The Meaning of Jimmy Rollins

The New York Times

October 30, 2009

By Doug Glanville

If you were offended by Jimmy Rollins’s prediction to………

For a game that can immortalize you, baseball offers an awfully short shelf life. Although I stayed on the major league shelf for nine years, not including my final two-month spring training run with the New York Yankees, I never quite made it to that spot that is forever. But there is more than one way to establish such permanency. You can play yourself into the long-term collective consciousness of fans as a superstar — or you can mentor someone younger and faster and help keep his star burning brightly.

Not that it is always in your control.

In 1998, Jimmy Rollins and I crossed paths in spring training with the Phillies. I was still absorbing the trade from Chicago, where I’d been for two seasons. I knew only a handful of players on the Phillies roster — a few guys like Gregg Jefferies, whom I’d played against when I was a Cub, and people like Lenny Dykstra, whom I’d watched on TV as a teenager. Jimmy, drafted out of high school in 1996, was all of 17 and eight years my junior. When we broke camp for Philadelphia, Jimmy was out of sight and mind. The team sent him back to the minors to continue to improve his game. He wouldn’t make his major league debut until late in the 2000 season.

When Jimmy arrived for that debut, you could tell that he was where he expected to be. But his youthful giddiness could not be suppressed. He talked incessantly — part nervousness, part bursting at the seams to let everyone (including himself) know that he was a major leaguer. His demeanor made me think back to my first call-up in Chicago in 1996. That team was composed of veteran players who wanted rookies to be seen but not heard. I followed the script. Jimmy was part of a new breed, however: Rookie 2.0.

This kind of rookie wasn’t always embraced in a warm and fuzzy way. Once, when Jimmy appeared to be going for the major league record for words spoken in a 10-minute period, Scott Rolen could not take it anymore. We were all in the same batting practice group, and throughout the round Jimmy would talk to every ball he hit. “Ooh, look at that.” “Yeah.” “Don’t come inside.” “Watch out.” “Uh-uh.” I couldn’t tell if he was working on his swing or on his commentary as a play-by-play announcer. He did both with panache.

Most of the time, I just laughed. He kept everything loose, adding something new to the repertoire of not only young players in general but especially young African-American players. Jackie Robinson had to stand silent for the door to open, but now players could be volatile and passionate (like a Carl Everett) or garrulous and showy (like Rollins). Neither was my style, but I had more room to “be myself” than the mentors to my generation of black players who didn’t feel so empowered.

But Rolen was tired of Rollins’s background buzz filling up his time to think. So he pulled Bobby Abreu and me aside to take a vote on kicking Jimmy out of our hitting group, which resulted in his exile. This was certainly a first in my experience, but if a key player like Scott couldn’t concentrate, then he needed to do what he had to do. Privately, he scolded Jimmy for his endless chatter, adding that no rookie should feel so comfortable. Even veterans with eight years in the game don’t talk that much, Scott explained, which was probably true.

For a couple of days, Jimmy wore a long face in the dugout. Instead of announcing what he had done on that last base hit, he was silent.

And just as we were getting used to Jimmy being mum, the word party began anew. Every noun, adjective, verb, adverb and preposition was invited, as were more than a few “words” that had escaped Webster’s attention.

Whenever Jimmy was the subject of a post-game interview, I enjoyed listening to him ramble. He had to represent his hometown area of Oakland, and “Oaktown” had its own language. He filled a few word voids with “you know what I am saying” or accented phrases with “sucker-free” words, which is something only people from Oakland understand. But as much as I smiled, I had to put on my Bull Durham-Crash Davis hat and talk to Jimmy about interviewing. Get in, get out, be clear, I advised. I guess I was “so ‘90s.”

Jimmy had too much personality to get in and get out. He could not wait to be seen and heard, so silence was not an option. Neither was sit back and wait, or stay below the radar. He was going to be in your face on the field and in front of the camera. Kevin Jordan and I, discussing our teammates Rolen and Rollins, agreed that while Scott preferred to do his job and then go home to his own space, Jimmy wanted to be “the man,” and couldn’t wait to be a star.

Jimmy had a cousin who produced rap songs out in California and who offered to cut a theme song to be played as Jimmy walked to home plate for each at bat. So “J Reezie” was the only player in the league with his own customized soundtrack. I stuck with my smooth Peter White track.

I had office hours those years with Jimmy. Centerfield during batting practice, be there. Marlon Anderson, Curt Schilling, Robert Person, Wayne Gomes, Brian L. Hunter, Jordan, Rolen, pretty much the whole team was invited to rotate in during batting-practice lulls, but no one participated more than the Four Musketeers — Anderson, Gomes, Person and Rollins.

We talked life, we talked relationships, we talked pitchers, we talked office politics. Oh yeah, and I made sure I took fly balls during at least one group (the team offense was broken into four hitting groups, each hitting for 15 minutes at home and 12 minutes on the road), and worked with the outfield coach for another (I don’t want Jimmy Piersall, my minor league outfield coach, to track me down if he reads this). But for at least one whole group, I felt like Dumbledore to Harry Potter; my position, centerfield, is the safest place to congregate without getting hit by a wayward baseball, so I became the ringleader and de facto team therapist.

Jimmy would often have some wisdom of his own packaged neatly in a one-liner, like his mantra for people who are scared: “Do it afraid.” I just tapped a lot of the teachings passed down from my mentors, like Shawon Dunston or Chuck McElroy. Jimmy didn’t necessarily ask a lot of questions, but would talk about what was on his mind, and I would go from there. We discussed communicating with his brother (a talented first-round draft pick in his own right) and how Jimmy could get through to express that he just wanted the best for him instead of engaging in a conversation that devolved into a circular debate.

Watching “J-Roll” become the superstar player he is today is very rewarding. He is my conduit to staying on that shelf of baseball life. On his own shelf are an M.V.P. trophy, an “MTV Cribs” appearance (which was his destiny), a Playboy photo with his fiancée (with clothes), TV commercials, numerous all-star appearances, a Gold Glove and that holy grail, a World Series ring. I feel timeless when I see a protégé like Marlon Byrd grow to be a mature husband, father and a fantastic, steady player with Texas. And now Jimmy is doing his thing. Those two players, with whom I shared all the secrets I knew about the game of baseball, have paid me back with interest.

Jimmy’s breakthrough year was 2004, my last with the Phillies. When the final out of the season was recorded, I found Jimmy and gave him a big hug. I told him how proud I was of him and how he had put it all together and become a force in this league.

He has continued to grow as a player and a man. He may not go about the game the way I did, but that’s fine — he came along at a different time, when he could be himself and do the things he does best for millions to enjoy: perform, talk and love the camera back.

New York Times 10/30/2009


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