Throwback kid could help save baseball

March 16, 1998|By George F. Will

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- The pregame music, piped out of the little ballpark's scratchy public address system, included Glenn Miller's "PEnnsylvania 6-5000." That tells you which age cohort is most heavily represented in the small crowds at weekday afternoon games in Florida's spring training Grapefruit League.

Some March, 50 years from now, elderly fans warming their aching joints in the sun may sigh nostalgically as the thick Florida air is filled with the sounds of some golden oldie by Nine Inch Nails. In time, everything becomes retro.

Scott Rolen already is, and he is just 22. And a long way from home in Jasper, Ind., which is north of the town of Santa Claus. Really.

To get from southern Indiana to the Philadelphia Phillies at such a tender age you just have to hit and play third base well enough to stir tentative comparisons with the Phillies' Mike Schmidt, who retired in 1989, after hitting 548 homes runs, winning 10 Gold Gloves and establishing himself as the all-time best third baseman. (You can get an argument about that, as about anything in baseball.)

Mr. Rolen, fresh from a rookie-of-the-year season (he was a unanimous selection), has just signed a four-year contract. It will earn him $10 million, which will go a long way in Jasper, and will keep the wolf from the door in Philadelphia, where he says he wants to live. He probably could have gotten more if he had waited, but he says the contract gives him enough money. Stranger still, he says he wants to be a Phillie forever.

Any team can have a bad century, but the Phillies have overdone it. Since 1900 they have lost 1,270 more games than they have won, so they need about an eight-season winning streak just to get back to mediocrity (.500). The Phillies have finished last 28 times. By the time the Philadelphia Athletics decamped for Kansas City (en route to Oakland) in 1954, they had finished last 18 times. Seven years both teams finished last. No wonder Philadelphia fans are so famously surly.

(Last season, a Phillies relief pitcher gave up four walks and two hits in one-third of an inning -- without giving up a run. How? Answer below.)

Now comes a cure for Philadelphia's dyspepsia. Mr. Rolen plays, as baseball people say, with the intensity of someone who thinks there is a higher league to get to. He stands 6 feet 4, has curly semiblond hair, and talks like someone who wandered out of a Booth Tarkington novel about the Midwest.

With the approval of his parents, both of whom are teachers, he skipped college, but he is a diligent autodidact who reads more than most undergraduates do. Last year, a playful Phillie veteran ripped the last 10 pages out of Mr. Rolen's copy of "Atlas Shrugged." He read Dostoevski on team flights last year, and has found a Barnes & Noble near here to keep himself stocked with literature his teammates can shred.

Sitting behind the right field fence, picking at a flap of torn skin on his knee and waxing philosophical, he says the supposedly "true" hops of balls bouncing across that artificial turf (such as the Phillies play on at home) are actually artificial: "A true hop is when it hits a rock and bounces over your head." This is not a postmodern third baseman, brooding about the indeterminacy of truth. This is a real retro ballplayer -- what baseball people call a "throwback."

Blood sport

He plays hard, as the blood on his forearm -- all this bloodshed in a spring training game -- attests. But he is just a boy when recalling his parents' broad smiles as they walked to their seats in Philadelphia at his first major league game. Just as today's game was about to begin, the only imperfection in the setting was corrected: The power failed, extinguishing the scoreboard lights and the sound system. So there was not even a Grapefruit League hint of the environmental blitzkrieg -- blaring music, hectoring scoreboards, demented mascots -- that blight most major league ballparks.

Such noise and folderol, inflicted by today's lords of baseball, express their lack of confidence in their product. The product is represented by the young man out there at third base, at the beginning of a career that might help Philadelphia forget the nightmare that has been the 20th century.

(Answer: OK, it was a trick question. The reliever entered the third inning with two outs, gave up a single and two walks, then got a strikeout. He started the fourth inning, surrendered a single and two walks and then was removed.)

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 3/16/98

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