Scott Rolen, the Phillies, and the Road Not Taken

Eileen Blass / USA TODAY NETWORK

Heading into the 2002 season, Philadelphia Phillies third baseman Scott Rolen faced a major decision that would influence the trajectory of his own career and the direction of the franchise.

Like the subject of Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken,” Rolen stood before two paths. He could have signed a lucrative, long-term extension with the only professional club he’d ever known. For the next decade, he would have been the face of the Phillies, leading the team into its new home at Citizens Bank Park and toward the potential of better days.

The other option was also filled with possibility: the chance to play in another town for another organization with a realistic shot at contending for a title. The concept of free agency had arrived in baseball a little more than twenty-five years prior, and it allowed players who had accrued six years of service time the opportunity to hone their craft elsewhere.

Most people in Rolen’s shoes would have eschewed professional freedom in favor of the financial security the Phillies were offering. According to contemporary reports, the contract before Rolen would have paid him $140 million.

Scott Rolen didn’t think like most people. Unlike Frost’s indecisive traveler, he was resolute: under no circumstances would he sign with the Phillies before entering free agency.

The rejection must have come as a shock to Philadelphia’s front office and ownership group. For the past seven years, Rolen had been billed as the next Mike Schmidt. Like Schmidt, Rolen was a Midwestern kid and a 2nd round draft pick. He had been selected in 1993 and arrived in the big leagues for an abbreviated stint in 1996. In 1997, his first full season in Philadelphia, Rolen was the unanimous choice for NL Rookie of the Year. He sported a .283 batting average, slugged 21 home runs, and drove in 92 runs in 156 games during that campaign.

Patrolling the hot corner, Rolen also flashed defensively. He had incredible range and lightning-quick reaction time, essential ingredients for anyone playing on the fast and unforgiving Veterans Stadium concrete masquerading as Astroturf. Rolen snagged countless hard-hit balls that were destined to roll to the leftfield corner and possessed the arm strength to throw out even the fastest runners. The first of his eight career Gold Gloves would be earned after the 1998 season.

 

At the plate, Rolen would never reach the lofty heights of Mike Schmidt, but that’s no slight: Schmidt was one of one, and it was a disservice to any young player to create such expectations. Rolen’s combination of elite defense, decent hitting, and exceptional baserunning was good enough to cement him as the best third baseman in the National League in the estimation of his manager, Larry Bowa.

Rolen was the kind of ballplayer an old-school taskmaster like Bowa should have revered, someone who “played the game the right way” and gave a professional effort every night. And yet, the two clashed.

In a well-researched biographical article of Rolen on the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) website, author Tim Odzer located a very on-brand Bowa quote expressing frustration with his third baseman after a tough series against the Red Sox. “He’s killing us,” Bowa complained to the press. Odzer further notes that Bowa’s old manager, Dallas Green, who worked in the Phillies front office during that period, shared his own criticisms of Rolen on 610 WIP.

Rolen had run afoul of the old guard, and I remember at the time a lot of chatter about the Phillies’ star player in light of his decision to pursue free agency. He couldn’t handle the criticism and hard coaching of Bowa. He didn’t like Philly and wanted to return to the Midwest. He hated the Vet, especially the turf, which may have contributed to his back problems, and wanted to play on grass.

Rolen insisted none of the rumors were true in a 2002 spring training interview with Jayson Stark, then working for ESPN. Stark coaxed a revealing quote from Rolen that revealed his thought process and the source of his frustrations: a penny-pinching ownership group that wasn’t interested in winning.

Stark writes:

“I looked at this whole thing,” Rolen says. “I looked at history. I looked at the whole deal. And let’s start with a fact. Let’s go back 15 years. Thirteen times in the last 15 seasons, they’ve had losing seasons. That’s history. That’s fact. And that’s a 15-year period. That’s a long time.

