Sunday, July 18, 2004

Scott Rolen: Halfway to Cooperstown?

The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal

CINCINNATI - A lukewarm breeze blew through Great American Ballpark, ruffling the white hair of Walt Jocketty, who seemed otherwise beyond ruffling. Jocketty is the general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, the runaway leaders in the National League Central.

And his All-Star third baseman, Scott Rolen, is a 6-foot-4, 240-pound piece of history in the making. He's only 29, but people already are talking about him as a player for the ages.

"He's a throwback player," Jocketty said of Rolen, who is from Jasper, Ind. "He could have played in any era and would have been successful and would have fit in. That says a lot about his personality."

When Jocketty dealt for Rolen three seasons ago and signed him to an eight-year, $90 million contract, he knew he was getting a defensive bulwark. Rolen has played seven full seasons and won five Gold Gloves. His glove still is golden, and now his bat is going platinum. Despite a recent 1-for-14 stretch, he's hitting .332 with 19 home runs and a major league-best 82 RBIs.

"We thought he was going to be a very good hitter," Jocketty said, "but I think the numbers he has put up this year have surprised everybody."

On defense, perfection is still the standard.

"You know how good a guy is when he makes a tough play look routine," said teammate Marlon Anderson. "People come to expect him to make every play.... It's kind of unrealistic."

Jocketty echoed that idea: "The plays that are routine to him are Web Gems for the most part, but you don't see them every night on TV. He makes the hard plays look easy.

"I've talked to people that saw a lot of Mike Schmidt and a lot of Brooks Robinson and some of the other great third basemen, and they say that this guy is right there with them."

Rolen's brilliant bat has only heightened his defensive reputation - edging him more solidly into the best-of-all-time club that might be limited to Robinson and Schmidt - for fans who are too young or too dead to remember Pie Traynor.

"You have to do something offensively, I think, to really get the recognition," Robinson said recently. "He's a heck of an offensive player."

Robinson has seen Rolen play only on television, so he must rely on other eyewitnesses, such as St. Louis manager Tony LaRussa and former Philadelphia manager Jim Fregosi.

"They say this guy is just as good as anyone who's ever played...." Robinson said. "Tony and Jimmy, they swear by him. Those guys have been around a long time, and I'll say I agree with them."

Mike Shannon, the Cardinals broadcaster and former third baseman, said: "I asked Mike Schmidt about Rolen, and he said, 'He's the best ever.' "

Cardinals catcher Mike Matheny allowed that it would be "a bold statement" to declare Rolen the best ever, especially by folks who never saw Schmidt or Robinson. But he added: "I've never seen anybody better. I think I would have said that before he was my teammate....

"You could arguably say he's the best player in the game, as of right now, for total production. If you were to build a team around somebody, I don't know if you'd pick anybody that would be any better in all of baseball."

No self-promoter

Such praise has not fazed Rolen, according to his brother, Todd, a former biology teacher who lives in Louisville and runs the charitable foundation that Scott started three years ago.

"He is very humbled that he would even be compared to Mike Schmidt or any of the great third basemen," Todd said. "But he doesn't see himself in that light.... He's going to be the last one to compare himself to one of the greats.

"He's said to me many times, he's halfway through his career. He's got a lot of work ahead of him."

Rolen is hitting 50 points higher than his career average of .282, and he's on pace to smash his highs for home runs (31) and RBIs (110). Why the breakthrough now?

"He's gotten more consistent offensively," said Anderson, who also was a teammate in Philadelphia.

LaRussa explains Rolen's robust hitting this way: "He's a year older. A year smarter. He's healthier."

Rolen has had a sore knee lately and had a virus this past week, but he is well past the shoulder injury he suffered in the 2002 National League playoffs. And he appears to be well beyond the bad memories of Philadelphia, where he turned down a long-term contract and became a target for wounded fans.

"I think that Scott Rolen is at peace with himself now," Shannon said.

"He's at the right place at the right time in his career, not only professionally but personally. I think everything is just right for him."

Terry Gobert, who was his coach at Jasper High School, said: "He just appears so much more comfortable. Seems like he has found a nice niche. When he was in Philadelphia, he just always seemed to be in turmoil."

'The workmanlike guy'

If, as Jocketty said, Rolen could have played in any era, he'd probably have been the guy on the Cardinals' 1930s Gashouse Gang (Pepper Martin, Dizzy Dean, Ducky Medwick) without a nickname.

"He is as professional as you get," Shannon said. "And he's the workmanlike guy out there. Firecrackers don't go off, and stars don't pop out."

You especially won't get fireworks from his mouth. He's a throwback to the days before professional athletes were rock stars.

After Thursday's 7-2 victory over the Cincinnati Reds, Rolen's answers were generally shorter than reporters' questions.

On his two-run homer that ended a five-game stretch without an RBI, his longest of the season: "I don't really think about that. I'm going to go out and try to play hard and see what happens."

On the preseason hype that surrounded the Cardinals' division rivals, the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros: "The Cubs and Astros made some big moves. They deserve to be talked about." On his favorite thing about this team: "I don't know. That we're winning. That's about all that matters."

Cardinals publicists point out that Rolen simply doesn't like to talk about himself. Kurt Gutgsell, a friend from Jasper, put it this way: "He doesn't like to draw attention to himself. I'll ask Scott how are things going, and he wants to talk about how they're leading the division. He says, 'How can I fail with Albert Pujols and Jim Edmonds (hitting) around me?' "

Rolen's game - all performance, no pyrotechnics - might save him from the ordeal of becoming a certified media attraction. He's likely to remain more of a rock than a star.

"It's all about longevity now," LaRussa said. "He just needs to do it a bunch of years - and he's halfway there."

"You have to keep doing this," Shannon said, "but I think he'll go down as the greatest third baseman ever. He has the chance to do that."

And how good are his chances?

"He's only going to get better," Anderson said.

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