The mainstay

In his 13th year with the Phillies, Jimmy Rollins, 33, is building his legacy

Originally Published: September 20, 2012
By Steve Wulf | ESPN The Magazine

Jimmy RollinsAndrew Cutraro for ESPN The MagazineJimmy Rollins is building his legacy -- while fighting back the clock.

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THE YEAR BEGINS the way it should have ended, with Jimmy Rollins carried around a field on the upraised hands of grateful players. But the field isn't a major league diamond; it's a sandlot in Kampala's Nsambya ghetto. And the players aren't Phillies; they're Ugandans showing their appreciation for an act of kindness.

For several days in January, Rollins has been traveling from town to ghetto, teaching players the intricacies of everything from the pivot to sunflower seeds, telling them that the world would soon discover how good they are at baseball. "All it takes is one," he tells them. "If one of you makes it, others will follow."

At the end of his talk, the players are told that Rollins has arranged for transportation to take them to the big game between the Canadian and Ugandan Little League teams the next day in Mpigi, 22 miles away. That's when they rush him and hoist him into the air, lifting the man who had been lifting them.

In his journal that night, Rollins writes of how it felt to recount the day to his wife, Johari: "When I began to tell her that I was going to pay for all the kids from Nsambya to be able to come to the game, that's when it hit me what had happened. I couldn't speak, all I could do was cry. Every time I thought about those boys picking me up and calling me their hero, I would lose it."

That's Jimmy Rollins.


[+] EnlargeJimmy Rollins
Rob Tringali for ESPN The MagazineThis season Rollins could become the franchise's first shortstop to lead the team in hime runs since 1883.

SEVEN MONTHS LATER, three-quarters of the way through a mostly disappointing baseball season in Philadelphia, an electronic billboard sponsored by a local radio station blares: HEY JIMMY, RUN! DON'T JOG!!

The day before, Aug. 15, the Phillies shortstop had failed to run out a ground ball against the Marlins in a seemingly meaningless game. In Philadelphia, that whips sports radio hosts, columnists and, in turn, fans into a frenzy. "Next year I hope Rollins is slacking off on another team," writes one commenter on Philly.com.

Manager Charlie Manuel calls Rollins into an office in Milwaukee's Miller Park the next afternoon and reads him the riot act. "We have two rules: Hustle and be on time," Manuel says.

Yeah, the same guy who's running around Uganda got reamed out by his manager for not running. As a Phillies coach once said: "I love Jimmy Rollins. It's J-Roll I sometimes have a problem with."

Not that J-Roll is without his charms. At the end of the lecture, the two had a laugh, and the shortstop left the manager's office.


IT'S FUNNY. THERE are all sorts of standards by which athletes are judged: age, size, stats, titles, awards, money. By those measurements, we know that James Calvin Rollins is 33; that his size is remarkable for the lack of it (5'8", 180 pounds); that his numbers indicate both brilliance (.875 OPS in 2007) and staying power (most games at shortstop since 2001); that he is the switch-hitting leadoff man for a team that captured five straight NL East titles; that he's won three Gold Gloves, the 2007 NL MVP Award and a 2008 World Series ring; that No. 11 is in the first year of a nicely symbolic three-year contract that will pay him $11 million a year.

But numbers don't do justice to Jimmy Rollins. Any 33-year-old baseball player trying to put a stamp on his legacy is an interesting character study, but Rollins is an especially interesting character. For starters, he happens to be the longest-running act in America's toughest sports town, having arrived in Philadelphia in September 2000. And 2012 is the year in which he became the godfather of Ugandan baseball and a father for the first time. It's also a season in which the Phillies fall in the standings and Rollins rises in the record books. He inspires and infuriates, celebrates and sulks, hits big home runs and pops out a lot. He has people extolling and questioning his heart. Even his admirers are left scratching their heads. Jim Salisbury of CSNPhilly.com, who has covered Rollins since he played at Double-A Reading, says: "I respect him tremendously. But Jimmy can be defiant, and that's what gets him into trouble."

