Somewhere in Idaho last November the Winnebago crested the
ridge of a mountain pass, revealing the cinematic vista of a
fertile valley sparkling in the midday light. The driver, Scott
Rolen, suddenly pulled the cellphone far from his ear and gazed
slack-jawed upon the expanse. "Look at that!" he said to his
fiancee, Niki Warner, seated beside him. The voice coming out of
the cellphone, full of energy and Brooklyn, was that of Rolen's
agent Seth Levinson, who chattered on. But Rolen did not want to
hear any more about the $140 million offered by the Philadelphia
Phillies that could be his with the mere stroke of a pen.
With the phone still at arm's length and Levinson still
jabbering, Rolen said, "You're breaking up," and clicked off the
phone. The Winnebago rolled on, carrying Scott and Niki; their
two dogs, Emma and Enis; another couple and their dog; and a few
James Patterson thrillers. The purpose of the trip was to put as
many miles as possible between Rolen and the 2001 baseball
season. Despite driving in 107 runs for a contending team,
Rolen, the Phils' 27-year-old third baseman, looks upon last
year as "the most unhappy season of my career."
The Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons, Mount Rushmore,
the one-story motels that welcome dogs and advertise COLOR TV on
their marquees ... for three weeks all of that and more washed
over Rolen like a cleansing rain. "Peace of mind," he says when
asked the reason for the sojourn. "A little Jack Kerouac trip."
Just before he gassed up the RV, Rolen, weary of what he saw as
the franchise's tepid commitment to winning and wounded by his
acerbic manager, Larry Bowa, told the Phillies he didn't want
their money--not even the $140 million they were willing to pay
him over 10 years. His plan was to exercise his right to become
a free agent at the end of this season, his sixth in the majors.
April 21, 2002
Of course, before he could truly get away, Rolen would have to
return for another season under Bowa, setting up one of the most
awkward walk years in recent memory. Consider, for example, the
reception awaiting him at the club's home opener on April 5 in
Veterans Stadium, where Rolen would be introduced to the Philly
fans for the first time since he rejected the organization's
offer. Rolen was so nervous about the crowd's reaction that he
suggested that Niki, whom he married in February, not attend,
and that his parents, Ed and Linda; his sister, Kristie; and
other family members stay home in Florida. All insisted on being
at the Vet, figuring Rolen would need the backing.
Some of the 50,958 fans at that game booed, but most cheered.
Someone in the rightfield seats held up a sign that read I
SUPPORT SCOTT ROLEN. All in all, the day was a success: Rolen
stroked a single and a double and drew three walks (one to force
in a run) in the Phillies' 6-2 win over the Florida Marlins. In
fact, the home opener went better than he had hoped. "I was
anxious," he said afterward. "When it was my turn to be
introduced, I had to hold my breath a little bit. I was very
pleased with the way everything came out."
"As a fan you want to see a guy bust it for nine innings," Bowa
said after the game. "With Scotty, you're not getting cheated.
You may be getting cheated as far as the number of games he's
got left to play here, but you're not getting cheated on effort."
The next morning, though, Rolen said he was prepared for harsher
treatment as the season wore on. "I know it's not over," he
said. "I know if I strike out, they'll boo. I think I learned a
lot last year. It was really the first time I was ever booed."
He went 0 for 4 that afternoon in a 7-3 loss to Florida. Sure
enough, the fans booed.
The Philadelphia fans expressed the ebb and flow of their
feelings toward Rolen in more dramatic fashion last week. On
April 8, with runners at the corners, he drew the wrath of the
Vet crowd by popping up in the ninth inning in a 2-1 loss to the
Atlanta Braves. Two nights later, with the Phillies down to
their last out, Rolen brought the house down with a game-tying
home run off Braves closer John Smoltz; Philadelphia went on to
win 7-5 in 11 innings. At week's end Rolen was hitting .280 with
three homers and nine RBIs as the team stumbled to a 6-7 start.
Respecting Rolen's wishes, Philadelphia general manager Ed Wade
says that during the season he won't try to persuade Rolen to
sign a new deal. Says Wade, "We're fully prepared to play the
whole season with Scotty. That gives us the best chance of
winning. Then we will take our chances convincing him to come
back after the season."
Rolen is a career .285 hitter who has averaged 26 homers and 95
RBIs over his five full seasons in the majors while winning
three Gold Glove awards. "He's the best third baseman in
baseball," Bowa says, even though Rolen has never made an
All-Star team. Last season, when he batted .289, Rolen ranked
seventh among major league third basemen in home runs (25),
fifth in RBIs, sixth in slugging (.498), and third in on-base
"He's gone a little backward offensively--only a very little,"
says one American League general manager, "but he's still a
solid, consistent .280 to .290 guy who'll hit 25 home runs and
play the hell out of the position. Plus, he's a gamer who brings
intensity every day. I'd take him on my team. [Wade] has no
choice but to keep him, unless they totally fall out of the
Says one veteran scout, "When Rolen first came up, he had the
most range of any third baseman I've ever seen. Ever. He could
have played shortstop with more range than Cal Ripken. He may
not have quite the same range now, but it's still big range. And
he has a strong arm." The scout says the 6'4", 226-pound Rolen
is still regarded as a superb base runner but has lost some of
his agility on the bases because of a lower back strain suffered
three years ago. Rolen missed 84 games over the 1999 and 2000
seasons. Last season he played 151 games and experienced no back
Says Marlins third base coach Ozzie Guillen, "I told him last
year, 'You're my favorite player.' He laughed, like I was
joking. I said, 'No, I'm serious.' It's the way he goes about
his business. He gives everything he has every day. I compare
him with Paul Molitor, Robin Yount and Dave Winfield, great
players who always gave their best and played the game the right
Rolen, who in January agreed to a one-year, $8.6 million deal,
had considered signing a contract extension with the Phillies
before last season. According to Levinson, the two sides even
discussed conditions under which Rolen could opt out of his
contract if the Phillies failed to meet certain payroll
standards. Another of Rolen's agents, former Kansas City Royals
infielder Keith Miller, told him what a great thrill it was to
watch teammate George Brett retire as a careerlong Royal. Goose
bumps popped up on Rolen's arms when he thought about a similar
scenario for himself. He told Wade and Philadelphia general
partner Dave Montgomery that he wanted to tip his cap in the
club's new ballpark, which is scheduled to open in 2004, and
eventually retire in a Phillies uniform.
