The Phillies hadn’t been to the postseason since 1993. They had finished 12 games back in the NL East the year before. And Jimmy Rollins told the Associated Press he thought the Phillies should be the favorites heading into next season.
“I think we are the team to beat in the NL East — finally,” he said in January 2007. J-Roll was just 27, a three-time All-Star who hadn’t yet been to the playoffs in his career. But he had been around for a while. He was entering his prime, and he started talking like a team leader.
In that interview, Rollins stressed that recent offseason pitching additions would put the Fightins over the hump. Those additions were Adam Eaton (10-10, 6.29 ERA in 2007) and Freddy Garcia (1-5, 5.90 ERA in only 11 starts). The 2007 rotation ended up being no better than the year before.
And when the Phillies started 1-6 after an embarrassing loss to the Mets, Rollins didn’t back down even as the New York tabloids crowed. Were the Phillies still the team to beat? “Yeah, we are,” he said after a game where the Mets scored 7 runs in the 8th after a Rollins error. “The record doesn’t show that, but that’s the beauty of the season.”
The pitching wasn’t as good as he predicted. The Phillies started 4-11. No matter. Rollins played in all 162 games, lead the league in runs with 139, had 212 hits, 38 doubles, 20 triples and 30 homers. He hit .296 and slugged .531. A Phillies shortstop who slugs over .500 and fields like that? Rollins even turned 110 double plays in 2007. The Phillies somehow came back from 7 games down to the Mets with 17 to play, Rollins won the MVP and the Phillies won the NL East for the first time since 1993.
The “Team to Beat” prediction is literally one of the most awesome things in Philadelphia sports history. Rollins tripled in the bottom of the 8th at Shea Stadium to give the Phillies the win against the Mets on September 15th. He hit a three-run homer in a 13-11 win over the Cardinals two days later. He broke a 6-6 tie in the 8th with an RBI double in a 7-6 win over the Nationals on September 20th. He opened the scoring of a 6-0 win over the Nationals in the last weekend of the season with a two-run double in the fifth.
He told the Mets the Phillies were the better team going into the season, and then he went out and did it. For this alone, Philadelphia owes him the world. But Rollins did not stop. The Phillies followed up 2007 with four more NL East titles, with Rollins playing 684 games in that five-year stretch of titles. The Phillies had one winning season in the 14 years before Rollins’ rookie year. They’ve had two full losing seasons since.
His postseason heroics stand out. Rollins has the biggest hit in team history. One out from the Dodgers tying the 2009 NLCS at 2 games, Rollins ripped a Jonathan Broxton fastball to the wall. The Phillies ended up winning their second consecutive NL pennant a game later.
Rollins had more than just that play, though. In 2008, with the Phillies a win from their first postseason series win in 15 years, Rollins led off the game with a homer. He did the exact same thing in the clinching game in the NLCS that year, leading off Game 5 with a blast. Both of these games were on the road. In the clinching Game 4 of the 2009 NL division series, he led off with a single, advanced around the bases and scored on a Ryan Howard sac fly. (This was the “Fuck yeah, Jimmy” game.) Even in the disastrous 2011 division series, when the 102-win Phillies lost to the Cardinals, Rollins went 9-for-20 with 4 doubles and 6 runs scored.
Last weekend, Jimmy Rollins passed Mike Schmidt for the all-time team lead in hits. He is cocky. He is likable. He is funny. He’s never been in trouble. He wears Jordan cleats. He does annual charity work. A couple times he didn’t run to first — generally, from reading body language, because he was pissed he made an out. He even tweaked fans, calling them “front-runners” (they are, as all fans of all teams logically should be).
Jimmy Rollins is just the best. No one has been more of a symbol of the greatest sustained success in the entire history of the team than Jimmy Rollins. Their time appears to be coming to an end. It’s a little early to think how they should be remembered around the stadium, but whatever. Many of the longtime Phillies of this run would be good for statues: Rollins, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley. Rollins may not be the best on the field of those three. But his play, his attitude, his swagger, his 15 years in pinstripes make him worthy of the next Citizens Bank Park statue after his retirement.
Follow @dhm on Twitter.