Maybe it just goes back to his size. When you're an athlete who's vertically challenged, you have to be defiant. You're literally defying the odds even to make the majors, much less become an All-Star. Rollins' willingness to challenge convention is often positive, as when he famously said that the Phillies were "the team to beat" back in 2007. As 6'4", 240-pound Ryan Howard says, "Jimmy gives us our swagger, our belief in ourselves."

But sometimes defiance can be a negative, as in Rollins' belief that he doesn't have to bust his butt on a routine out. Argues Rollins, "Is it really worth risking an injury that takes me out of the lineup for an extended period of time just so I can be out by two steps instead of three?"

He may have a point. After all, he is at the stage of his career when he's trying to defy time.


AROUND THE PHILLIES, it's known as Jimmy Time. The phrase refers to Rollins' penchant for arriving late. But Jimmy Time can also describe the clock in his head. All good infielders have one, that instantaneous calculation of how much time they have to gun down a runner, gauging the throw based on where and how hard the ball is hit. Rollins' clock is as calibrated as anyone's. "I have never seen him panic," Salisbury says.

Back to Africa for a case in point. On a photo safari in Uganda's Queen Elizabeth National Park, Rollins and his tour group ventured out in search of a lion pride. But when they went to start the truck after a brief stop, the engine wouldn't turn over. It was overheated. "We had plenty of light left," Rollins says, "and I figured another vehicle would come along."

He didn't panic. The group poured its drinking water into the radiator and waited for the engine to cool down. Then, with Rollins helping to get the truck rolling, the engine came to life. "It was definitely an experience being out of the vehicle," he wrote in his journal that night, "knowing that at any moment, an animal could spring out. But I enjoyed the thrill."


MOST OF THIS Phillies season hasn't been anywhere near as exciting. The year began with expectations of another World Series trip, which would have been the team's third since 2007. The Phillies arrived at spring training with the second-highest payroll in baseball ($174.5 million) looking for their sixth straight NL East title. Even with Howard and Chase Utley on the DL to start the year, Phillies fans figured they still had the pitching to overcome some offensive struggles. And Manuel felt he had enough bats to hold the fort until his sluggers returned.

[+] EnlargeJimmy Rollins
Andrew Cutraro for ESPN The MagazineRollins greeted fans at the game between the local squad and the Ugandan team.

In the meantime, the manager penciled in Rollins as the No. 3 hitter. He welcomed the challenge, telling writers that he had another MVP season in him. He even mentioned to teammates that he thought he was only halfway into his career. Yes, he was serious.

The thought that he could play another 12 years -- to age 45 -- seems delusional, but that is also Rollins' challenging another assumption. He is something of a physical marvel, with only one extended stay on the DL in his 13 seasons. Genes have something to do with it: mom Gigi, dad James, brother Antwon and sister Shay are all athletes. He also married well: Johari is a personal trainer. But Rollins works at it too, even going through a rigorous session with a physiologist every week or so to fine-tune his body. Lazy, he is not.

Neither is he a No. 3 hitter. In April, the Phillies go 11-12 as Rollins hits .235 with five RBIs. Dissatisfaction with No. 11 grows on the blogs and talk shows, with much of the animus fueled by the new contract. By mid-May, the team is treading water at 21-21, and Rollins is hitting in the .230s. "I'm probably trying to do too much," he says at the time. He claims impending fatherhood is not a distraction and that his body feels great. "The one concession I've made to age is the percentage of days I'm able to be at my absolute best," he says. "A few years ago, it was six out of seven. Now it's more like four out of five."

Again, that's the clock in Rollins' head working. The problem he sometimes has with Manuel is that the manager's clock is analog, and Rollins' is digital. They have an interesting dynamic. Old-school and new-school, they often sit together on the bench because they see things in a game that others might not. "I love him like a son," Manuel says. "But sometimes you get annoyed at your son."

For instance, when Rollins takes two full days off for paternity leave after his daughter, Camryn Drew, is born in mid-May -- a common practice under the collective bargaining agreement -- Manuel needles Rollins publicly. "I'm sure there is going to be controversy about it," he tells the media. "I'm sure people are going to have their opinion." Although Manuel doesn't directly offer his, he does seem slightly vexed that he has one more hole to patch. As it happens, the Phillies lose both games.

