Friday, June 13, 2003

While Phillies Struggle, Rolen Having Banner Season

NEW YORK — His chin had a big brush burn, the kind kids get when they skin their knees playing football or falling off a bike onto the macadam. His forehead had some nicks and cuts and a welt that looked like a sloppy swipe of a paintbrush. None of these bruises explained the elaborate ice bag wrapped in a towel around his neck, which he unwrapped as if he were some incomplete mummy before heading to the training room for what seemed like some much-needed treatment.

Still, Scott Rolen couldn't stop smiling.

"I went head first in Boston the other night," he laughed while in the visitor's clubhouse at Yankee Stadium before his Cardinals lost to the Yankees on Saturday. "I smacked my face and my feet went over my head and flipped me over.

Rolen was describing his attempt to score against the Red Sox two days earlier.

"You should have seen it," he said.

About the only thing baseball fans in Philadelphia have seen relating to their prodigal son these days is the prodigious ink he's littered the box scores with. A 2-for-4 with a couple of RBIs following the entry "Rolen, 3b" isn't an uncommon sight these days. Neither are the highlight reel plays and web gems he's made look so routine at third base. Remember all of those plays? A dive to the left in the hole. A backhand stab of a short hop and a rifle throw to beat the runner at second. A deft snag of a liner bullet-bound to the corner. They used to be a normal occurrence on the Vet NeXturf through the summer months not so long ago.

But that circus has set up its tent in another city.

Now here's the part that Philly sports fans don't want to hear: Rolen is the same as he was when he was a Phillie but better. Everything, from his skills on the field to his demeanor in the clubhouse, is more enhanced. His dry wit is more engaging and matched by the courteous desire to chat. Always an entertainer to the scribes, Rolen spoke quietly and engaged his questioner with a look that made one feel as if he were doing a one-on-one interview, even when there was a pack of reporters around. It was if he were the smartest and politest kid in the class but was unsure of himself and never raised his hand.

That was then.

These days Rolen is animated. Always quick with a joke wrapped in his "boy-from-Jasper-aw-shucks" disposition, Rolen is more apt to embrace his teammates, club officials and writers. Rolen not only carries the gait of a person who suddenly has had the weight of the world lifted from his coat-rack shoulders but also seems as if he's finally comfortable in his own skin.

The real Scott Rolen has arrived.

"He's better now than he's ever been, and he's the best defensive third baseman I've ever seen. And I saw Schmidt and Brooks Robinson," an American League scout said at Yankee Stadium on Saturday. "Not only is he better, but he obviously has much a much better team around him. He can just show up and go to work without worrying about being the center of everyone's attention.

"In Philadelphia he was only going to be a good player. In St. Louis he's going to be a star."

It's in St. Louis, where Rolen went to catch games as a kid (he went to games in Cincinnati too) that he has come into his own. Sure, he's done well on the field since the trade, smacking 26 homers and driving in 95 while hitting .288 in 122 games heading into Monday's action, but it's off the field where he has found his footing.

Rolen still makes his home in Florida but stays close to his roots in Jasper, Ind. He has launched his Enis Furley Foundation and Camp Emma Lou on Lake Monroe near Bloomington where children and their families with special needs can spend time together. The camp's motto is, "Live, Love, Laugh� and don't burn your marshmallow!"

That could easily be Rolen's motto as well. While certainly not the cause of the Phillies' backward step in 2002, Rolen and his contract situation was an admitted distraction. It was plain to see that Rolen's marshmallow was charred in Philly. The smile that resides on his face these days, despite the stiff neck that might force him to miss a game or two this week, was no where to be found last year at this time. In fact, the team's clubhouse was as tense as a waiting room of a root-canal clinic.

Last August, Mike Schmidt hit the nail on the head when talking about Rolen and his relationship with Philly.

"In Philadelphia, he was never able to free up enough to enjoy playing the game," Schmidt said then. "He's wound tight like I am. You try and please everybody and you end up not having fun. You are the focal guy and there's always an issue. It drives you crazy. A new environment where he's not the focal point, he's going to blend in. That's what he is looking for, to be left alone and play the game. He has a better chance to reach his potential in that environment [in St. Louis] than he did over here."

