Valentines Day is over. The roses are wilted. The photos are ripped. Sometimes things don’t end happily. Sometimes when the magic dies in sports, it does so in a fiery explosion that burns bridges for players, management, and fans.
In that vein, this week we’re going to embrace some heartbreak. We’re looking at some of the more dramatic breakups in Philadelphia sports history. The first one is personal.
The Phillies drafted Rolen in the 2nd round of the 1993 MLB Draft and threw him some extra money to put a stop to his commitment to playing college basketball. They viewed him as a cornerstone of the team and for once, they got it right.
After a cup of coffee in 1996, Rolen went on to win the 1997 Rookie of the Year Award, the first Phillie since Dick Allen, and would grow into the premier patroller of the hot corner in the National League and one of the best players in all of baseball. Of all the Phillies of this era, Harry Kalas called Rolen’s name especially with the most vigor and enthusiasm. He knew he was watching a great 3rd baseman. Nobody is Mike Schmidt, but it was clear Rolen was a special player blossoming on the field.
Unfortunately, the Phillies flat out stunk. Terry Francona managed several losing seasons, and then upon his firing, Larry Bowa took over. Bowa brought his trademark passion to the role, but butted heads with Rolen, who was now an established vet. Rolen also sparred with Ed Wade, who at the time, was believed to be a totally incompetent general manager. With free agency not far off, Rolen was rumored to have flat out refused offers of $90 million over 7 years and $140 million over 10 years from the Phillies.
He was being offered that money in 2002! Why did Rolen turn it down? Here’s a quote from The New York Times’ Murry Chass, who was covering the events back then “Rolen appeared at a news conference here at the club’s invitation to discuss his decision not to accept the $90 million/$140 million offer. When General Manager Ed Wade asked Rolen what he would say when asked why he rejected the offer, Rolen said he would say that the team’s ownership was not committed to winning. (The Phillies have consistently been in the lower half of payrolls.)”
Imagine that happening that today; a star player and the GM speaking at a press conference in which the player tells the GM that he and the owners don’t want to win and he wants out. Twitter would be set ablaze. ESPN would fly Buster Olney in on a private jet. You’d probably finally find out what channel MLBTV is.
Then add in the Rolen vs Bowa saga. Bowa playing Rolen extra in exhibition games after the other starters were pulled. Bowa keeping him on the bench rather than just giving him the day off. Rolen allegedly not speaking to Bowa. Bowa in turn shutting out Rolen. Bowa being caught on a hot mic ripping Rolen to Ed Wade. Arranging a meeting just for the sake of being seen and photographed together.
The saga drug on. Despite the drama and distractions, Rolen made the All-Star team, won a Gold Glove, and a Silver Slugger. In July of 2002, the Phillies traded Rolen and RHP Doug Nickle to the St. Louis Cardinals for second baseman Placido Polanco, RHP Mike Timlin, and LHP Bud Smith. Rolen would slug 14 more home runs that year after being traded to the Cardinals. He would help them win a World Series in 2004 but was only on the team until he and Tony LaRussa proved to not mesh, which finally came to a head in 2007. Rolen would then go on to play for the Blue Jays and the Reds.
All in all, Rolen put together a career that is trending towards the Hall of Fame. He is a member of the St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame. He was voted in by the fans. He should be on the Phillies Wall of Fame. He isn’t because the fracture between himself and the fans was so great it still lasts to this day.
A reunion between Rolen, the fans, and the Phillies is long overdue. Rolen himself has praised long time Phillies coach John Vukovich as being the foundation behind his defense. His glove would win him 8 Gold Glove awards, the 3rd most of any third baseman ever. His career started in Philadelphia, a young kid from Evansville, Indiana, who got used to big city life, media coverage, and being a pro ball player right here.
Sure, he bears some responsibility for how the relationship ended, but it was the Phillies in the late ’90s. It all went wrong. It’s time to make it right.