10/21/08 7:34 PM EST
Rollins brings devotion to grand stage
From past to present, Phillies star exhibits tireless dedication
"It's pretty bouncy," Rollins mutters, describing the artificial turf infield. "The ball never stops bouncing when its gets to the dirt. Hey, sometimes it doesn't bounce at all."
As the Phillies' shortstop goes through a workout ritual the other day at Tropicana Field, it's a mundane drill he's executed thousands and thousands of times. On all types of fields, good and bad.
This time, it's different. Rollins, defending National League MVP, is in the World Series against Tampa Bay, a lifelong dream, if not fantasy, that reaches reality Wednesday night.
Another ball bounces his way, he gloves it and throws a bullet. There's a trace of a smile on his face.
I'd be very surprised if Rollins, 29, isn't thinking back to his childhood in Oakland maybe 20-some years ago when he'd field hundreds of ground balls his dad hit him until he got it right. It was usually dark when father and son finally would call it quits and go home.
"Jimmy's always wanted to be the best at what he does," Gigi Rollins, his mom, says over the phone from the family home in Alameda, Calif., the other day. "He drives himself to be the best."
If the Phillies are going to stall favored Tampa Bay's unbelievable journey to a World Series championship, Rollins will have to be on his game.
As J-Roll goes, so go the Phillies. As their leadoff batter, if he's able to get on base, get key hits, steal a base, play flawless defense, teammates most often follow his lead.
He had just nine hits in 37 at-bats in the Division and League Championship Series, but in each of the deciding games he was instrumental in getting the Phillies off to a fast start. Against the Dodgers, in the clincher last Wednesday, he led off with a homer, setting the stage for a hard-fought victory.
James Rollins Sr. knew his talented son would never become a great fielder by taking ground balls on smooth, well-manicured fields.
So the father would go out of his way to find the roughest fields available in the Oakland area.
"We'd go to the roughest fields because it was a challenge," remembers Jimmy. "He'd always try to find a field that was beat up and let the ball jump around. You catch that ball, and you've got some good hands."
The elder Rollins says there was method to his madness.
"We'd go to places where there were roots in the ground and the ball would take crazy hops," he told me once. "Then, I'd take him to a smooth field to show him the difference. Then, we'd go back to the rough field, and I'd hit it to him pretty hard so he'd be able to take different spins."
Rollins won his first Gold Glove at shortstop during his MVP season. He also took home the coveted Silver Slugger Award.
It was Jimmy's father who also taught him to be a switch-hitter when he was 9.
"I had him hit from the left side only for a year. That's how I started him out," said James Rollins. "One day he came home crying. He said he couldn't hit from his natural [right] side anymore. He thought he'd lost it, but I told him not to worry. I told him he had just converted himself over to a switch-hitter."
But both father and son insist Jimmy's athletic ability comes from his mom, Gigi, who was an outstanding semi-pro softball player in the Oakland area. Like her son, she was an infielder and leadoff hitter.
"She had all the tools and taught him the right way and the wrong way to play the game," said the father.
Often, after he got to the Phillies, Gigi would watch Jimmy on TV, then call him to critique his performance.
Several years ago she kept telling him to take more pitches, be more selective at the plate. Jimmy would argue "that you cannot take away my aggressiveness."
Rollins says, laughing, "after I won the MVP, I think she gave me a pass. Although I'll get a text message now and then."
Mention this to Gigi and her only response over the phone is a long laugh. "Is that what he said?" she asks.
Composing herself, she relates an anecdote about her son, showing how proud she is of him.
"What's so wonderful is he hasn't changed at all," she says. "He's still the same ol' Jimmy, even with all the things that have come his way -- the MVP, the Silver Slugger, the Gold Glove and now he's going to the World Series.
"This is how wonderful he is, and I'm not saying it because he's my son: He has been in contact with a young man in Northern California who has cancer, but is in remission. Jimmy made a video for him, urging him to keep his courage.
"When my husband and I were out on the field [at Dodger Stadium] helping Jimmy celebrate the victory that put the Phillies in the World Series, he stopped right in the middle, turned around to his father and asked if he'd heard from the little boy. Right in the middle of the celebration! We were just blown away; he looked at his father and just asked that. That's an example of how humble he is."
Gigi adds: "This is a moment he's been waiting almost his entire life for, to get to the World Series. It's what he's dreamt of. But to take a moment out of his celebration ..."
Jimmy is one of three children. He has a sister and a younger brother, Antwon, who was in the Texas Rangers Minor League system, but never made it to the Majors.
Gigi once told me she knew early on Jimmy had a special talent.
"He was maybe only a year old when I first started rolling the ball to him," she said. "I'd sit on the stairs in front of the house, and I would roll it. He'd pick it up and roll it back to me."
The Rollins clan will be in the stands for the World Series.
And it goes without saying they'll have a hard time not remembering the skinny little boy who took ground balls by the hour so he'd be the best he could be.
Which for Jimmy Rollins is about as good as it gets.
Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.