10 years old when he broke in for a September 1972 call-up, and 27 years old when he retired early in the 1989 season. I probably saw Schmitty play in more than a hundred games at Veteran's Stadium over the years, and in hundreds more on television. He was incredible at the hot corner, a human vacuum cleaner with a cannon for an arm, tremendous instincts, and uncommon athleticism. He could charge a slow roller and make the bare-handed pickup and throw in one motion play as well as anyone who ever played the game.

My opinion on Rolen is no knock on Schmitty, who in my books is simply edged out just slightly, and who comes in 2nd out of the hundreds that I have seen play 3rd base.
 Schmidt was certainly a stronger offensive player, and was just as good a baserunner. He is the greatest all-around 3rd baseman that I ever saw play, and in fact is the greatest ballplayer to ever don a Phillies uniform, period.

I also got to see a number of other great 3rd baseman over the years. Some of those who stand out for their glove work include Doug Rader, Craig Nettles, Buddy Bell, Robin Ventura, and Terry Pendleton. And in today's game, both Evan Longoria of Tampa Bay and Ryan Zimmerman of Washington continue the baseball tradition of great athletes at the hot corner making unbelievable plays. Given health, those last two guys will have a bunch of Gold Gloves to their credit before their careers are finished a decade or more from now.

Zimmerman won his first of what many assumed would be a long line of consecutive National League Gold Glove Award honors following the 2009 season. But he was at least temporarily slowed down when the 2010 recipients were announced this past week. When the 2010 NL Gold Glove Award winners were announced, it was Scott Rolen who was honored with his 8th career award.

Some Phillies fans will never, ever give Rolen his due. That is somewhat understandable if you know the dynamics of the player's career and his relationship with the town's passionate fans. Scott Rolen broke in with the Phils at the tail end of the 1996 season. In 1997 he was the NL Rookie of the Year, but played for a club that won just 68 games, finished 33 games out of first place, and drew just 1.4 million fans, the lowest franchise attendance total since 1973.

Rolen was an undeniable talent at that point. The 6'4, 240-lb Midwest kid from Indiana played with passion and athleticism. His bat boomed with the promise of a perennial 30-homerun season hitter. He ran the bases as well as any player in the big leagues. And man, could he play defense. He more overpowered the position than played with grace and fluidity. He attacked balls, dove for them, charged them, overwhelmed them. He was the future in Philly, and in his 2nd full season of 1998 won the first of his Gold Glove Award honors.

The problem, however, was that Rolen was mostly alone in Philadelphia as a winner. He and pitcher Curt Schilling often appeared to be the only two players who played with both obvious passion for the game combined with excellence on the diamond. Many fans, including myself, embraced them as the two beacons of light on the team, the two biggest reasons to go out to the ballpark and spend your good money on the franchise in those days.

Rolen's first break-in season of 1996 through the 2000 season resulted in five years in which the club finished a combined 106 games below the .500 mark, and the frustration began to grow on the young 3rd sacker. He added another Gold Glove in 2000, but had watched that summer as the team traded away it's lone other All-Star caliber player and it's only legitimate starting pitcher when Schilling was dealt to Arizona. Rolen, and the club's increasingly disgruntled fan base, began to question management and ownership's commitment to fielding a winning ballclub.

Then in 2001, things finally looked like they might be changing. The 2001 Phillies led by Rolen, rightfielder Bobby Abreu, and a speedy young shortstop named Jimmy Rollins battled for the NL East title right down to the final weeks of the season. On the emotional evening of Monday, September 17th, Rolen homered twice and led the Phillies to victory in a first-place showdown with the Atlanta Braves in front of a frenzied full house at The Vet that included my wife and I in attendance on baseball's first night back following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The club ultimately fell short, but won 86 games, and Rolen was rewarded with his 3rd career Gold Glove.

That 2001 highlight season in Philadelphia would prove to be the final one for the 3rd baseman. Despite the team showing it could begin to move forward and compete on the field, the front office continued to wring it's hands, doing nothing to add to the talent base. Schilling had won a World Series in 2001 with the Diamondbacks, and Rolen saw nothing happening in Philly that pointed towards the same happening here any time soon. His displeasure towards ownership and management got more and more vocal, and he demanded a trade, preferably to a franchise market closer to his Midwestern roots.

Just before the 2002 trade deadline, the Phillies finally cut their ties, trading Rolen to the Saint Louis Cardinals for three players, including Placido Polanco. The Cardinals loved Rolen, and he loved them. He signed an 8-year, $90 million contract at the end of 2002 season which saw him selected to his first All-Star team, win his first Silver Slugger as the best offensive 3rd baseman in the game, and finally his 4th Gold Glove Award. He won All-Star and Gold Glove honors in both 2005 and 2006 as well, and finally reached the ultimate when the 2006 Cardinals won the World Series.

Many here in Philly will always hold a grudge against Rolen for wanting out of town, and for going public with that sentiment. Turn your back on us, and many of us will not only hope you get your wish to leave, but also will happily drive you out or pay your way out, and will never let you forget that you asked to leave for the rest of your career or life. The usual media suspects in town did a nice job at the time, and some have continued the idea, of portraying Rolen as a crybaby quitter. To me, Rolen was exactly what Schilling was - a winner stuck in a loser organization that made no commitment to win for years, and that was showing no signs of doing it any time in the near future. But instead of rallying around their stars, many of the fans and in the media turned on them in spite of the team's apparent commitment to losing.

So Rolen and Schilling both moved along with their All-Star careers and won their World Series away from Philadelphia. For Rolen, the 2007 season was a lost one as injury woes particularly to his shoulder wrecked his year from the outset. Manager Tony LaRussa began to question Rolen's commitment to the game, questioning the repeated injury problems. Finally in January of 2008, Rolen was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays. He spent another mostly injury-marred season and a half in Toronto, never able to return to more than flashes of his early career brilliance. Finally at the trade deadline in 2009, Rolen was dealt to Cincinnati.

It was a curious move at the time, with many wondering why the young, rebuilding Reds would take on a player apparently on the decline at the trade deadline during a year in which they were not in contention. But Reds management believed that they had an up-and-coming team, believed in Rolen's talent and quiet leadership-by-example approach, and saw a perfect fit. They were rewarded with a tremendous comeback 2010 season in which a rejuvenated Scott Rolen helped lead the Reds back into the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade, and for which he was rewarded with that 8th Gold Glove.

For any Phils fan with an honest memory and who saw Scott Rolen play during those first five years of his career here in Philadelphia, and who is a baseball fan able to appreciate what he did the next few years at Saint Louis, and who got to enjoy this past comeback season with the Reds, you simply must acknowledge what the man is between the lines of a baseball diamond.

Many can successfully argue the cases for Mike Schmidt and Brooks Robinson being better defensive 3rd basemen than Scott Rolen. They will point to more Gold Glove Award honors and will fall back on Hall of Fame careers for those players. I won't spend a lot of time arguing, because I truly appreciate those two men and their place in the game, and I honestly value their greatness, including as defensive players at 3rd base.

But again, I have watched this game now for over four decades. I have seen great ones come and go. I have seen good ones shoot onto the scene and have a great season or two or three. I have seen tremendous offensive players have mediocre defensive seasons and still be rewarded with Gold Glove honors based more on offensive prowess or past reputations. For me, Scott Rolen is the best glove, arm, and athlete that I have ever seen at the hot corner in all my years of enjoying this great game, and I will take that opinion to my grave.

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