Watching Rolen on Saturday made one wonder who that old guy was. Criticized by blathering talk-show types for not showing enough emotion and carrying a cool attitude toward the fans like Schmidt, that old Rolen is long gone.

"This is where I belong," he said. "I learned a lot in Philadelphia, and I'm thankful for the time that I spent there, but it's different here. I don't take bitterness with me at all. If I didn't have that experience, I don't think I'd be as complete "

There is also a nurturing atmosphere in St. Louis that wasn't available in Philadelphia. Although both men are old-school baseball men, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa and Phils manager Larry Bowa are as different as night and day. As a Phillie, Rolen and Bowa often clashed and had two well-publicized blowups in Tampa in 2001 and Clearwater in 2002. Sensitivity training to Bowa is using a player's proper name while showing disgust for a misdeed.

La Russa is equally intense, but he has a better rapport with his players. Part of that might be because he is a multi-lingual attorney who is an animal-rights advocate. For Rolen, who speaks of his dogs Enis and Emma as if they are his sired children, La Russa's interest in such causes must impress the third baseman.

Rolen certainly is a fan favorite too. On June 1, thousands lined up early at Busch Stadium before a game against the Pirates to receive a Scott Rolen bobblehead doll. Apparently, as many as eight busloads of fans made the three-hour trip from Jasper, Ind. to get a memento of their hometown boy and watch him play.

They might have seen his best game as a Cardinal. Rolen reached base three times, including a key double in the third inning. He also drew an important walk in the seventh to lead a decisive two-run surge. But he saved the best for last.

With two outs in the ninth, and the Cardinals clinging to a precarious one-run lead, Rolen leaped high to snag Reggie Sanders' sizzling extra-base bid, a backhand catch that ended the game.

The crowd, of course, forced a post-game curtain call, just like it did when he hit a grand slam to cap off a 4-for-5 win over the Orioles last Sunday. And the three-run shot he hit with two outs in the ninth to beat the Cubs on May 23. These days, Rolen has made enough curtain calls in Busch Stadium to make even Pavarotti blush, but it was something Rolen spurned in Philly. Not that it matters anymore. Rolen is exactly where he wants to be.

"I'm in a place where I'm really happy," he said. "I always said that a happy ballplayer is a good ballplayer, and I feel pretty good."

He ought to. Usually pegged into manager Tony LaRussa's lineup behind Jim Edmonds and Albert Pujols ("He's the best player I've ever managed," LaRussa said of Pujols in New York.), Rolen is eighth in the National League with 51 RBIs, which sets him on a pace for 125.

Of course it doesn't hurt that Rolen's numbers are as good as anyone in the National League. In fact, if he weren't on the same team as Pujols and Edmonds, who are one-two in batting in the league, Rolen could be the leading candidate for the league's MVP award.

Sorry folks, he's been that good.

Rolen's good fortune comes as his former team is beginning its slow spiral down the commode. Full of promise after the acquisitions of David Bell, Kevin Millwood and Jim Thome, the Phillies could most definitely use Rolen's bat, if not his goldglove at third base. At the end of play on Sunday, Rolen is hitting .293 with 12 homers and 51 RBIs. But those numbers don't fully explain how good he's been. With runners in scoring position, Rolen is hitting .344 and has reached base in 56 of the Cardinals' 66 games.

At the same time, his fifth gold glove for his work at third base is all but a given, and his team will be right there when the pennant race heats up.

Nevertheless, Philadelphia is not fully in Rolen's rear-view mirror. He made a lot of friends during his seven years as a Phillie and still chats with some of his old teammates. Dan Plesac calls now and then. Randy Wolf's brother Jim, a big-league umpire, passes along messages. Then there's Jim Thome, whom Rolen was essentially traded for. According to Rolen, the pair talks regularly about baseball.

Interestingly, Rolen says he's asked frequently about whether he'd made a mistake in leaving Philadelphia since the Phils have added Thome.

"If I would have stayed there, there was no way they would have gotten Thome," Rolen said. "They might have been able to get Millwood, but there's no way they would have been able to have Thome and me on the same team."

Yeah, but Rolen and Pujols, Edmonds, Edgar Renteria and Tino Martinez on the same team?

If Rolen isn't in heaven, St. Louis might be the next best place.

E-mail John R. Finger

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