Appreciating The Excellence Of Jimmy Rollins

Baseball, perhaps more than any other sport, celebrates milestones and statistics — almost defines itself by them — whether it is an all-time mark for the game or for an individual team. That obsession with numbers has helped certain players define certain franchises — Babe Ruth/Derek Jeter and the New York Yankees, Ernie Banks and the Chicago Cubs, Ted Williams and the Boston Red Sox, Tony Gwynn and the San Diego Padres (RIP), etc.

For the Philadelphia Phillies, ignominiously known as the losingest franchise in North American sports history (the Washington Generals notwithstanding), no position player has epitomized the franchise more than Michael Jack Schmidt.

In addition to his 10 Gold Gloves, the Hall of Fame third baseman holds the franchise record for games, at-bats, runs, home runs, RBI, walks, intentional walks, sacrifice flies, total bases and extra-base hits. And up until this past weekend, he also had more hits than other any player for the oldest, continuous, one-name, one-city franchise in professional American sports. Now he is second to the current longest-tenured professional athlete in Philadelphia, James Calvin Rollins.

Jimmy Rollins tied Mike Schmidt's mark of 2,234 hits Friday night in South Philadelphia, with the Hall of Famer and Sunday home analyst Schmidt in attendance. Then, on Saturday, with a single in the fifth inning of a 7-4 victory over the Chicago Cubs, Rollins surpassed Schmidt and set a new franchise mark, one that now stands at 2,237 hits and counting, and Schmidt was on hand to congratulate his successor.

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With names such as Richie Ashburn, Larry Bowa, Pete Rose, Bob Boone, and even Chase Utley and Ryan Howard — not to mention pitching greats Steve Carlton, Robin Roberts, Jim Bunning, Curt Schilling, Roy Halladay, et al — it's easy to gloss over Rollins in the pecking order of Philadelphia Phillies history. But when you really take a look, no position player other than Schmidt has done as much for this notorious franchise.

In addition to now holding the franchise record for hits, Rollins also has the most doubles in franchise history. And, he is second only to Schmidt in games, at-bats, total bases and extra-base hits. (He's also second in stolen bases and third in triples.) The man is, for all intents and purposes, the second most accomplished position player in Phillies history.

Like Schmidt, he was named National League MVP (2007 for Rollins, 1980, '81 and '86 for Schmidt), and like Schmidt, Rollins was an integral piece, the face of the team, for a World Series winner.

Now, no one will ever confuse Jimmy Rollins for Mike Schmidt. They are two exceedingly different types of players — Rollins a rare combination of speed and power with his diminutive yet strong physique, Schmidt the prototypical cleanup slugger standing 6'2" and approaching 200 pounds. They played different positions — albeit both on the left side of the infield and both brilliant with the glove and the arm.

But the two had similar career paths in the City of Brotherly Love. Schmidt got called up to a team that was floundering, playing in 13 games for a 1972 Phillies squad that finished 59-97. In his first full season, the Phils won just 71 games and then still finished on the wrong side of .500 in 1974, going 80-82. It wasn't until 1976 that he got his first taste at the postseason, and it took him more than eight seasons before he could be called a champion, winning the first World Series in franchise history in 1980.

Much like Schmidt, Rollins got his call-up in 2000 for a team that was nothing short of laughingstock. Like Schmidt, Rollins played in just two week's worth of games during his first big-league taste (14), with the Phils going 65-97 in 2000. However, in Jimmy's first full season, the Phils had a big turnaround thanks to a lineup that included all-star-caliber players in Scott Rolen and Bobby Abreu, along with fellow youngster Pat Burrell. An 86-76 campaign was not good enough for the postseason, but it did give the Phillies hopes of good things to come … particularly with a new ballpark on the way in a couple years.

With the additions of Jim Thome and Billy Wagner, the Phillies began to consistently compete — but they could not get over the hump of the Atlanta Braves and/or Florida Marlins under Rollins' mentor, fellow Phillie great Larry Bowa, then the manager and himself a former shortstop. With Rollins anchoring the middle infield, the Phillies became a consistent winning ball club, but it wasn't until Bowa got the ax and Charlie Manuel came in that the Phillies really began to see a culture change.

With the arrivals of Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Cole Hamels, the Phillies had more young talent to surround Rollins, and in 2007, with the Phillies consistently pushing the New York Mets for the top spot in the division, Rollins declared the Phillies the team to beat in the NL East at a time when no one else seemed to think so. All it led to was an MVP campaign and the first of five straight division titles.

Rollins, now an MVP, an all-star and a multiple Gold Glove winner, set the table for that run, which reached its peak with a World Series title in 2008 — the first for the Phils since Schmidt's in 1980 and one of only two World Series victories in franchise history.

While Ryan Howard was the big bat, Chase Utley the best player and Cole Hamels the NLCS and World Series MVP, it was Rollins who was the leader. The Phillies went as Jimmy went, and that was the case from day one. He was determined to change the culture of a terrible franchise the way Schmidt had before him, and he did just that:

"For all these years," said Jimmy Rollins as fireworks crackled through the night, "the part of playing here that upset me the most was that I was always home in October, watching somebody else celebrate.