But how can you quibble with a player spending a few days with his new baby? "It was pretty amazing," he says of the birth of his first child. "Catching the baby, cutting the cord, handing her to Johari. Best relay I ever made."

Sometimes, the tension between manager and player intensifies due to Manuel's insistence on, and Rollins' resistance to, giving 100 percent on 100 percent of the plays. Perception counts, and the perception that he doesn't care diminishes the thing he cares about most. "When you break in," he says, "you're just trying to survive, make a name for yourself. Then you get to the middle years, when you're playing for a contract and the respect of other players. Now I'm at the point where I want to be remembered, that legacy piece. And I want to be remembered not just as a player but as a good teammate, someone about who other players say, He made me better. "

One aspect of Rollins' legacy is cemented, if occasionally overlooked. When he arrived in Philly, the franchise was a mess, drawing half as many fans as it does to now-sold-out Citizens Bank Park. "He's a tremendous credit to this organization, both on and off the field," Phillies CEO David Montgomery says. "It's no coincidence that we went from fifth to second his first full year and that we've been in contention almost every season since. As for his community work, well, he truly gets it."

In 2009, he started the Jimmy Rollins Family Foundation, which helps those with juvenile arthritis, among other causes. He went to Uganda with an American contingent on a good will mission after seeing a documentary clip on ESPN about baseball there. Wherever Rollins traveled, he used his height to his advantage, talking to the kids at their eye level, feeding their passion for the game. And every night, back at his hotel, he would write about the day's events. At the end of the trip, he mused, "I'm smart enough to know that I can't change Africa, but just knowing that I have made an attempt to possibly help someone to be able to achieve a dream has given me more purpose in baseball and in life."

He keeps in regular contact with the players and coaches he met in Uganda, and that has helped him through a trying season. For as much good will as Rollins engendered in Africa, the era of good feelings is slipping away in Philly as the All-Star break approaches. There had been a shouting match between Cliff Lee and Shane Victorino over a misplayed ball; an ill-timed Roy Halladay lat strain; and a star shortstop still batting around .250. "We'll turn it around," Rollins, as defiant as ever, says just before the break. "A big play will turn into a big win that will start a winning streak. People wrote us off in 2007 too, but we were there at the end."

After a loss in the final game of the first half, however, the Phils plummet to 37-50. In the clubhouse, Rollins waves away reporters, saying, "Don't waste your time, guys."

The truck is overheated. The lions are out, and so is the water. The Phillies are losing the light.


'I DON'T MIND the idea of being traded. It's actually amusing. For one thing, I get to control where I go. For another ... Ow! ... Man, Jerry, that was a killer."

Before a home game against the Giants on July 21, in a small, unpopulated locker room at the Bank, Rollins is lying on a bench, trying to answer questions while a man who looks like Ned Flanders pokes, probes and kneads his body. "For another, I like the idea of going to the West Coast and maybe becoming an integral part of a young team that's on the way up. Hey! That tickles."

Rumors swirl that the Phillies are shopping Rollins, a sign that the NL East champs are throwing in the towel on 2012. Even with the three-year contract, Rollins is a tradable asset -- his bat is coming to life, and he's still an elite shortstop. But as a 10-and-5 veteran, he has the right to veto any trade.

As for the Simpsons character, his name is Jerry Schindler, an Atlanta physiologist who's considered something of a genius by the cult of ballplayers who have used him over the years. When he's finally done with Rollins on this day, the veteran shortstop mutters, "Man, youth is hard work."

But it's worth it. As the potential for a Philly farewell looms, Rollins provides a few reminders of the good times, with two walk-off singles in a span of four games in late July. The way he is greeted after both wins is not unlike the way he was mobbed in Uganda.

When the trade deadline comes and goes, Rollins is still a Phillie, though Victorino and Hunter Pence have been dealt. On July 31, hours after the trade cutoff, Rollins hits an inside-the-park homer off Nationals flamethrower Stephen Strasburg. The next night, he hits two ordinary ones in a 3-2 win over Washington. After the game, J-Roll refuses to talk to the media.

In early August, he sends me an email attachment. He had been promising to show me his African journal all season. But because he had been so busy, I had assumed he had forgotten. Never assume with Rollins.

