Scott Rolen #33 of the Toronto Blue Jays bats against the New York Yankees on July 6, 2009, at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City.Jim McIsaac/Getty Images
When Scott Rolen joined the Toronto Blue Jays in the off-season before the 2008 campaign, it wasn’t a seismic move.
He was about to turn 33 years old. He’d already done most of the things that would earn his way into Cooperstown. He had a perniciously injured shoulder that had healed just enough so that he could occasionally remind you of the player he was.
For the year and a half he was in Toronto, Rolen played a Gold Glove-calibre third base and hit almost well enough to earn his salary. The team didn’t do anything special. He was moved on to Cincinnati to play out his career. The Jays got Edwin Encarnacion in return. Toronto won that trade galloping away.
Rolen wouldn’t feature anywhere on a list of great Jays. But on a list of great ballplayers who happened to wear the uniform? He’d be right up there near the top.
Rolen wasn’t just more than statistics – he was more than baseball. There was a gravitas to guy that made him stand out from his peers.
A professional baseball clubhouse does not breed searching minds. It’s a bunch of rich, often insecure, high-school-educated twentysomethings trying to figure out where they fit in a ruthless pecking order. It’s the army, but with money.
That sort of place is exactly how you’d expect it – loud, silly, cartoonishly macho.
Rolen was the opposite of those things. Rarely loud, never silly, and plenty macho, but the real sort. The kind that doesn’t need to advertise.
The first thing that struck you about him was his size. Most baseball players are bigger than you’d think. Rolen was a lot bigger. Like, enormous. He was listed at 6 foot 4, and may be the only athlete who’s ever underplayed his height. He was as wide across as a tool shed.
He moved differently than his colleagues. Sometimes you’ll see someone on the street and wonder, ‘Is that guy a pro?’ He has the build or the bear paws.
The secret way to tell is the walk. All pros walk alike – tipped forward, loping on the balls of their feet, arms spread slightly from their sides, hands hanging open. Like they’re preparing to tackle someone a dozen yards ahead of them. Even in retirement, after they’ve shrunk or spread out, the walk distinguishes them.
Rolen had an exaggerated version of the walk. He didn’t take a series of steps over to you. He floated across the floor, menacingly.
But most of all, it was the approach.
Upon arriving, Rolen took a typical veteran’s perk – a double-wide locker in a low-traffic corner of the clubhouse.
You’d often find him sitting there before games doing something no one in baseball does – reading.
That first spring training, you’d catch his teammates occasionally yelling something stupid over at him, trying to bring him in on a joke. Rolen would stop what he was doing, look over and stare. They stopped doing that pretty soon.
He didn’t participate in the hive mind, but the door to his office was always open. After a few weeks, you’d often see him in deep conversation with younger teammates. You’d be watching from across the room as he held up his hands to mime getting hold of the bat or something like that. Teaching.
Here’s the really weird thing – that sense of accommodation extended to journalists.
We often talk about how athletes are fearless. I’ll tell you one thing that terrifies them – anyone with a notebook. I don’t blame them. An errant comment to a reporter will torpedo your career quicker that a bad slide into second.
Rolen liked talking to reporters, as long as the questions weren’t stupid. If you asked him something dumb, or too personal, or – worst of all – cliched, he’d just give you the look. He was training all of us, all of the time.
The first time I ever talked to him, I asked about the shoulder. That’s all anybody had asked him about for years at that point. He was tired of talking about it.
He was sitting there drinking a coffee – another thing no one does in the clubhouse, for some reason.
“Shoulder’s no problem at all,” he said, staring up and taking my measure in a way that made me want to squirm. “Probably not even a topic of conversation at this point.”
And so it never was again.
What did he like to talk about? Books. Big fan of book chat. Road trips. The Rolen family did van life before that was a thing. Baseball tactics and philosophy. The deep stuff that most players don’t feel comfortable sharing.
For instance, on the topic of chemistry. Rolen said that the best team he’d ever been on, everybody in the clubhouse hated each other. Then he was on a team that was a season-long love-in, and the club didn’t go anywhere. So he wasn’t a big believer in chemistry.
It wasn’t hard to figure out which teams and (very famous) teammates he was talking about.
Baseball players don’t say things like that, but Rolen did.
He was especially good at baseball gossip. As long as you were off the record, Rolen told behind-the-scenes stories that some of us still tell each other today. You want to learn how to talk? Learn how to read. Rolen was proof of that rule.
He remains the only professional athlete who’s ever bought me a beer. He didn’t know a couple of us at the time, just vaguely recognized us from around the clubhouse. We all happened to walk into the same hotel lobby at the same time.
There are ballplayers I feel honoured to have seen in person. Roy Halladay was one of them. Alex Rodriguez. Ichiro Suzuki. Physical geniuses. Mozarts in miniature.
But when people ask me who I feel luckiest to have watched up close, it’s Rolen. He was more than great. He was professional. I don’t know how else to put it.
He did the job at the highest possible level, on and off the field. He handled it all the way you’d hope you could, but know you probably wouldn’t. In a business filled with company men, he was his own person.
Rolen squeaked into the Hall of Fame on Tuesday night. The difference was five votes out of 389 total. A near thing that should have been a far thing, in my opinion.
In the analysis that led up to his choosing, people talked about Rolen’s hidden attributes. The way defence has come to the fore of modern baseball thinking, and how well he ran the bases for such a masher.
For me, he will always be more than that – the ballplayer perfected. Someone who did baseball the right way, at every level, from the moment he put on the uniform until he left for home. A professional.