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Saturday, June 26, 2004

A Tale of Two Cities (and Three Players)

SportsProf can't figure out why Phillies' fans boo Scott Rolen. Sure, he can understand why they boo J.D. Drew , because J.D. dissed them by not wanting to come to Philadelphia. But booing Scott Rolen? Especially when they still love Curt Schilling, and he "committed" (if that's the right word) the same sin that Rolen did -- and earlier -- he wanted out of Philadelphia.

It shouldn't be that way for Rolen. First, Rolen played very well in Philadelphia and gave his all, mostly on (very) bad teams. Second, it was Rolen (and, to a certain extent), Curt Schilling, who woke up the Phillies' wealthy but cheap ownership out of their Rip Van Winkle-like slumber that took place from the mid-to-late 80's through 2000 and got them to take their fans, and good players, seriously.

The Phillies' records for 1997 through 2000 looked like this:

1997 68-94 33 games behind
1998 75-87 31 games behind
1999 76-85 26.5 games behind
2000 65-97 30 games behind.

Around the late 90's, Curt Schilling had been saying for a while that the Phillies' ownership was not committed to winning. Reading between the lines, what Curt was saying that while perhaps his teammates all belonged in the majors, they all didn't belong on the same team. There were many fourth and fifth starters, many would-be back-ups on those teams. The fans agreed and stayed away in droves. Why pay to see a team that would be out of the running by July? The Bill Giles-led ownership insulted the fans' intelligence while complaining that the Phillies were a small-market team that had troubling keeping apace with the big-market teams. That line of thinking was among the most foolish thinking espoused in the history of a poorly run franchise. Small market? Hey, Bill, didn't you forget that Philadelphia then was the fourth-largest city in the U.S. and now is the fifth-largest? The simple truth was that they didn't want to spend the money to pay for the quality of talent needed to win a championship.

Yet, the brahmin ownership didn't care, and didn't want to get burned again after having signed Greg Jefferies as a free agent and not getting a good return on their investment. So they put out a mediocre team, and the results showed.

And the hard chargers on the team got fed up. Schilling was first, and he drove management crazy with his public ruminations. In 2000, he forced a trade to the Diamondbacks for Omar Daal, Nelson Figueroa, Travis Lee and Vicente Padilla. Daal was an innings-eater, Figueroa somewhat of a prospect, Lee was potentially a starter at first and Padilla, they said, had closer written all over him. Figueroa, a Brandeis grad, centerfielder Doug Glanville, a Penn grad, and Rolen, who didn't go to college (he turned down a basketball scholarship to Georgia) but who read the great books on team flights, certainly gave the media some folks to talk to on a more than grunting basis. But the team faltered. Daal and Figueroa are long gone, Lee was too inconsistent (and too mellow) for Larry Bowa, and Padilla still is trying to harness his tremendous talent.

No one really got angry with Schilling. He was right, even if it hurt. The ownership was lame, and Schilling was only doing what many of the fans had done before -- voting with his feet. He was so popular that many Philadelphia fans root for him to this day and cheered him when he helped lead the D-Backs to the world championship several years ago.

Rolen was the next to leave, albeit two years later, in 2002. He made the mistake of confiding to Schilling in 2000 that he wanted out for similar reasons, a bad ballpark and an ownership that didn't seem committed to spending the money to win a title. Schilling then relayed this to the local media. The Phillies threw big bucks at Rolen, desperate as they were for him to remain as they were on the verge of opening a new ballpark, and he and his agent went back and forth with Ed Wade, the Phillies' GM, but Rolen decided not to talk contract during the 2002 season. That strategy seemingly infuriated GM Ed Wade and manager Larry Bowa, the stalemate went public and turned into a rift, the Phillies and some local media cast Rolen as a greedy modern ballplayer (the contract offer was generous and, I believe, better than what Rolen ultimately got in St. Louis), and the climate was tense. Rolen was roundly booed for reasons that remain unclear to me and to this day, still gets booed. He was right, and he told the truth. He always gave his all.

So in 2002 the Phillies shipped Rolen to the Cards for Placido Polanco, Bud Smith and Mike Timlin. Makes you think of an Ernie Broglio for Lou Brock scenario. Attendance remained bad, and the Phillies were on the verge of opening a new stadium.

In the off-season that followed, they signed Jim Thome, who is 5 years older than Rolen, to a whopping contract, and then this year they opened a new stadium, which, by all accounts, is a very nice place to watch a game (but perhaps not to pitch one). They showed, correctly, that the money they would have spent on Rolen got them Thome, free agent 3B David Bell and pitcher Kevin Millwood, as salaries dropped during that off-season. Thome is very popular, the Paul Bunyan type who hits mammoth home runs and always seems in a good mood. Bell spent most of the time on the DL with a bad back, and Millwood had trouble during crunch time in September. Still, it was the Phillies' gas-can bullpen that faltered most during the playoff run, and the Phillies finished behind the Marlins. But the future looked bright, they spent more money in last off-season (adding Billy Wagner, Tim Worrell and Eric Milton), and they are once again contending for a division title.

The numbers for the dramatis personae this year are as follows:

Rolen: .341, 18 HR, 75 RBI.
Thome: .320, 25 HR, 53 RBI.
Schilling: 9-4, 3.17 ERA (1.12 WHIP).

All are great players. One gets cheered in Philadelphia because all now is well, the gingerbread house stadium was built, and he's hitting majestic home runs. That's the way it should be. Another gets cheered because in a big game he still might be the best pitcher of the past 10 years, and the fans remember his heroic efforts in the 1993 post-season very fondly. Even though he created his share of controversy, he was very media-friendly and savvy, and the fans like his guts.

But the third, who always charges hard, who always is graceful and gracious, gets roundly booed as a visiting player. He was greedy, the fans think. He was an ingrate. And there the fans are wrong. First, he's no more greedy or an ingrate than any other major league player. Second, no one can fault him for wanting to win (even if St. Louis has proved, ironically, that it's a few pitchers short from seriously contending). Third, no one ever could question his effort or his class.

And, because of the stance he took, the comatose (if not catatonic) Phillies' management awoke from its deep slumber. And started spending the money that now makes a Phillies' fan want to watch the games closely, because the Phillies are in contention.

So the next time they see Scott Rolen, they should give him a standing ovation. Because, without the stance he took, you would have a 74-88 baseball team playing in Citizens Bank Park today.

Philadelphia fans will go see a good team in a cow pasture (or a decaying concrete saucer, for that matter), but they won't go see a bad team in a palace. At least not for long.

And they can watch all three of those stalwarts in this year's All-Star game. Which is as it should be.