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The Life


June 24, 2002
Phanatics
ESPN The Magazine

Last Year? History. Last Night? In The Books. Tonight? 110%.

These words to live by, presented in needlepoint and preserved in an ordinary glass frame, sit on a filing cabinet in the corner of Larry Bowa's office at Veterans Stadium. It's a simple code for the Phillies manager -- the 2001 NL Manager of the Year -- to glance at as he leaves the office and heads into his team's clubhouse. You'd have to search hard for irony in this creed were it not for the words coming out of Bowa's own mouth in that very office, during a lengthy conversation about his outwardly unhappy third baseman Scott Rolen.

Bowa's telling you, in a roundabout way, that he's having trouble turning the page on something. "Last season," Bowa says, "was the first time Scotty's won more than he's lost at the major league level. And he said it was the most miserable time he's ever spent on a baseball field. I'd have thought no matter how bad things are with your manager, the fact that we were in a pennant race for the first time in his career, it would've been a good experience. I'm sorry, but I don't get that. I find that puzzling."

Scott Rolen
Scott Rolen is ready to pack up the U-Haul.
What's equally puzzling to Bowa is that, before last season, he'd probably have told you the words stitched on his little office knickknack could just as easily be tattooed across Rolen's massive back. Yet, on what seems like a daily basis, Rolen is admitting that he too is having trouble shelving the past. Having trouble forgetting that Bowa ripped him in the papers last year. Having trouble forgetting that off-season contract negotiations he didn't want to be made public seemed to be released in triplicate, making him look greedy to Philly fans in this, his walk year. Having trouble with his teammates recently holding a players-only meeting in Cleveland to address issues related to Scott Rolen, namely a newspaper story in which an anonymous Phillie described Rolen as a clubhouse cancer. Mostly, Rolen is admitting, the events of the past 12 months are affecting his ability to concentrate on the game.

In a hallway outside Bowa's office, Rolen gets borderline misty when he says, "I love this game. The competition. Getting up in the seventh, eighth or ninth inning with a chance to tie the game, or put us ahead, and digging into the batter's box and saying to myself, and to the pitcher, in my mind, 'You're going to get my best right here.' Regardless if I'm 0-for-4 or 4-for-4 before that, this is my best right here. I might pop up or strike out, but this is the best at-bat I have right here. That's why I play this game. For that moment, to stand in there focused and concentrated on that one at-bat. Focus and concentration are so important, but the most important part of the game is the most difficult for me right now. Physically, I'm as healthy as a horse. I feel great in the field, great at the plate. But I'm not sure I'm as sharp mentally as I need to be. I'm ashamed to say, I've let things get to me."

It's been a tragic fall from innocence for Rolen, 27, the former Do No Wrong Kid, who's now booed lustily by home fans, and who wears his unhappiness on his sleeve. Other elements of the saga include a collective "It's not our fault" from Phillies management and a resolute "I will not be beaten" from Rolen. And finally, a foregone conclusion that Rolen's career in Philadelphia is coming to an end -- "When?" being the only unanswered question. Will they trade him by July 31? Or will they milk every last ounce of unhappiness out of his body until he's free to walk at season's end? And to think, it all started with two gamers -- one old-school, one new-school -- who couldn't see eye to eye.

***

Last Year? History.

When the Phillies announced before the 2001 season that they'd hired Bowa to replace Terry Francona, the last thing an outsider would have predicted was a future problem between the new manager and Rolen, the team's best player. In Bowa, you had not only a Phillie icon -- the shortstop on their 1980 world championship team -- but a guy considered one of the all-time gamers. The ultimate blood-and-guts overachiever. And in Rolen, well, Joe Torre once said of the 6'4" third baseman after a Yanks-Phils interleague series, "I'd pay money just to watch Scott Rolen hit the bases when he's running." Gregg Jefferies, a former Phillies teammate, once said of Rolen, "I'll talk about playing with him the way I talk about having played with George Brett. Scott's got that combination of talent and drive you don't see often. He's the best player on the field, and he plays the game harder than anybody I've ever seen." Ed Wade, the Phillies GM, called him "the most mature and level-headed young player I've ever been around." None of this praise even gets into the fact that Rolen was putting up solid offensive numbers in the .285-25-100 range every year while playing Gold Glove third base. It was all about Rolen's makeup. In short, he was Bowa with 10 times the tools.

An outsider, however, wouldn't have seen that the timing for this Bowa-Rolen marriage was all wrong. The term "Walk Year" has become a part of baseball lingo, a mark on every star player's calendar indicating that he's just months away from free agency. The Level II Seamhead, however, understands that in many cases, it's the Year Before the Walk Year that presents the greatest player-club conflict. It's in the YBWY that clubs often decide whether to fish or cut bait with that player. In the case of Rolen, the Phillies most certainly wanted to fish. With a new ballpark set to replace the Vet in 2004, the Phillies made it known that they wanted Rolen to be their cornerstone. And while that was all very flattering to Rolen, he wanted to lay low on the contract front. Free agency is something a player waits six long years for, and no matter how much guaranteed money was going to be thrown his way, Rolen was certain of one thing: He was going to take his time making a decision. Rolen understands now he was na´ve last year, but a couple of things happened to turn the situation ugly. First, the savvy Philadelphia media and fans knew the importance of Rolen's YBWY. "Is he gonna sign, or what?" Everyone wanted to know. And second, Rolen's an honest fellow, perhaps to a fault. When asked if he was going to sign, instead of giving some stock, A-Rod-esque, "The Phillies are my first choice" response, Rolen voiced concerns about the Phillies' small payroll and that the organization had but two winning seasons in the past 15 years.

