WHEN I SIT DOWN with Jimmy Rollins at Le Pain Quotidien, a cafe-style breakfast spot tucked into Walnut near Broad, the Phillies are nearly 40 games over .500, with the second-place Braves all but gagging on their fumes.
Outside, every 11th person you see is sporting a Phillies red jersey of some sort. But on this late-summer morning, the greatest Phillies shortstop of all time—who also happens to be a key member of the greatest Phillies team of all time—has something other than baseball on his mind.
“Warren Buffett pays less taxes percentage-wise than his secretary, you catch that?” says Rollins, referencing an opinion piece the billionaire investor penned the day before in the New York Times. “How can that be?”
In 2008, inspired by candidate Barack Obama’s message of hope and change, Rollins became one of very few pro athletes to publicly endorse a candidate for president. He even taped a robo-call on Obama’s behalf, and introduced Joe Biden at a get-out-the-vote rally in South Philly. He’s sticking by the President again this time, but not without reservation.
“When you extend the Bush tax cuts, you’re going back on your word,” he says. “We were talking about change and we kicked the can down the road.”
Drafted by the Phillies directly from Encinal High School in Alameda, California, Rollins watches CNN’s Anderson Cooper nearly as often as he checks in with SportsCenter. He says he checks in with Fox, too, just to know what the other side is thinking.
“You make some money, you get a little older, you get a little more conservative,” he says. “Happens to everybody. I get that. You don’t want to be broke ever again. But I’m blessed to pay a lot in taxes. I have friends and relatives that go day-to-day. Every American- deserves to feel secure at the end of their life. So if it’s going to lift two families up, go ’head, tax me more, I can handle it. Best I know, everyone’s going to die. No one’s taking money to the afterlife.”
JIMMY ROLLINS LIVES by a creed.
The creed is this: Compromise based on fairness equals order.
It’s what makes the world work. It’s why he’s frustrated with Washington. Why can’t politicians understand that?
When he married Philly girl Johari Smith a year and a half ago following a healthy run as a bachelor, he faced a whole new world of compromise. His baseball schedule, sacrosanct by necessity, forces Johari to compromise more than he does these days, but he knows that’s going to change. For one, a decision will have to be made down the road about where the couple will live when his baseball days are over; Johari likes Southern California, and he’s a stone-cold Northern California homeboy who is sick of snow. Whatever the decision, Philadelphia won’t be on the short list.
Even small things, like the choice of music played in the Phillies clubhouse, fall under Rollins’s doctrine of compromise. If he were the lone music decider, hip-hop would rule 24/7 in the Phillies’ inner sanctum. But Cliff Lee likes country music, and Kyle Kendrick also relies on country to amp up on days he’s taking the hill. Rollins laughs, says his teammates can’t believe he can refrain from cutting that noise off. But fair is fair.
It’s a good thing J-Roll is into fairness and compromise. He’ll need both dealing with the Phillies front office when his contract expires at season’s end. Rollins will be 33 next month—the edge of old in baseball-—and he’s going to want a multi-year deal, just to make sure he’s not swapping uniforms every time a team goes shopping for a veteran shortstop.
The “veteran” descriptor still stuns Rollins. The only time it hits him how long he’s been in the game is when he thinks about players like Cal Ripken, Mark McGwire and Tony Gwynn, guys that were still around in his early years. “I feel like a kid,” he says. “I learn something new playing baseball every day.”
As a young player with the Phillies a decade ago, Rollins was “a breath of def air,” as one website bio aptly puts it. He’d wear his hair in braids or dreds, sport bling, and say whatever came to mind, including his famous 2007 prediction that the Phillies—not the Mets—were the team to beat.
Today, he’s the team’s elder statesman. His head is shaved clean, he sports only a tasteful diamond in each ear, and his thoughts on the country’s deficit problem are worthy of an appearance on Charlie Rose. He still looks like a kid, and when he glances around at the young guys on the club, he wishes he could be their age again—“but only if I could know what I know now.” Emotionally and mentally, he likes older better. “You have more faith in your decisions. You think more.”
The decision whether to re-sign Rollins breaks down simply. Against: Rollins has served 11 years and may have lost half a step or so already, the Phillies have other tough money choices to make, and it may be time to make room for some younger blood. For: Rollins has served 11 years, he’s become a smarter player, the Phils will need his cool head to stay in the World Series hunt short-term, and what young blood you know is going to step in and click with Utley as well as J-Roll does?
But Rollins knows better than to negotiate in the press.
“Uh, whatever,” he says when asked about his future with the Phillies, shrugging. “I’m open.”
JIMMY ROLLINS IS so unrelentingly bright and cheerful, so thoroughly engaged when expounding on a wide range of topics, you can quickly find yourself in the conversational woods. One thread leads to another, and another, and because his thoughts pivot quickly and assuredly, you have to work not to drop the ball.
What began as a standard interview between writer and ballplayer becomes a game of improvisational pepper, one covering everything from the music he’s listening to (Common, Drake, Lil Wayne) to what he thinks about flash mobs (“My dad would have killed me”) to his favorite Philly restaurants (Osteria, Twenty Manning, El Vez, Parc, Continental Midtown) to a possible post-baseball music-business career.
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