THE PHILLIES took four straight from the first-place Mets at home last week—late August, no school, a live body in every seat—and suddenly they were in it, trailing New York by two. Off to Miami, for three with the Marlins, bottom-feeders this year. The opener was last Friday night, and at 7:05, the advertised game time, Jimmy Rollins, the Phillies shortstop and leadoff hitter, came to the plate, his 581st at bat for the season. There were 500 people in the stands, maybe. A guy behind the visitors' dugout, in a Phillies cap and a T-shirt that read MUCK THE FARLINS, had a campaign going. ¬∂ "Jimmy Roll, Jimmy Roll, J-Roll for MVP!" ¬∂ A lot of people are thinking that. You can make the case. But Rollins's head, his little ears tucked into his big helmet, was elsewhere.
The South Florida night was warm and humid, and Rollins was wearing a red cotton Nike skully over his close-cropped head, to help keep his helmet in place. He had trimmed his eyebrows to help prevent sweat balls from beading up and dripping into his eyes at inopportune times, such as while eyeing a pitch. He had a batting glove on each hand and two slightly thicker sliding gloves neatly folded in his back pocket. (Got to keep the hands soft for his lady, he'll tell you.) He had Ryan Howard's bat in his hands, a bat that's two inches longer and two ounces heavier than his own 33-inch, 30-ounce model, preferring the longer lumber for off-speed pitchers who live on the outside part of the plate, like the Marlins' Friday night starter, righthanded sinkerballer Sergio Mitre. Rollins, a switch hitter, had a simple plan for the game's first pitch: take. If Mitre threw ball one, he had a plan for the second pitch: take again. He was looking to get something started. When Rollins scores in the first inning, it bodes well for the Phils. Through the Mets series, their record was 21--13 when he does.
He smiled at the home plate umpire, Paul Nauert. "We gonna start this thing?"
He was ready for the game, for the series, for the pennant chase.
September 9, 2007
Nauert replied, "First pitch is seven-oh-seven." A TV thing, of course.
Rollins continued to smile, perfect teeth. "What, they fine you if you start early?"
"Actually, they do."
Rollins kept smiling. You do what you can to stay on their good side.
Finally the game's first pitch was delivered, a sinker away. Ball one. Then strike one. Then ball two. And then the fourth pitch, a sinker off the plate that Rollins—5'7" and a muscular 170 pounds—might have just nicked with his own bat but instead hit to the left-center wall for a double. He went to third on a groundout and home on another one, and at 7:13 the score was 1-0. Twenty-seven Marlins outs later it was Phils 9, Fish 2.
For the night J-Roll had three hits; helped turn three double plays; got caught stealing despite a textbook, use-my-sliding-gloves-for-my-lady headfirst slide; was flipped in the air by a Florida base runner; stopped a run by keeping a single in the infield; and crawled to short after Kyle Kendrick made the last out in an inning, an old pro's move to give his pitcher a blow. MVP? For game number 134, for sure.
The Phillies were horrible early (11--14 in April). Howard got off to a woeful start, then missed two weeks in May. Chase Utley, Rollins's double-play partner, who had a .336 batting average and .577 slugging percentage at week's end, missed nearly all of August. Forty-five players have spent time on the 25-man roster this season (injuries, demotions, trades, more injuries). And somehow by last Friday night the Phils were 11 games over .500. All year they've had one rock: Mr. Jimmy, 28, in his seventh full season in the majors, all with the Phils, a pro's pro. With AI, the former Sixer, exiled to Denver, and D. McNabb, the Eagles quarterback, at a career crossroads, J-Roll is the most popular athlete in Philadelphia at the moment, the best thing going, along with the slugger Howard and Utley.
Rollins woke up Saturday afternoon in a hotel in quiet North Miami Beach, far from the sashaying shoppers and loud clubs of South Beach, where many other teams stay. It was Sept. 1, and the Phils still trailed the Mets by two games in the National League East.
Rollins ate raw fish at lunch and said, "July first, you're two games out, there's still a lot of baseball left. August first, you're two games out, there's still a lot of baseball left. September first, you're two games out, you're in the race. We have a chance. I said that thing at the start of the season—'We're the team to beat.' I challenged my team. I challenged the Mets. It's made the whole season juicy, that one sentence. But I stand by it. You want to win, you're going to have to beat us. Now we're in the last 10 meters of the 100, and everybody's sprinting, full-out."
AS THEY SAY in Spain—and Rollins took Spanish in high school and improved it while playing winter ball in Venezuela one off-season—Yesterday is not today. On Saturday night, the middle game of three, and the Marlins actually drew a crowd, later announced as nearly 25,000. There were thousands of fans with cheap plastic maracas in hand and Latin music was in the air, reverberating through a cavernous stadium built for the NFL's Dolphins. When Rollins stepped in to begin the second game of the series, the Phils were already playing catch-up. The Mets had won an afternoon game against the Braves in Atlanta.
