CLEARWATER, Fla. — On a half-field in front of the entrance to the Philadelphia Phillies’ practice complex, there was Jimmy Rollins fielding grounders with a group of minor leaguers and no-name guys.
It was the first day of spring training and regulars weren’t due to report for another five days. Rollins has always been among the last to arrive to camp. The three-time All-Star shortstop usually swaggers into the clubhouse a day before full squad workouts begin.
Not this year.
The former NL MVP is coming off a subpar season. He’s also entering the final year of a $46.5 million, six-year contract. That’s enough motivation to show up early. So was the snow and cold weather back in Philadelphia.
“You were there up north, it wasn’t fun,” Rollins said. “I wanted to get down here, get my legs underneath me early so when we get into the games, I had a good feel going into it. I missed a lot of time last year, so there’s no time to take time off. I played barely over half a season, so I wanted to get down here as soon as possible, get some sun, get situated in the house, let the dogs get acclimated to the weather, hit a little and just get going before everything started.”
Rollins played in a career-low 88 games last year because of leg injuries. He also had a career-worst .243 average. In the three years since he was MVP, Rollins hasn’t come close to matching the numbers he put up in 2007 — .296 average, 30 homers, 94 RBIs, 20 triples, 41 steals.
Some think the 32-year-old Rollins is on the decline. He doesn’t feel he has anything to prove to doubters.
“No, not any more than I’ve had to prove every year,” he said. “My whole life I always feel like I’ve had something to prove. That’s the chip you have to play with. If you want to be the best, you have to go and prove it. People aren’t going to give you that title. That’s still my intention. It’s not like you get hurt and then you come to be that much better the next year. I plan on being that much better every single year. At the end of the season, you look at the numbers and hopefully they are that much better.”
Rollins sets lofty goals for himself. He’s already checked off his list 200 hits, 30 homers and 20 triples. He’s still looking for a .300 average, 50 doubles, 100 RBIs, 150 runs and 50 steals.
Though Rollins has struggled in recent years, the Phillies have flourished. They won the World Series in 2008, fell two games short of repeating in ’09 and were eliminated in the NLCS last year after finishing with the best record in the majors.
As the leadoff hitter, Rollins had always been the offensive catalyst. But Shane Victorino had to fill that void most of last year.
“As I go, we go. And if I don’t go, they still go,” Rollins said. “It’s good to be a part of the first half because it makes it that much better. One more weapon in our lineup.”
Rollins prefers leading off and manager Charlie Manuel plans to keep him there. He’s hit third at times when Chase Utley has been out, and could be the team’s best answer to replace Jayson Werth in the No. 5 spot behind Ryan Howard.
The switch-hitting Rollins would accept hitting fifth if necessary, but he thinks that spot takes away from his game.
“In the five hole, I can’t be all that I am,” he said. “I can’t get out there and steal bases and run wild like I want to. I’m not going to score the runs that I want to. I’m not going to have the impact on the team that I want to in the five hole. That’s just the way that it is. My game is stealing bases and making things happen, and in the five hole, you’re gonna have to shut it down. You have your time to run, but you get out there and start running and now they pitch around guys, now you get the pitcher up with two outs or you stay at first and hope a guy hits a ball in the gap.”
Rollins is the longest-tenured player on the Phillies, and he’s the go-to guy for a good quote. He’s also known for making bold predictions.
In January ’07, Rollins proclaimed the Phillies were the team to beat in the division. He backed that up by leading Philadelphia to its first NL East title since 1993 and was MVP.
In ’08, Rollins said the Phillies would win 100 games. They had 92 in the regular season, but added 11 more in the postseason en route to winning the franchise’s second World Series title.
Before the 2009 World Series, Rollins said on “The Jay Leno Show” that the Phillies would beat the Yankees in five games. New York won in six.
Rollins took last year off from prognostication, but was back at it this spring. He said the Phillies would win 100 games and challenge Seattle’s record for most wins. The Mariners won 116 games in 2001.
Of course, the top priority for Rollins and the rest of the team is winning another World Series.
“You can never be satisfied with (less) once you’ve won the World Series,” he said.
Depending on how he performs this season, there’s no guarantee Rollins will be in Philadelphia next year. He doesn’t want to go anywhere else and hopes to get a new deal eventually.
“It’s guaranteed I’m going to play baseball. That’s guaranteed,” he said. “That’s the only thing that is guaranteed, well, as long as I’m healthy and living.”