Scott Rolen was elected this year to the Baseball Hall of Fame. He made it by five votes. If there was a Dale Murphy Nice Guy Award, Rolen would win it unanimously.
With apologies to Brooks Robinson, Mike Schmidt, George Brett and Nolan Arenado, Rolen was the best defensive third baseman I ever saw. He played third base with a glove on his left hand and a magic wand in his right hand.
If a batter bunted toward third or hit a slow roller toward third, he could make life easier on his legs by going directly to the dugout. Rolen was going to scoop it barehanded and throw a bulls-eye dart to first base.
In fact, he could have played the position without a glove.
That, though, isn’t what is most lodged in my mind about Rolen. It was his soft-spoken modesty, his honesty and his leadership.
The first day he walked into the clubhouse after the Cincinnati Reds acquired him from the Toronto Blue Jays for Edwin Encarnacion, he won me over immediately.
I was conducting a one-on-one interview with him in front of his locker. As we talked, I felt a presence behind me. It was a TV guy with his camera over my shoulder aimed at Rolen.
Rolen stopped talking, then politely said to the guy, “We’re doing a private interview here. It is not fair that you film this man’s interview. If you want to talk to me, I’ll talk to you after I’m finished with this man.”
Rolen’s nickname should have been Regal. He had a majestical presence about him. When he arrived in 2009, the Reds consisted of a bunch of young talent, including Joey Votto.
Rolen quietly and behind-the-scenes taught that team how to be professionals, how to prepare for games, how to win games.
I once heard baseball writer Pedro Gomez say, “The umpire doesn’t say, ‘Work ball,’ he says, ‘Play ball.’ Rolen subscribed to that and said, “I enjoy coming to the ballpark every day. I don’t go to work. I come here to play.”
It all paid off in 2010 when Rolen helped lead the Reds to the National League Central Division title with a 91-71 record.
Rolen was 35, near the end of his illustrious career, but not only was his clubhouse leadership valuable, he chipped in with 20 homers, 83 RBI and 34 doubles.
And you couldn’t get a ball past him with a bazooka.
Before landing with the Reds, the Jasper, Ind. native played for Philadelphia, St. Louis and Toronto. He also was a fantastic basketball player and had accepted a scholarship to play basketball at the University of Georgia.
He was 19 years old when the Phillies convinced him to trade basketball shorts for baseball pants. And when he signed, he said, “I’ve been given an opportunity right now and I’m going to run through a wall and try to take advantage of it.”
He didn’t have to run through any wall. He just ran hard on the bases and said that part of his game is what makes him most proud, even more proud than his seven All-Star appearances and eight Gold Gloves.
He always ran hard to set an example, “Because everybody can hustle. It isn’t that hard. And I don’t mean just from home to first. It is all around the bases.”
And he had a dry wit. When a writer spotted him reading a book and gave him a quizzical look, Rolen said, “I play baseball and I like to read. What makes that odd?”
His modesty was displayed after the announcement that he had his pass to Cooperstown.
“You don’t think about this,” he said. “You think about trying to do the best you can and play for your team and do the best you can. It’s such a long road and I never thought the Hall of Fame would be the answer.”
When he first arrived on the ballot, it looked as if he wouldn’t come close to being enshrined. He received only 10.2% of the votes. A player needs 75% for enshrinement. I thought that was a sham and a shame.
On the sixth ballot, he received 76.3%. His first-year percentage is the lowest ever received by a player eventually elected.
He also liked to humanize himself, make certain everybody knew he was more than a professional baseball player.
“Yes, I’m a baseball player,” he said. “I’m also a guy who mows his own lawn and plays with his dog.”
There is no doubt he is a Hall of Fame grass-cutter and a Hall of Fame dog lover.