Before last season, however, Philadelphia fired Terry Francona,
a likable, easygoing manager for whom Rolen had played almost
his entire major league career, and replaced him with Bowa. A
former Phillies All-Star shortstop, Bowa cajoled the Phillies to
86 victories, their first winning season since they won the
National League pennant in 1993. He did so in the abrasive
manner that marked his 16-year playing career as well as a
short, unsuccessful stint as manager of the San Diego Padres in
the late '80s. He chapped some players last year by keeping a
log in which he recorded notes about their work habits. Last
June Bowa alienated Rolen when, after the Phillies lost two out
of three to the Red Sox, the manager was quoted as saying, "If
the number four guy"--Rolen--"even makes contact in either
Boston loss, we sweep the series. He's killing us."
"What I said was the middle of our lineup was killing us," Bowa
says. "That's the one thing I regret. I never singled out
Rolen felt that Bowa had made him a scapegoat for the team's
first extended stumble. Two months later Phillies senior adviser
Dallas Green, Bowa's former manager and a key proponent of his
hiring, tacked on his own criticism of Rolen, saying, "Scotty is
satisfied with being a so-so player.... I think he can be
greater, but his personality won't let him." Green and Bowa are
icons in Philadelphia. Rolen soon found himself being booed
Last November, after Levinson relayed the Phils' $140 million
offer, Rolen told him to inform Wade that he was not interested
in negotiating with the team. Wade arranged for a meeting during
which Rolen aired his concerns to Wade, Montgomery and assistant
G.M. Ruben Amaro Jr. "In my heart I had questions about making
that commitment at that time," Rolen said the day after the home
opener. "When you make that kind of commitment--really, it's a
career commitment--you should not have questions in your heart."
Rolen was bothered by the team's recent futility--only two
winning seasons in the past 15 years--and he said so, claiming
that its annual payrolls have not demonstrated "a commitment to
winning." In Rolen's first five full seasons the Phils' payroll
ranked no higher than 18th in baseball. (Their income, including
revenue-sharing receipts, didn't rank higher than 17th.) This
year Philadelphia's Opening Day payroll, just under $58 million,
ranks 17th. Wade says that when the Phillies move into their new
stadium, the revenues will rank "between eighth and 12th, and we
will have a payroll commensurate with our revenues." The
eighth-highest Opening Day payroll this season was $80.3 million.
Montgomery, mindful of frequent criticism of the club for not
spending enough, said the team would announce that Rolen had
rejected a $140 million deal. Rolen was exasperated, believing
the team was more concerned with public perception than with
resolving their differences. Later, Wade also announced that he
would explore trading Rolen at the winter meetings, and did talk
with the Baltimore Orioles and the Seattle Mariners. Rolen said
the team never asked him for names of clubs with which he'd
consider signing a long-term deal, a likely prerequisite for a
On Feb. 16, upon reporting to spring training in Clearwater,
Fla., Rolen held a press conference to air his complaints about
the team's commitment to winning. Four days later TV cameras
captured Bowa and Rolen in a heated on-field discussion and,
later, caught bits of a pointed conversation between Bowa and
Wade about Rolen. In March the Philadelphia Daily News reported
that Bowa and Rolen had stopped speaking to each other.
"Total fabrication," says Bowa, who claims he stopped talking to
Rolen only within sight of reporters to avoid any appearance of
controversy. "I talked to him in the clubhouse, at the back
batting cages.... I talked to him all the time. I let him decide
his spring training schedule, what trips he wanted to make, how
much he wanted to play."
On March 13 Rolen received a call from Phillies first baseman
Travis Lee. "Whoa, are you watching Jim Rome?" Lee asked. Lee
told Rolen what Bowa had said when the TV-show host asked Bowa
what sort of reception Rolen could expect in Philadelphia--that
"guys punching clocks" who rise at 6 a.m. would not take kindly
to a kid turning down $140 million.
Five days later Rolen and Bowa met behind closed doors and, at
times, yelled at each other. "It was brutally honest," Rolen
says. "We both had been acting like children. 'It's not me. It's
you.' 'No, it's not me. It's you.' Well, guess what? It was me,
and it was you. It was both of us. We were acting like little
girls. So [we decided] let's just leave it be."
Rolen and Bowa have reached a detente. They do talk. On the
season's first Saturday, for instance, they had a brief
conversation about a traffic snarl on the way to the ballpark.
Moreover, Rolen hasn't ruled out re-signing with the Phillies.
"I'll have a decision to make when November comes around, not
now," he says. "Only then will I have a better feeling for what
to do. It's what's in your heart that will tell you."
Before driving to the home opener, Rolen had slipped on blue
jeans and a white T-shirt with a picture of Emma, a black lab,
and Enis, a mix of golden retriever and pointer breeds--"for
comfort and support," he said later, smiling. He is a
bibliophile who carts books in Winnebagos and on charter planes
alike. He is currently reading a Stephen King novel, The Stand,
which runs for more than a thousand pages. For Rolen, the plot
"When November comes, I'll have a decision to make," Rolen says.
"Only then will I have a better feeling for what to do."