On those journal pages, he describes his first meeting with George Mughobe, the true father of Ugandan baseball: "Through the shirts hanging outside on a clothesline, I see a man in his baseball uniform pacing back and forth. I can't see his face, but I know exactly who it is ... As we made our way down the front yard, one of the young men removed a shirt to clear our path, and there he is, with a smile as bright as the African sun and arms spread wide enough to embrace all of Lake Victoria. We greet each other with hugs, exchange a few words, and the moment is forever in my heart."

What the journal really conveys about Rollins is his embrace of life. That too is Jimmy Time. Just as he gets the most out of his body, he gets the most out of his hours and days. Whether it's baseball or photography or philanthropy or family, he goes all out -- even when he doesn't go all out. And that man, even at age 33, is still the heart of the Phillies. Sure, the statheads like to point out that Rollins ranks among MLB leaders in popouts (18.6 percent of batted balls, through Sept. 13). But he also just broke the franchise record for games played by a shortstop, and he may well end up leading the team in home runs, RBIs, hits and total bases. "He makes us go, and he makes it fun," Manuel says.

On and off the field. On Aug. 9 at the seventh annual Jimmy Rollins BaseBowl Tournament at Lucky Strike in downtown Philadelphia, benefiting his foundation, Phillies players, brass and even the Phanatic gather to mingle with fans and sponsors. Rollins brings along Johari and baby Camryn, both sets of grandparents, and siblings Shay and Antwon.

The host introduces his teammates, all of whom have personalized bowling shirts -- Hollywood for Cole Hamels, Doc for Halladay, Chooch for Carlos Ruiz, Big Piece for Howard. Rollins tears up when he's presented with a "Tree of Life" painting made up of 125 thumbprints from kids with juvenile arthritis who attend a camp funded by his foundation. He never tires of signing his autograph, which is a thing of beauty, a legible flow ending in a circle with an 11 in the center. And he always puts the cap back on the pen.

What popups?


'WITH ALL DUE respect to Larry Bowa, Jimmy is the greatest Phillies shortstop ever," (GM Ruben Amaro Jr. says on Aug. 10. The son of a Phillies shortstop himself, Amaro is obviously a Rollins fan. He's also an executive concerned with the future of the franchise. "Yes, we discussed trading Jimmy," Amaro admits. "But at the end of the day, we decided he was still part of our core, along with Cole and Chase and Ryan -- the way Jeter, Rivera, Posada and Pettitte were for the Yankees all those years. He's still the engine that drives us."

On Aug. 15, the engine sputters. And the talk shows spew.

That's when J-Roll fails to run out that ground ball in Miami. The next day in Milwaukee, he and Manuel have their heart-to-heart. "He should be running hard from now on," Manuel tells the media. "We'll see."

It says something about Rollins that after brushing off reporters on the night he hit two home runs two weeks earlier, he would man up to talk about his mental lapse. He accepts the blame and says he had something on his mind. "It's not an excuse," he says.

Yes, sometimes it's hard to figure out what's going on in Rollins' head. Maybe he dogs it on occasion to defy authority, or maybe it's the baseball version of a midlife crisis, a refusal to grow up, and thus, old. Or maybe he's just trying to prove his damn point, which is that giving 100 percent all the time is an anachronism, like 300 innings a year or three-fingered gloves. Baseball is not exactly football, but Rollins is a little like Franco Harris or Carson Palmer, both of whom acknowledged that running out of bounds instead of fighting for an extra yard or two can extend a career.

Rollins does catch one break that week. The outrage in Philly, complete with billboard, is offset by a feel-good story three hours north. Thanks to the Little League team from Lugazi, Uganda, which qualified to go to Williamsport, the public hears about Rollins' other side. He had befriended many of the players and their coach, Henry Odong, so when ESPN asks each of the kids who their favorite player is, every one of them answers, Jimmy Rollins.

Their hero couldn't physically get to Williamsport, but he is there for the kids from Lugazi anyway. He quietly made arrangements for them to come to Philadelphia when the Little League World Series was over. On the day after Lugazi beat Gresham, Ore., in a consolation game, he takes the time to record the narration for a TV piece on the Ugandan team. On Aug. 24, he tweets the time, date and address of the team's next game, four days later in Plymouth Meeting, Pa.