"But not this year," said the man who first opened his mouth and dared them all to reach for this chunk of the sky. "This year, WE get to celebrate."

No matter your take, there's no denying Rollins was the spark and the one constant that saw a horrid team become a competitive team become a championship team and perennial power. He's had more than his fair share of memorable moments, whether it be his epic glove work, his consistently on-point rocket throws or his clutch hits.

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Yet, during his entire tenure, Rollins has been criticized for seemingly trivial things. From what I've been told from my elders — I was too young to fully appreciate Schmidt, being born in 1984 — Schmidt faced similar circumstances. At times during his career, often because he made the game look so easy, Schmidt would get booed from his home crowd. Think about that, arguably the greatest third baseman in the history of the game getting jeered by his hometown fans.

Similarly, Rollins has had his share of back-and-forth with the Philadelphia faithful. Having seen the doldrums of the Veterans Stadium days to the sold-out streak at Citizens Bank Park and back to a ghost town of a ballpark once more, Rollins knows about the fickle nature of the Phillies fan. And over the years, despite his consistent excellence — be it with the glove or the bat — Rollins has been chastised for everything from not running out ground balls to not working counts to swinging for the fences too much to being late for team meetings. Anytime he pops up, particularly on the first or second pitch, you can hear the masses utter, "There's the Jimmy," which is code for a terrible at-bat. I've been guilty of it, that's for sure.

Of course, Rollins has brought some of this on himself. There are times when he has been his own worst enemy, whether it be his "front-runners" comment (which turned out to be true) or the numerous circumstance in which he has not hustled down the line on a pop-up or a ground out. It's infuriating at times — but it's funny how no one complains when a pitcher trots down the line. And then there are the folks who love to point out how Utley is Rollins' superior in every way, always busting it, always going full-bore. Never mind the fact that, perhaps due to his no-holds-barred style of play, Utley has found himself with more injury woes than the older, more durable Rollins over the years. Maybe Jimmy is smarter than people think, picking and choosing his battles to preserve his body over the course of a 162-game schedule. That may not be what the blue-collar fans want to hear, but it also may be something few have thought about.

Then there's this sort of elephant in the room that sometimes gets play and sometimes gets called race-baiting, but I'm certainly not the first to bring it up. I also think a lot of the criticism thrown Rollins' way has been veiled in racism, either explicitly or subconsciously. When Rollins does something bad, it's always because he's lazy or stupid or stubborn — same with Ryan Howard for that matter. When Chase Utley does something bad, it's always because he was trying too hard, trying to take the extra base, putting forth too much effort. Whether people want to admit it or not, it is something to the effect of Rollins being lazy and/or selfish, with Chase being too intense/in-tune to the game.

Maybe that's just the nature of the beast when you have a guy as good as Utley doing all the little things right. He's the standard for how fans envision themselves playing if they had the opportunity to be a on big league field. Rollins has much more of a graceful style of play, which can frustrate fans when they perceive he isn't playing as hard as they think he should.

That's why, despite being far and away the best shortstop in franchise history and unquestionably one of the best position players to ever don the red pinstripes, Rollins is not universally praised or even necessarily loved. Now don't get me wrong, the majority of Phillies fans appreciate and even love Jimmy Rollins. They realize just how much he's meant to the franchise. But he's always seemed to be overshadowed, whether by his bigger-name teammates or by his bigger-name contemporaries.

But when it all boils down to it, Jimmy Rollins is an all-time great in Phillies history, and arguments can even be made that he deserves a spot next to Schmidt in Cooperstown.

Personally, I never really thought of Rollins as a Hall of Fame player. Phillies Wall of Fame? No doubt. But I never envisioned him with a bust in the Hall. I still don't, though there are arguments to be made, whether it be his comparisons to Barry Larkin or his rankings among shortstops all time. Just the fact that anyone is even mentioning him is proof enough he has been a damn good player for a damn long time.

Jimmy Rollins is no Mike Schmidt. That much is clear. But no matter how you slice it, he's been the single most influential player for his team in his career. Mike Schmidt is synonymous with the Philadelphia Phillies. But for Phillies fans — and baseball fans in general — of this generation, of the new millennium, that mantle belongs to Jimmy Rollins.

He is a three-time all-star, a Silver Slugger, an MVP, a four-time Gold Glover and a champion. And now, he's the Philadelphia Phillies' all-time leader in hits.

We don't know how many more hits he'll add to that total, or even if his final hits will come in the only uniform he's ever known in his MLB career. But we do know that, no matter how you personally feel about the way he's gone about his business, Jimmy Rollins has made his impact felt on his franchise and the game of baseball overall.

He's been brash. He's been flashy. He's been arrogant. And he's been infuriating. But he's also been consistent, the one constant on the reshaping of a joke of a franchise into a perennial threat and World Series champion. In this recently deceased run of the best stretch in Phillies history, Rollins has been at the center of it all, and he deserves the appreciation befitting a franchise's all-time hits leader.

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