“I’m not just a player. I’m a fan. I’m a fan of the game. And the way I look at this is: Fans deserve better than that. Fans deserve a better commitment than this ownership is giving them. I’m tired of empty promises. I’m tired of waiting for a new stadium (not due until 2004), for the sun to shine.”

In 1981, the Carpenter family sold the Philadelphia Phillies to a group headed by Bill Giles. Around this time, Giles had labeled the Phillies a “small-market team” despite their presence in a major city with a passionate fan base. Unlike the deep-pocketed George Steinbrenner, who never met a camera he didn’t like and spared no expense to improve the New York Yankees, the Phillies owners kept a low profile and demonstrated a care with money that could be characterized as cheapness.

Writing in March 2002, The New York Times reporter Murray Chass captured the sad state of affairs in Philadelphia:

“Despite playing in the country’s fourth-largest market, the Phillies last year were 21st out of 30 teams in local revenue, 7th in operating losses and 7th in most money received from baseball’s welfare program, revenue sharing. In the six years in which clubs have shared their local revenue as part of an agreement negotiated with the union, the Phillies have received the ninth-highest total, $39 million, their welfare payments escalating each year, from $1 million in 1996 to $12 million last year.”

Rolen’s assessment of the situation was not entirely wrong. In the thirteen-year period between 1994 and 2006, the Phillies featured a losing record 8 times. With the exception of the strike-shortened ’94 campaign and ’06, the Braves won the NL East every season. Outside of Rolen, the farm system pumped out some decent contributors, but transcendent prospects played elsewhere. The Phillies were never major players in free agency and typically sellers at the trade deadline. In 2000, the club shipped ace Curt Schilling to the Arizona Diamondbacks after Schilling grew tired of the prolonged losing.

Rolen viewed the situation as untenable and the promise of a brighter future empty. Given the history of the franchise at the time, it was hard to blame him. And so, he was determined to walk away, or at least investigate other possibilities. Rather than watching him depart for nothing, Philadelphia would eventually trade Rolen to St. Louis for a small package of players headlined by Placido Polanco.

The move worked out well for Rolen. He had some great years in Philly, but the Cardinals got his best years. He would win a World Series with St. Louis in 2006 and continued to collect Gold Gloves and All Star appearances. In 2004, his best season as a pro, Rolen would hit .314 with 34 home runs and feature a career-best Wins Above Replacement (WAR) of 9.2. He would make additional stops in Toronto and Cincinnati before hanging it up for good in 2012.

Over the course of a 17-year career, Rolen built up an impressive resume that earned him serious consideration for the Hall of Fame. On Tuesday, he received the call to Cooperstown:

In the end, Rolen’s decision to leave worked out well for the Phillies, too. If their third baseman had accepted their contract offer, would Phillies ownership have given the green light to general manager Ed Wade to pursue prize free agent Jim Thome in the 2002-03 offseason? Would the Phillies have committed $85 million to the Cleveland Indians power hitter? Would they have welcomed into the organization Thome’s favorite coach, Charlie Manuel?

It’s possible, but highly unlikely given the team’s track record and budget. The Thome signing changed everything for the Phillies and served as the unofficial launch point for the next era of contention. Jimmy Rollins would blossom into a star as Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, and Cole Hamels would make their major league debuts over the next few seasons. For the first time in years, the fallow farm system produced generational talents that would propel the Phillies to the lofty heights of October baseball. Perhaps the scars from the Rolen experience prompted an organizational rethink and a more aggressive approach toward cultivating and retaining this young core.

Whatever the case, Rolen’s exit and the subsequent investment in Thome served as a turning point. After a chaotic 2004 season that saw a player revolt against the manager, Bowa was dismissed and Manuel ascended to the manager’s chair. As much a baseball traditionalist as his predecessor, Manuel nonetheless possessed an emotional intelligence that made him a great fit for a team on the precipice of contention. In 2008, the promise Rolen could not see became a reality.

Rolen’s decision to take the road less traveled indeed made all the difference — for him and for the Phillies.

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