That night he drives in two runs in the Phillies' 4-2 win over the first-place Nationals, sparking a late-season wild-card rally.


WHERE DID ALL these people come from? The local police force is directing traffic and parking at East Plymouth Valley Park for what was supposed to be a quiet Little League game. At least 1,500 fans, as well as seven umpires and about as many film crews, have shown up for the exhibition between Lugazi and Plymouth Meeting. Blame Rollins for that too.

The Ugandan kids look tired. This has been a long, wonderful, strange trip to America. And now they have to play one last game. Ruiz and Howard are here, but the guest of honor is nowhere to be found as the game starts.

At 12:45 p.m., a Range Rover inches its way through the crowd behind home plate. Out steps the driver, Jimmy Rollins, followed by his passengers, Johari and Camryn. The game screeches to a halt, with Rollins visiting players and coaches in both dugouts. "You've heard of a rain delay?" Howard asks. "This is my first human delay."

The people in Plymouth Meeting care more about what he's done than about what he hasn't done, and they embrace both Jimmy Rollins and J-Roll. "I hear the complaints about him not hustling," says Kevin Barron, one of the umps that night. "But it's a long 162-game season, and he's a helluva guy and a helluva player. I don't need 100 percent all the time. I'll take 99."

A few hours later, Rollins is sitting in the Phillies' dugout, sweating from his pregame workout and waiting for the Ugandan team to arrive at the ballpark. "I've been here 12 years," he says, "and I've had at least 12 meetings with managers about my not hustling. They're right most of the time -- there's a fine line between looking professional and looking like you don't care, and I cross it every once in a while. But when running hard will really make a difference on a play, I'll bust it. I understand why Charlie called me in. If you get on the officers, the troops will get the message."

When the kids from Lugazi show up, they stand by the batting cage and watch Rollins take BP. He playfully pokes some of them with his bat, then ushers them into the Phillies' inner sanctum. "This is our indoor batting cage, and this is Nate Schierholtz demonstrating the swing of a professional hitter ... This is a picture of what the stadium looks like when it's full -- a few more people than watch you in Williamsport ... This is Cole 'Hollywood' Hamels, one of the best lefthanded pitchers in the game ... This is J-Roll's locker ... Go ahead, put your hand in my glove."

Then Rollins takes them to a table where fitted Phillies caps await. He makes sure they each have two to take home. "I was pulling for you guys," Phils utilityman Ty Wigginton tells the Ugandans as they pass by. Cliff Lee even takes the time to teach pitcher Tonny Okello how to throw a cutter.

Later, at game time, the Little Leaguers take their seats on the third base side to watch the Phillies and Mets. In the third inning, Rollins races for a ball along the leftfield line, catches it and then tosses the ball up to the Ugandans about 50 rows back -- not an easy throw. Chulu Makisimu, the little catcher for Lugazi, snags the ball and holds it high over his head.


WHAT A PERFECT way to end a story about a man and his legacy, with a long toss that went from an American ballplayer to one from Uganda. But with a month to play, it was only 11 o'clock on the season for Rollins and the Phillies.

On Aug. 30, J-Roll shows up once again, and Manuel benches him in the middle of a Mets game for not running out a popup that the pitcher drops, then compounding that lapse with a baserunning error. Rollins apologizes, then two days later goes 3-for-5 with a home run in a win over the Braves. On Sept. 3, he hits his 17th of the season in a driving rainstorm to help beat the Reds. The next day, he becomes only the fourth player in MLB history to reach 2,000 hits, 350 stolen bases and 150 home runs for one team.

Despite the injuries, the trades and all the drama, by mid-September the Phillies have somehow worked their way into the wild-card race -- there is a little light left. And unless his bat cools off again, Rollins will end up with decent season stats: 20 homers, 30 steals, 95 runs. Defensive metrics indicate that he has been the second-most reliable shortstop in the majors at turning the double play over the past three years, behind only Brendan Ryan of the Mariners. But numbers can never tell Jimmy Rollins' story.

Only he can. And it'll be a really good one if he can remember to run it out for, say, the next 11 years.

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Steve Wulf

ESPN The Magazine senior writer