"You have to have thick skin to roll the dice as a free agent," says Bowa. "Scott's sensitive. I was a coach with Seattle the year A-Rod was going to become a free agent, and he handled it unbelievably well. He said, 'I'm not answering any questions the rest of the year about my contract.' I think if Scotty could do it all over again, one thing he could have done is said, 'I won't talk about my contract. It's not about the contract, it's about me playing this season as hard as I can with the Phillies.' But he's talked about the contract, and it keeps getting brought up. That's why it's a distraction."

Though Rolen's reluctant to say it, his desire to remain a Phillie was also hosed down a bit when a couple of Philadelphia baseball legends (and club employees) took shots at him. In August '01, senior adviser Dallas Green -- a legendary loudmouth who managed the 1980 world champion Phillies -- said on the radio, "Scotty's satisfied with being a so-so player. I think he can be greater, but his personality won't let him." Two months before that, with the Phils in first in the NL East and shocking the baseball world, Bowa was reported by Philadelphia Daily News columnist Bill Conlin to have said, after Rolen came up short with men in scoring position during a series with Boston, "He's killing us." Bowa tells you, "I said, 'The middle of the order is killing us.' And it was. But it was written, 'Rolen is killing us.'" Bowa gets a bemused look on his face and says semisarcastically, "I guess what I should've said is the middle of the lineup isn't hitting to its potential. I guess I chose bad words."

While Rolen is adamant that Green's and Bowa's words were not a huge deal, he concedes that, during the off-season when the Phillies got serious with some long-term offers, "that stuff didn't help. I was uncertain about what to do with my future. A year away from free agency, and they offer me a seven-year contract, guaranteed, with three option years. That's a career. I had a decision to make, coming off a year that was less than pleasurable, where I would commit my career ... I wasn't ready to do that. I wasn't saying yes. I wasn't saying no. I was saying, 'This is too much, too fast.' There were a lot of question marks in my head." And then Rolen says he was blindsided. The astronomical numbers ($140 million) became public record. Phillie fans had their fuel. "I didn't think anything was so clear-cut I should've been reading about it in the paper," Rolen says. The self-described "son of two school teachers from Southern Indiana" was embarrassed. "The money," he says, "it was a lot. Unfathomable in my world. That's why, to me, it was irrelevant. In the big picture I was an idiot not to sign. But I'm not looking to break the bank. I just want to be happy. There's no price tag on that."

***

Last Night? In The Books.

You wonder if Rolen is too gracious, too articulate, too wholesome for his own good. It's about an hour before the Phillies are to play the Orioles, and he's spilling a good bit of his guts. "It's not much fun now," he says. "I'm ashamed to say it, but right now, I feel like I'm going to work every day. And this game has never felt like work to me before. I always saw the ballpark as a playground, a place to hang out. A place to laugh and enjoy the game, and with that came success for me. Earlier this year, we had a clubhouse meeting. Why? Because guys called it for me. I love those guys. They stood up for me and poured their hearts out. But I don't want a meeting called for me. That's a distraction. I don't want to be a black cloud over this team."

That meeting was held June 12 in Cleveland after a suburban Philly newspaper broke a story in which an unnamed Phillie said Rolen had become a cancer (though the C-word was not in quotes) in the clubhouse. Rolen admits the clubhouse is fractured: "I know where that quote came from," he says. And he knows some players think his situation has begun to overshadow the team. But he still has his supporters. "A lot of us just wanted to tell Scott we would stand by him so long as he wears this uniform," pitcher Robert Person says of the players' meeting. "I don't know where that story came from. I do know a lot of us who have gone to war with Scott believe in his character. Even though he's going through a rough time now, he still plays the game as hard as ever."

On this night against the Orioles, Rolen beats the Birds almost singlehandedly, hitting a homer, making three stellar defensive plays and driving home the winning run with a single in the 10th. Much as he would've liked to walk off the field and say, "No biggie, see ya tomorrow," Rolen acknowledges, "I've gone through a lot of business stuff since last year, and you do your best to separate that from the field. But it's gotten personal. I'm a human being with feelings and emotions, and it hurt." After the game-winning knock, however, Rolen went 0 for his next 7, his average slipping below .240.

***

Tonight? 110%.

"His numbers will be where they always are at the end of the year," Bowa insists. "And when he leaves here, I don't know if we'll ever fill that void at third base. If he's not hitting, he's taking away runs with his glove. He's a professional when it comes to his pregame work, looking at film, running balls out, never quitting. If we had 25 guys like that, this would be an easy job. But we don't. There are guys who need to be motivated. We have to kick some of them in the butt. But he doesn't see that philosophy because he knows he doesn't need a kick in the butt. I'll say this: I hope, because he's such a great player, that wherever he goes, he finds that Garden of Eden. I don't know if it's out there."

Rolen is too weary at this point to want to comment on anything regarding Bowa, and besides, he knows their days together are numbered. "I'm not going to start firing guys up now," he says. "Larry Bowa and I are very different people. We're different. We handle situations differently. His style is to be a red-ass. That's not me. If I strike out with the bases loaded, I'm not firing bats and helmets. I don't want to show the pitcher that he beat me. I don't want to show the fans that I was beaten. I don't want to show my teammates I was beaten. Maybe I was blown away.

Or maybe I'm kicking myself for missing a pitch I should've hit. But that's only for me to know. I'm going to have another chance, tonight or some other night, and I don't want anyone to know anything more than they should about what just happened."

But as both Rolen and Bowa know, in this game, it can be difficult to bury the past.

This article appears in the July 8 issue of ESPN The Magazine.



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