The Team to Beat: An Ode to J-Roll
I am a Phillies fan. Have been since I was a young boy. It’s been mostly heartache. But we recently came off one of the best five-year stretches in franchise history, and it’s now over. The trade of Jimmy Rollins to the Dodgers put an exclamation point on that.
So, with J-Roll’s departure, the question for many Phillies fans becomes what will his legacy be.
Like many Phillies fans, I had a love-dislike relationship with him. It doesn’t mean I won’t miss him and won’t think of him fondly in retrospect. But there were times he was maddening, and those times perhaps will cloud his overall legacy.
J-Roll was an extremely good, bordering on great player who could have been in the conversation as being among the all-time best at the position if he didn’t rest on the laurels of 2007–08. Even before then, he had moments of greatness — a 36-game hitting streak to end the 2005 season. a three-time All-Star, stolen-base champ.
But in 2007, before the Phillies had won anything, J-Roll told the media he felt the Phillies were the Team to Beat. The sports media were atwitter (and this is largely before Twitter). New York media, particularly those on the Mets beat, were critical of the brashness from a player on a team that hadn’t won anything since 1993.
And yet J-Roll did something that is pretty rare in sports: He backed up his words with performance. The Phillies trailed the Mets for most of 2007, but J-Roll had a campaign for the ages, winning the MVP award. And the Phillies took the East after being 7 games behind the Mets with 17 to play. Unheard-of. He deserved the MVP in the truest sense of the award — his value to team, perhaps not his headline numbers, trumped everyone in the league. His attitude put the Phillies over the top that year. He willed himself to a 20th triple in the final game of the season, giving up one of only four quadruple-double campaigns (20+ doubles, 20+ triples, 20+ homers, 20+ stolen bases) in baseball history. Goosebump-inducing stuff it was.
While the Phillies were bumped in the first round of the playoffs that season, a statement was made. J-Roll and the Phillies were the team to beat. Phillies fans couldn’t wait until 2008.
I remember the season opener in 2008 when the crowd chanted “MVP, MVP, MVP” for J-Roll. I was stoked for another playoff run. But something changed in J-Roll that season. While one couldn’t necessarily call it complacency, it was something pretty close. He was benched twice that season, for lack of hustle and tardiness. In my view, he became like a student who didn’t really have to try hard to do well on tests. He coasted.
He was still a great fielder, a good hitter and important leader for the team. He made the slick plays that teams need at key moments to take the next step. He got some clutch hits.
But it wasn’t as easy to love him. My buddy and I used to debate this all the time — whether J-Roll at 80% was OK if it allowed for J-Roll at 100% when it counted. My view: Fans can forgive declining performance due to age, but lack of hustle is hard to forgive.
Ultimately, the Phillies and J-Roll got the championship in 2008 and went to the playoffs in 2009, 2010 and 2011, with J-Roll being a key part of those teams. But they weren’t his teams. They weren’t the 2007 team. And one can’t help but wonder whether the Phillies might have won the World Series more than once with 2007 J-Roll leading them.
When J-Roll put his mind to succeeding, he was MVP-caliber and the fans would let him know. When he didn’t, the fans let him know. While time will likely be favorable to fans’ view of J-Roll, it’s a shame he didn’t do more to bask in the acclaim for his whole career with us.