Monday, April 13, 2009

Baseball Isn't About Feeling Good

At the beginning on the 2007 baseball season, after the Mets had won the NL East Division easily the prior year, Jimmy Rollins said this:

"The Mets had a chance to win the World Series last year. Last year is over. I think we are the team to beat in the NL East, finally. But, that's only on paper."

The Phillies then won the division by one game and Rollins was named the 2007 NL Most Valuable Player.

In 2008, Johan Santana signed with the Mets and their center-fielder Carlos Beltran, flush with the excitement landing a marquee Ace brings, said:

"So this year, to Jimmy Rollins, we are the team to beat."

Now, this is pretty tame stuff, I'll grant you. Baseball doesn't lend itself to the sort of grandiose predictions and boasts that football or basketball often do. It's the nature of the game; hitting the ball a third of time you bat is an excellent accomplishment and the season essentially lasts a half year, so getting all Namathy and guaranteeing a victory is both useless and antithetical in many ways. But what Rollins said in response while in spring training is the stuff of legend:

"There isn’t a team in the National League that’s better than us. The pressure’s back on them if you ask me. They were on paper the best team in the division last year and they were supposed to win, and they didn’t. One, there are four other teams in our division who are going to make sure that doesn't happen, and two, has anyone ever heard of plagiarism? That was pretty good, especially coming from him. He's a quiet guy, so it was probably shocking when he said it. Not shocking in a bad way, like 'Wow, I can't believe he said that.' More like, 'Wow, he finally said something because he's a leader on that team and you definitely need to be a vocal leader."

In one fell swoop he decimated Beltran - who is an excellent player - the Mets and the entire National league. That year, of course, the Phillies went ahead and won the World Series.

So the question I want to ask here is this: Why isn't Jimmy Rollins a bigger deal? Because he damn well should be.

Hell, earlier this year Davey Johnson, in a fit of what we'll call Larry Brown-type myopia, started what appears to be the corpse of Derek Jeter over Rollins at short.

Baseball, perhaps more than any other professional team sport, suffers from a surplus in terms of recognition. It's not just the huge rosters and the ever-changing lineups; football is essentially nine faceless men and a couple recognizable position players. It's also the fact of the teams themselves, at no point does there seem to be any focus on more than a couple for any reasonable period of time from the national sports media. For most of the decade, in fact, those teams have both been in the AL East. This sounds more unkind that I mean it, because I can't really blame the press for doing so- following baseball takes work. The kind of time that young kids and older men have in abundance, who memorize lineups and stats and take score at the game and things of that sort. Ask any baseball fan in his/her mid or late twenties or early thirties who the Cardinals have at left and they'll probably look back at you blankly. Some won't be able to name their team's starting nine. But you can bet your ass when they were 13 they knew that back and forth. Football is easier to watch, easier to follow, easier to field a fantasy team. All that means, at least as far as this essay goes, that no one is really getting stories on a team unless that team is the Yankees or the Red Sox.

And somehow the Phillies are essentially a small market squad. Last year's WS matchup with the Rays was basically murder to the MLB brass looking for ratings; no one on a national level cares about them. Cole Hammel, the handsome white pitcher, got a cover story on SI after they won, and Rollins did too in 2007 when he won that MVP we've discussed so much. You know who the last Philly on the cover of SI was? Not Howard. Think later. Think Steve Carlton, in 1983. Philly as a city is so obsessed with the Eagles that they themselves don't apparently care about their baseball team. Anecdotally, a friend of mine who was born and raised in Philadelphia evidenced this to me without even knowing. As the Phillies made their WS run, he was happy and casually supportive. When the Eagles lost to the Cardinals, he was almost put on suicide watch. (This could snowball to a rather unkind diatribe of the fans in Philly, and I won't do that. At least not now.)

Rollins, though, should be above this. As a baseball player, he's among the game's elite and for my money the best shortstop in the NL. He has all five tools (the most notable of which is his speed - he's transcendentally fast), plays the game beautifully and is maturing; winning Gold Glove awards while hitting more home runs, lowering strikeouts, moving the runner over more, taking walks, etc.. All that, though, takes a backseat to his personality, and I mean that in the best possible sense. Jimmy Rollins is funny. He's smart, he's quick in interviews, he's the sort of guy who can transmit in 5 second the type of creativity and humor that shows like The Best Damn... can't manage in a full hour; the type of person who has the laconic ebullience Kobe and Bron and countless other NBA players wish they had. He's the one player who you half-want to retire so you can watch him instead of Kruk on Baseball Tonight. That clip a few posts down from the Dick's Sporting Goods commercial is notable because his version of getting hit with a baseball from a pitching machine is substantially funnier than professional comedian Adam Sandler's.

Growing up in Oakland while the Athletics were at their most recent championship form, Rollins idolized Henderson. Now, Ricky has himself over the years become an industry of self-parody; he started referring to himself in the third person before anyone. He also played the game in a hubristic, flashy way that was worth watching even if you didn't like baseball: snapping the glove quickly from his side to catch pop-ups (and every now and again missing the ball while trying to be so cool), wearing retina-searingly bright batting gloves to run the bases, stealing with an intent and purpose that bordered on sinister, sliding headfirst every single time; Ricky was one of a kind. Rollins, to his eternal credit, shares with Ricky none of the self-aggrandizing nonsense or third person speech patterns, but has quietly taken a bit of style and flash for his own. He runs with a low center of gravity that suggest a running back and slides with the abandon of youth, he hits and fields with a dialed-down intensity and grace that calls to mind a very powerful engine running in a low gear. He plays the game Ricky would have played if Ricky didn't believe Ricky was the best baseball player in the world.

Rollins, I hope, will get his due. The type of player he is with the type of personality he has doesn't come around often. I won't exhort you to watch him any chance you get - remember, following baseball is hard - but what I will say is: while Jimmy Rollins is around, we should be paying attention.

1 comment:

Obscenity Bat said...

Indeed, when Rollins was named the 2007 NL Most Valuable Player it was at the end of one of the greatest all-around seasons in baseball history. Since 1901, only three players have ever completed seasons with at least 120 runs, 30 doubles, 20 triples, and 40 stolen bases, and Rollins is the only infielder. (Not surprisingly, Ty Cobb did it twice, in 1911 and 1912.)

Cobb, 1911:
147 Runs, 248 Hits, 47 2B, 24 3B, 8 HR, 127 RBI, 83 SB, .420 BA

Cobb, 1912:
120 Runs, 226 Hits, 30 2B, 23 3B, 7 HR, 83 RBI, 61 SB, .409 BA

Kiki Cuyler, 1925:
144 Runs, 220 Hits, 43 2B, 26 3B, 18 HR, 102 RBI, 41 SB, .357 BA

Rollins, 2007:
139 Runs, 212 Hits, 38 2B, 20 3B, 30 HR, 94 RBI, 41 SB, .296 BA