Sunday, March 5, 2006

Jimmy Rollins
Rollins is contemplating his run
at history.

Oh, what a long winter it was for Phillies fans. After Billy Wagner pitched his last one and one-third innings in a Phillies uniform on October 2, 2005, notching a 9-3 win over the Washington Nationals, things appeared to be going smoothly as the offseason progressed. General Manager Ed Wade was finally fired, much to the delight of the Philly phaithful. Adding to the early pleasure of the offseason was the hiring of GM Pat Gillick, who sports a success-laden resume. Jumping right into the hot stove, he pulled off the much anticipated trade of first baseman Jim Thome to south Chicago, returning centerfielder Aaron Rowand and prospects Daniel Haigwood and Gio Gonzalez to Philadelphia. Former Cardinal Abraham Nunez, who filled Scott Rolen's big shoes when he landed on the DL, was also signed to provide David Bell some competition for his job at third base. However, the offseason was quickly spoiled when Wagner spat on Gillick's measly three-year, $30 million offer, and signed with Omar Minaya's New York Mets for four years and $43 million. Tom Gordon was immediately signed to calm the fans, still seething after barely missing out on the Wild Card to the NL Champion Houston Astros. Some other moves were made, but none noteworthy enough to make the fans forget about the 100 MPH fastball-throwing southpaw closer they had seen in a Phillies uniform for two years.

With all of the sour faces skulking about Philadelphia, one would have thought that nothing good came out of the 2005 season for the Phils. Such is not the case, as Pat Burrell returned to his 2002 ways, Brett Myers emerged as the fireballer he was projected to be, Bobby Abreu demolished Homerun Derby records left and right, and seemingly more importantly, Jimmy Rollins scorched the month of September and into October, finishing with a 36-game hitting streak that will continue into the 2006 season. Rollins will have a chance to tie Joe DiMaggio's all-time record of 56 straight games with a hit on April 25, and, obviously, a chance to break it on April 26. Because Rollins' streak will have endured two seasons, he will have the all-time record, but not the single-season all-time record, which will still belong to DiMaggio. Nevertheless, the hitting streak, along with Bobby Abreu trade rumors, has been the buzz over the last two months. It hasn't fazed Rollins, though, as he has taken each quip in stride. However, he knows that getting hits in 21 straight games right out of the gate is no easy task. Rollins said, "It's almost unimaginable that someone can even hit in that many games straight, but here I am across the halfway point. This is when it gets tough."

So, what if he does actually open up the season with a hit in 21 straight games? What if an athlete from a city known for its losing ways breaks one of the most hallowed records in all of sports? Chaos. Extra Rollins' merchandise -- jerseys, shirts, memorabilia commemorative of the streak -- is already in waiting, the Phillies organization is just hoping that the streak does get broken, as merchandise sales will go through the roof. Tickets for the April 25 and 26 games against the Colorado Rockies are about as hot as Phillies postseason tickets (if they existed). With all of the people attending games to witness what is currently the ninth-longest hitting streak in baseball history, concession and ticket revenue will skyrocket. The Phillies' (and Rollins') name will be plastered on the back pages of newspapers across the country with each passing game. But more importantly, above all of the money and all of the name recognition, is pride. Philadelphia will finally have pride in something that hasn't ended up in failure.

Donovan McNabb
Rollins would join the ranks of
McNabb and Iverson should he
break DiMaggio's record.

No more will Phillies fans have to remember the 1993 World Series for a silver lining (but Joe Carter did hit that homerun). Eagles fans will no longer have to point to Super Bowl XXXIX to remember what success tastes like (but McNabb was too tired to push the Eagles across the goal line). Sixers fans won't have to reminisce when Allen Iverson and Larry Brown were BFF's -- best friends forever -- and advanced to the NBA Finals in 2001 (but Iverson wasn't enough firepower to defeat the Lakers). Flyers fans can forget about the 1997 Stanley Cup Finals, when they were swept by the Detroit Red Wings. Yes, all of Philadelphia can forget about all its shortcomings, if only to capture a moment in history. The city of Philadelphia will finally be known for something other than cheesesteaks -- it will be known for one of the greatest feats in baseball history, by a shortstop who wouldn't be placed in the "A-list" under comedienne Kathy Griffin's standards, although he is friends with McNabb and Iverson, both A-listers.

The most important thing that will come out of Rollins' hit streak is success for his team. The Phillies are typically slow-starters, and a good month of April would behoove them as they aren't expected to be hard contenders for the playoffs this season. When asked about the status of his club, Rollins was quoted as saying, "Expectations change every year. People are going to believe what they want to believe. Personally, I believe we have a solid club." With Rollins regularly getting hits and getting on base for the club, it will allow Rowand, Utley, Burrell, and Abreu plenty of opportunities to drive in runs to support a mediocre pitching staff, from front to back. With less pressure on pitching, the pitchers can be themselves on the mound, and that will ultimately lead to confidence, and that will lead to a very stringent pitching staff. In addition, with Rollins' streak, he will absorb the lion's share of the media attention, which will take a lot of pressure over those who are underperforming, namely David Bell or Mike Lieberthal. Without being questioned and reminded of their tentative job status, they can focus on straightening out what ails them, and get right back into the swing of things.

Having dreamt of history being broken in the great city of Philadelphia, it's time to deal with reality. Rollins isn't even likely to reach 40 straight games with a hit, let alone 56. Rollins only finished April with a .257 batting average in 2005, and was 2-for-10 in his first three games. Considering that the Phillies will face tough pitching in their first three sets of three games apiece -- the Cardinals' Carpenter, Mulder, and Suppan; the Braves' Hudson, Smoltz, and Thomson; the Dodgers' Lowe, Penny, and Perez -- Rollins will have an even tougher task of being consistent with his bat. For the past two seasons, Rollins has had a keen eye at the plate, striking out only 73 and 71 times in 2004 and 2005 respectively. However, he can be very inconsistent in his patience and pitch selection at the plate, and is often prone to trying to both pull and lift the ball rather than going with the pitch, something Tony Gwynn (whom Rollins has trained with in the winter) was known for.

Rollins will need a lot of luck and an ability to utilize his and his team's momentum -- if any is gained -- in order to both break the streak and to give his team a much-needed push in a positive direction. Rollins may break DiMaggio's record, but don't bet your bottom dollar on it, and even if he does, it will be swept under the carpet if the Phillies fail to make the playoffs yet again. The story of the year would be a playoff appearance when no one expected them to hang in with the big boys that are the Braves and Mets. If Rollins has to choose between trying to extend his hitting streak and sacrificing the winning run over to third base, it will be the dilemma of the millennium. While it would appear at first glance that a historical feat such as the one Rollins is trying to make his own takes precedence over one regular season game in April, but try telling that to the Phillies team that finished one game behind the Astros for a playoff spot.