In his first at bat Rollins again gave his team a jolt. He worked the count full and then homered to right, his 25th of the year—this one with his own bat. By night's end he had four hits, raising his average to .300. He stole his 28th base. He knocked in three, bringing his RBI total to 79, and scored another, boosting his major league-leading total to 118. An underrated defensive shortstop, admired by Phillies' pitchers for his excellent positioning, he was flawless with the glove. MVP? There's still a month to go.
But on a beautiful Saturday evening in Miami, the visitors lost 12--6, maracas in their ears all night long.
The Phillies can score runs; their home park is tiny, and they average 5.5 runs-per-game, third-best in baseball. But their pitching staff, with its 4.85 ERA (second-worst in the NL), is somewhere between spotty and woeful, and always piecemeal. Talk about pitching by committee. The Phillies have used 28 pitchers this season—four of whom have been the nominal closer at one point.
"I had a good game," Rollins said, walking through the bowels of the stadium, heading for the team bus. "So what? I didn't do what I did for myself. I did it for the team. And we lost. So what I did, it doesn't mean s—."
He was wearing a snug, long-sleeved black T-shirt, sparkling diamond studs in his ears, a massive white-gold crucifix (a fashion statement, not a religious one) around his neck, an iPhone clipped to his thick brown belt, jeans that cost more than your TV. He's making $8 million this year. His girlfriend, Johari Smith, a trainer at Springside, a highly regarded private girls school in Philadelphia, was in Puerto Rico with the fiancée of resurgent leftfielder Pat Burrell and some other gals, for a bachelorette party. Rollins was in a city he enjoys. All was right in his world, except for one thing: He had never played an inning of postseason baseball in his life, and now the Phils were three back, and it was September, and the baseball microscope was out. He had, as the old-time ballplayers say, the red-ass.
THE PHILLIES' fan base is overwhelmingly white and middle-class; suburban Little Leaguers and their parents, and they have adopted Rollins, working-class in his inner-city boyhood in Oakland, black and proud and eager for somebody from the Phillies front office to ask him questions about the experience of the black baseball player. He said in Miami, "The black player today pretty much has to be a superstar. The role player, the guy off the bench, baseball's not looking to black players in those positions. Baseball has to take the blinders off." He's experienced things in his life that many of his fans have not. In 2005 he missed the wedding of his old teammate, Doug Glanville, to attend the funeral of his first cousin, Jamonie Robinson, a reformed drug dealer, Rollins says, whose life ended with a half dozen bullets in his body.
His nature is sweet. J-Roll has little cheek kisses for his teammates' girlfriends, chitchat for all the boys on the club. Whenever he comes to Miami, he goes to the cozy home of a Dominican man named Pascual Villalona, a retired garment worker who loves baseball and whose wife cooks oxtail stew, fried plantain and queso frito (fried cheese) for Rollins. As he and Pascual played dominoes last Friday night, Rollins said, "Every time I come to your house, I kill the Marlins' pitching."
Don't get the wrong idea. He's not Buck O'Neil, all folksy and wise and quaintly superstitious. Rollins can be snippy. He can go to the mall and do some serious damage. He's got his music label, Bay Sluggas Inc. He's a modern millionaire athlete. Rollins has it all—-except the ring.
SOME GAMES are decided in the first, and more are decided in the ninth. Sunday afternoon at Dolphin Stadium, with two outs, the bases loaded and the Phillies trailing by a run, Jimmy Rollins, the Phils' hottest hitter, came to the plate with the game on the line. In Atlanta the Mets had already completed a three-game sweep of the Braves. It was a game the Phils needed.
Rollins, facing Kevin Gregg, took ball one, then ball two, then ball three, except that the home plate umpire, Rob Drake, called the third pitch, above the letters and near Rollins's shoulders, a strike. Rollins started jawing with Drake, while saying to himself, Don't say the wrong thing. He's the cop. He's got all the power. Don't get yourself thrown out. He flied out to center on a full-count pitch, and the game—and the series—was over. After taking four from the Mets, Philadelphia had lost two of three against the Marlins, the last one 7--6.
"He threw me six straight balls, but the bottom line is I -didn't get the job done," Rollins said. He was wheeling a Louis Vuitton bag, heading to the team plane for a Labor Day game in Atlanta, followed by two more. He was carrying one of his bats, all taped and pine-tarred, with a white handle and a black barrel and his name in gold letters. The Phils had arrived in Miami two games back and were leaving four games back. A disaster, really.
"This one's over—nothing you can do about that," he said. An afternoon shower, a timepiece of the South Florida summer, was passing through. "We've got a little under 24 hours to get ourselves ready for the next one. There's the division. There's the wild card. It doesn't matter how you get there, as long as you're playing for a ring."
He walked out of the stadium and gave the bat and a hug to his Dominican buddy Pascual, and he was gone, off to the next city, the chase and the dream dimmed, but still on.
The Phils CAN SCORE RUNS; they average 5.5 runs per game. But their pitching is somewhere between spotty and woeful, and always piecemeal.
"I said that thing at the start of the season—'We're the team to beat.' It's made the whole season juicy, that one sentence. BUT I STAND BY IT."
The arms race is on in the AL East; Tom Verducci looks at Boston's Clay Buchholz.
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