Rolen shoulders the load

Jeff Passan

JUPITER, Fla. – The pain wasn't the problem. Scott Rolen inherited his mother's tolerance, and Linda Rolen, her son says proudly, endured two root canals without anesthetic.

The crippling feeling of not being able to excel – that's what scared Scott Rolen. He could swing a bat. He could not swing it well. He could make contact with the ball. He could not drive it. He tried. He failed.

And so Rolen, the National League's best third baseman when he's healthy, is here: Weaning himself off two surgeries on his left shoulder in the last 10 months, yet needed by his team, the St. Louis Cardinals, more than ever. Trying to forget the worst season of his nine-year career while he struggles to find his power stroke. Putting on the happy face one minute, then delivering progress reports such as Monday's: "Can't say anything bad about the shoulder."

Not exactly a ringing endorsement. Sounds a lot like an auto mechanic diagnosing faulty brakes and saying, "Well, at least the transmission didn't go."

Is there anything, say, good about the shoulder that needed its labrum repaired?

"It's responding, at least," Rolen said. "I knew I was going to have to work through some stuff. I am. I'm out there every day."

Rolen turned to Mark Mulder.

"How's that sound?" Rolen asked.

"Good," Mulder said.

Everyone in the pocket of lockers surrounding Rolen's, including Mulder, is sick of shoulder talk. Rolen answers more questions about his shoulder than a Supreme Court nominee in front of Congress. Probably because without a healthy Rolen, the Cardinals could struggle to win their third consecutive National League Central title and almost certainly won't win 100 games again.

While Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter anchors one of baseball’s best rotations, the lineup that slugged the Cardinals to the World Series in 2004 no longer makes pitchers sweat. Reggie Sanders and Mark Grudzielanek went to Kansas City. Larry Walker retired. Jim Edmonds, 35, showed signs of sliding last season.

"You take the most important guys on this roster," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said, "and Scotty's tied for first with them. If he has his normal season over the next number of years, he's a Hall of Famer."

Generally guilty of managerial exaggeration, La Russa uses no hyperbole with Rolen. When healthy, he hits around .300, belts 30 home runs, drives in 100 runs and wins a Gold Glove. Rolen wins games with his bat and saves them with his glove.

"You need producers," said Hall of Famer Lou Brock, an instructor in Cardinals camp. "If Scotty doesn't produce, we'll be looking for one. And I'm not sure where."

The tentacles of worry stretch beyond Brock. At 30, Rolen is only getting older, his recovery time only getting slower. Doctors figured the first surgery, needed after a collision with Hee-Seop Choi, would fix Rolen. It didn't, and he sat on the bench for the Cardinals' final 67 games and another nine in the playoffs.

"People say, 'You must really have wanted to be out there.' No," Rolen said. "The back of my shoulder was ripped off the bone. I don't want to be out there. I was out there, and it was miserable.

"It just got to the point where I couldn't play anymore. It wasn't a matter of tolerance. The pain went all the way through. But I kept thinking, 'I'm going to turn the corner here.' Never happened. Got worse.

"I'm kidding myself to think I'm not going to be sore some days. I am. Some days are better than others, and that's just the way it's going to be."

Rolen shrugged his shoulders, resigned to the pain, almost taunting it. That's his forte. After going 0 for 12 against the Dodgers in the NL Division Series because of a strained calf, Rolen hit a pair of home runs in Game 2 of the NLCS at Busch Stadium and added another to put the Cardinals ahead in Game 7. He gritted his teeth and played through the physical anguish. He can deal with that.

The uncertainty is what really hurts. And right now, for Scott Rolen and the Cardinals both, it's immeasurable.