When Scott Rolen was in his absolute prime, Sports Illustrated said of him, among other things, that he “could have played shortstop with more range than Cal Ripken.” When he was with the Cardinals following his somewhat unfairly contentious departure from Philadelphia, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch asked where Rolen ranked among his era’s third basemen, then answered: the best at the moment.
Rolen’s overdue election to the Hall of Fame Tuesday still inspired carping enough among the philistines who think it was just another case of defining the Hall down. Maybe he wasn’t charismatic. He certainly wasn’t the cheerleading or the self-promoting type. But he was just as SI‘s Tom Verducci described him in 2004, “a no-nonsense star who does it all.”
That’s practically what they said about legendary Tigers second baseman and Hall of Famer Charlie Gehringer, too. He was so no-nonsense he was nicknamed the Mechanical Man. Rolen was many things at the plate and in the field. Merely mechanical wasn’t among them.
“Rolen played with an all-out intensity,” wrote The Cooperstown Casebook author Jay Jaffe, “sacrificing his body in the name of stopping balls from getting through the left side of the infield . . . and he more than held his own with the bat as well, routinely accompanying his 25–30 homers a year with strong on-base percentages.”
This son of Indiana schoolteachers did little more than let his preparation and his play do most of his talking. It’s worth repeating further that he didn’t blow up the nearest inanimate objects when a swing missed, a play faltered, or a game was lost. He played to win, but he lived what most confer lip service upon: let’s get ’em tomorrow. I say it again: if Rolen was a fighter pilot, he’d have earned a reputation as the classic maintain-an-even-strain type. The Right Stuff.
He has the numbers to support it, too, at the plate and in the field, where he knew what he was doing with a bat in his hand and didn’t sacrifice his body at third base or on the bases for naught. Once, he dropped into a slide into second base that wasn’t aggressive or out of line but so forceful that he flipped Royals second baseman Tony Graffanino and knocked shortstop Gerónimo Berroa down. Observed Verducci, “[It was] like a bowling ball picking up a 2-5 combination for the spare.”
“Berroa had this look on his face,” said Cardinals pitcher Matt Morris to Verducci, “like, I didn’t even hear the train whistle!”
First, let’s review Rolen one more time according to my Real Batting Average (RBA) metric: total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances. This table shows where he stands among all Hall of Fame third basemen who played in the post-World War II/post-integration/night-ball era:
You see it right. RBA has Rolen as the number-four offensive third baseman of the group and seven points ahead of the average RBA for such Hall third basemen. You can do an awful lot worse than to say you weren’t quite as great a batter as Mike Schmidt, Chipper Jones, and Eddie Mathews. But you can’t exactly carp when you shook out slightly better at the plate than George Brett, Ron Santo, Wade Boggs, Paul Molitor, and Brooks Robinson.
Now, let’s put Rolen at third base. Only one of those Hall of Famers has more defensive runs above his league average than Rolen does (+140) above his—Robinson (+293). And, only two of them join him among the top 24—Schmidt (+129) and Boggs (+95). The eye test told you that Rolen was willing to throw himself under a train to make a play at third. It also told you what the meds confirmed in due course, that injuries were going to grind him into a harsh decline phase, as happened after his last solid St. Louis season.
“[He’s] the perfect baseball player,” then-Brewers manager Ned Yost said of him not long after he reached the Cardinals in the first place. “It’s his tenacity, his preparation, the way he plays. He tries to do everything fundamentally sound. And he puts the team first—there’s no fanfare with him.”
Maybe the Phillies should have had Yost to lean upon instead of Larry Bowa (manager) and Dallas Green (advisor) during Rolen’s first six-and-a-half major league seasons. Green especially dismissed him in 2001 as “satisfied with being a so-so player. He’s not a great player. In his mind, he probably thinks he’s doing OK, but the fans in Philadelphia know otherwise. I think he can be greater, but his personality won’t let him.”
That was at a point when Rolen struggled at the plate though he was making plenty of plays at third base. Rolen finished that season with a splendid enough .876 OPS and the second of his eight Gold Gloves. His personality won’t let him. Again, the misinterpretation of Rolen’s even strain as indifference.
Call it a classic case of not knowing what you had until he and you were both gone, but Bowa offered a far different assessment upon Rolen’s Cooperstown election. “To be honest with you,” Bowa told MLB-TV, “I thought he should have gotten in a few years ago. I was very happy for him.”
This guy is the ultimate professional, played the game the right way. As a manager, as a coach, you looked at guys like that, very few mental mistakes, always on top of his game. Played the game as hard as you could play for nine innings. There was really nothing Scott couldn’t do on the baseball field. He was a hitting machine, he drove in runs, hit lots of doubles, unbelievable third baseman. He had a tremendous pair of hands, a great arm. If he didn’t play a game, it was because he had an injury or something like that. This guy posted every day. His work ethic, off the charts. This guy was a tremendous baseball player.
That’s the manager who ripped Rolen a few new ones and demanded then-Phillies GM Ed Wade trade him, after Rolen called out the Phillies’ penny-pinching anticipating the arrival of Citizens Bank Park. “Fans deserve a better commitment than this ownership is giving them,” Rolen told then-ESPN writer Jayson Stark. “I’m tired of empty promises. I’m tired of waiting for a new stadium, for the sun to shine.”
In St. Louis, Rolen found a home and three postseason trips including a World Series ring, yet he ran afoul of manager Tony La Russa, who soured on him for—the horror!—injuries he incurred during honest competition on the field. Then-GM John Mozeliak eventually traded him to the Blue Jays, a deal Mozeliak came to regret by his own admission.
When former Cardinals GM Walt Jocketty landed in Cincinnati and discovered Rolen wanted to play closer to home, he didn’t hesitate to wrest him from the Jays onto the Reds. He helped those Reds to a couple of postseasons while he was at it—even after a brain-scrambling concussion and lower back issues.
If you should happen to be traveling through Smithville, Indiana, you may come upon a facility known as Camp Emma Lou. It’s a retreat built by the Enis Furley Foundation, created by Rolen and his wife Niki in 1999, aimed at children and their families struggling with illness, hardship, and other issues and giving them expenses-paid weekend retreats. The foundation and the camp are named for two of Rolen’s dogs.
That’s also the current Indiana University director of baseball player development, who got the call from the Hall and granted a request from his son immediately following a call to his parents with the news. “[I]t’s about thirty degrees here, supposed to snow twelve inches,” he told a reporter, “but there we were, about fifteen minutes after the call, in the driveway having a catch. I’ll remember that forever.”
It’s not every son who gets to have a catch with a freshly-minted Hall of Fame father.