SAN FRANCISCO – The swagger is still there. It is in his step, specifically on his shoes, which, just to remind people, have the following scripted along the back: J-Roll. He has, after all, been somewhat easy to forget.
The years haven't been kind to Jimmy Rollins(notes), the minute marvel whose razzle-dazzle style won him admirers in hard-to-please Philadelphia and a most valuable player award with the Phillies after the 2007 season. Since then, he slumped through the team's World Series championship in 2008, turned into an out-making machine last year and suffered through manifold injuries this year. The electric J-Roll disappeared.
Jimmy Rollins was here, and he was nothing special.
So to see him come through Sunday night with a bases-loaded rocket shot off the wall that salted away the Phillies' 6-1 victory in the National League championship series was to step into a warp machine and set it for three years ago. Because along with Rollins' reliability went the Phillies' reliance on him, dropping him from first or second to sixth in the batting order, expecting little, hoping that at 31 something remained for the rest of this NLCS, which continues Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET against the San Francisco Giants.
"You figure out things," he said. "You solve problems. Sometimes there's going to be confusion. But once you lose the confidence, you're not going to have a chance to play at this level. So that's never going to be there. God gave me this talent, and I'm going to do something with it."
The sentiments echo Rollins' tack over the last three years, when he followed disappointing seasons with proclamations of better fortunes ahead, the past being the past and the future rewarding him for hard work and dedication. Such thinking was wishful, of course, as baseball gives neither rewards nor special treatment to those once among the elite. Rollins struggled, and it tested not just his patience but manager Charlie Manuel's willingness to play him.
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Fans chirped about Rollins' season-long slump, and Manuel never wavered.
"That's what a good manager does," Rollins said. "He keeps running his guys up there and wants you to know that he has your back, regardless. You're the guy that he chose. And until you run yourself into the ground, he's going to keep pushing you out there. If it doesn't happen, you're still going to get run out there. You figure sooner or later it's going to turn the corner."
"I know how good Jimmy Rollins can be," Manuel said. "I got a lot of faith in him and I stand there and I pull for him, and I know how good he can hit and also I know how good he wants to be up there or how much he wants to be up there. Stay right with you, son. I'll go down with you."
The Phillies seem to be going nowhere and everywhere. The team will return all of its core in 2011 except outfielder Jayson Werth(notes), who likely will sign elsewhere as a free agent. With a rotation beginning with Roy Halladay(notes), Roy Oswalt(notes) and Cole Hamels(notes), a lineup with Chase Utley(notes), Ryan Howard(notes) and others, the Phillies can do this again. Already they are on the cusp of their third consecutive World Series appearance and would be the first National League team to do so since the 1942-1944 St. Louis Cardinals
And yet there is the stark reality that Rollins' trouble staying healthy, as well as the rest of the Phillies' frequent trips to the disabled list, portends a future in which it's not just Rollins whose health comes into question. Howard turns 31 in a month, and Utley is already there. Shane Victorino(notes) hits the big 3-0 in the offseason. All of the Phillies, aside from incumbent oufielder Domonic Brown(notes), are in their fourth decade of life, and it's something of a Catch-22.
As great as it is to have that cohesive unit, the Phillies don't want dominance to peter out tomorrow. They want a dynasty, something that surpasses those '42-'44 Cardinals who win championships in their first and third shots. The Phillies won in '08. They lost in '09. They're different in 2010.
With a healthy Rollins, they're downright scary. And that, of course, is the issue: he still might not be, the double off Casilla a product more of luck than skill, and he already doesn't like his role. "Batting leadoff is definitely a lot more fun," he said. "There's no doubt about it."
The swagger is there, all right, and Rollins is excited. He's from Alameda, Calif., just across the Bay. He'll have friends and family watching. And with a swing of his bat or throw from his knees, he'll try once again to remind everyone that J-Roll hasn't gone – and isn't going – anywhere.