Friday, February 26, 2016

Best players of the last 30 years, #27: Scott Rolen

Every player in this countdown is someone I believe deserves to be a member of the Hall of Fame. Of the 30 players who'll be featured here, 11 of them have already been voted in; others will get in without much trouble once they're eligible. A fair number are having or soon will have a hard time because of connections (sometimes substantive, sometimes not) to performance-enhancing drugs. Absent PED problems though, and especially among the hitters on this list, very few of these players are going to face many obstacles on their path to Cooperstown. An exception to that is Scott Rolen.

Rolen won the National League's Rookie of the Year Award and eight Gold Gloves for his work at third base. He was named to the All-Star team seven times, and was the second-best player on a World Series winner. Despite those accomplishments, he is going to be nowhere near to the 75% of the vote needed for induction when he lands on the ballot at the end of 2017.

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This countdown is a way for me to look back at the three decades I've spent as a baseball fan. My introduction to the project, with an explanation of sorts, and links to every entry can be found here.

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When I think of Scott Rolen, I think of a baseball card. From midway through high school until a couple years after I graduated from college, I worked for the park district in my hometown. It was, without a doubt, the best job I've ever had, and unless the Indians decide they want to sign someone even older than Rajai Davis to play in the outfield this summer, I'm sure my park district gig will remain the best job I ever have.

The Scott Rolen card I'm thinking of takes me back to  one of the many different aspects of that job, the sports camp I worked for a somewhat mind-boggling eight summers in a row. The first couple summers I was one of the counselors. There were three of us, to go with the 25 or so kids. We played all sorts of sports and games, gravitating to whichever ones turned out to be the most fun with that particular group of kids. It was where I first learned to appreciate soccer, from the camp's original head counselor. It was where I realized just how minor little rules baseball has, making it a rather difficult game to teach kids than most other popular sports. We played epic rounds of capture the flag. On rainy days, when forced indoors, we played hide-and-go-seek and let the kids go to parts of the building that might have gotten us fired had anyone important enough known about it. Every Friday afternoon we went to the swimming pool for a couple hours, and I tried to use the adoration of a couple dozen grade school kids to convince pretty girls to give me the time of day.

The summer after I graduated from college and the summer after that, there was a group of kids in the camp that played a game called MLB Showdown. It was a simplified version of Strat-O-Matic, involving cards and dice, along with additional bits of strategy that could be employed along the way. Unlike Strat-O-Matic, the card involved were akin to actual baseball cards. They had pictures of the players, and you didn't just get a full set of all available players; you had to buy packs of cards, with no way of knowing if anyone good would be inside. Over time you'd be able to build a better and better team, though you were limited by what amounted to a salary cap for your roster. 

The kids got me hooked on the game, and I got a couple of my friends hooked, and for a couple summers it was a small but very enjoyable part of my life, combining the strategy and competition involved with the joy of collecting, which I hadn't really had in my life for almost a decade at that point.

For a game marketed in part to kids, MLB Showdown was reasonably sophisticated; on-base percentage was the most important aspect of position players' cards; pitchers tired as the game went along, but not all pitchers tired equally; you would dread facing the heart of the other player's order if you were using a mediocre pitcher. Players with particular accomplishments in the previous season had bonus abilities though, which were sort of like momentarily putting the game into cheat mode. Scott Rolen won the NL Gold Glove and Silver Slugger in 2002, so his 2003 card had the bonuses for both those things, which made his card a very good one to have. One day during the lunch break at camp, two of the kids were playing the game, and another child asked, "Who is Scott Rolen?" The boy who owned the card responded, "I don't know, but I guess he's good.

That feels like an apt description of Scott Rolen, and maybe an explanation for why he's likely to receive so little Hall of Fame support in a couple years. For most fans, he just doesn't stand out. One skill Rolen did not seem to have was the ability to stay healthy; he missed 20 or more games in all but five of his seasons. Because of all that lost time, while his offensive rate stats (a career batting line of .281/.364/.490) are very good, his counting stats aren't especially impressive. 2077 hits, 316 home runs, 1287 RBI... those aren't numbers that scream "Hall of Famer." The consensus from modern defensive metrics is that Rolen was the second-best defensive third baseman of my lifetime. The thing is, unless he's a shortstop, elite defense rarely seems to convince anyone that a player was great, so Rolen doesn't get credit for his defense the same way Ozzie Smith did.

I hope I'm proven wrong about Rolen's Hall of Fame chances. The electorate is gradually changing, and I believe the voters ten years from now will be more appreciative of Rolen's merit than the voter of today are likely to be. Whether Cooperstown comes calling or not, Rolen will always have that tremendous MLB Showdown card, and will always bring me back to the summers that bridged my childhood with my adult life.


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