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Clap Clap ClapClapClap: Say It Ain’t So, J-Roll

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on August 15, 2008

“When you’re a pro athlete, there is no upside to being an interesting interview. All it does is make people hate you.”

There was an ad that would play on the Philadelphia Comcast Sports Net during Phils games earlier this season featuring Jimmy Rollins talking about the infamous reputation of Philly sports fans. I don’t have the exact quote, but it went something to the effect of how Philly fans are, naturally, not the most tolerant of groups, but that he respected that they were clearly knowledgeable about the game, and that they appreciated hard workers, presumably like himself. It wasn’t the most flattering of portraits, but it was honest, and it seemed fair enough. And I appreciated that one of the city’s favorite sons seemed to get what his new hometown was basically about–he clearly knew he wasn’t going to get unconditional support, but didn’t seem to be bemoaning that fact, rather seeming almost appreciative for the challenge.

Flash forward two-thirds of a season later, and the challenge appears to be getting the better of J-Roll. If his statistical case for last year’s MVP wasn’t quite as ironclad as some thought, it seems practically incontestible compared to the numbers he’s been putting up this year–noticably lower in just about every category except steals and OBP, his significantly improved K/BB ratio just about his year’s only bright spot. Last year, at the very least, his presence was always felt by his showing up to all 162 games, but this year he missed a couple weeks to injury and more importantly, got benched twice for breaking manager Charlie Manuel’s golden rules–hustle (Rollins failed to run out a pop-up, costing him extra bases on a flubbed catch) and show up on time (Rollins got stuck in traffic on the way to a crucial Phils-Mets game). Meanwhile, the team has faltered from their breakout start, most recently dropping four straight to the Dodgers (during which Jimmy went an unexemplary 3-18 with 1 RBI and 0 walks) and falling behind the Mets in the supertight NL East.

Still, all things considered, my impression has been that fans have gone relatively easy on Rollins, despite his disappointing year. No one was going to be chanting MVP for him this time come September, sure, but most Phil fans I’ve observed seemed to be channeling their negative energy against those causing the team’s real offensive woes, like mediocre backup infielder Eric Bruntlett, super-slumping corner outfielder Geoff Jenkins and the now officially highly subpar catcher Carlos Ruiz. Nonetheless, apparently whatever criticism Rollins did receive has gotten under his skin, as he’s changed his tune on Philly fans to the clip above, deeming them that most insulting of player-fan interactional terms, “front-runners,” in an interview on Best Damn Sports Show Period.

The reaction has not been good. Philly fans are used to being called many things, but to call them “front-runners” when their lack of championships is the stuff of legend (25 years and counting, more than pretty much any other major-market US city) is a hard pill to swallow. Jimmy was quick to offer a clarification (though notably, not an apology), and at least acknowledged that Phils fans never stopped showing up at the games. However, J-Roll continued to offer dissatisfaction at fans’ tendency to boo when the players screwed up, instead of being the forgiving, supportive fans that are apparently bred all throughout St. Louis.

I don’t really know what to make of this. I’ve tried to look at it as objectively as possible, but it’s hard not to be pretty disappointed when what is essentially your team’s franchise player comes out to throw a dagger like this at his fans, in the middle of the team’s darkest stretch of the season. To be fair, aside from the improper use of the term “front-runners,” none of his statements were particularly innacurate–Philly fans do have an unfortunate tendency to overreact at first signs of adversity, as few of the city’s fans will deny. But just as Jimmy’s star-making performance last year should’ve bought him a little slack in the mind of fans during his slump this year, I’d think the amazing support Philly fans showed him last year should have gotten them a little credit before J-Roll started publicly talking smack on them.

Also, while I’m not naive enough to think that all athletes have to love a city and its constituents just because its name is written on their jersey, I would’ve thought Jimmy at least understood Philadelphia well enough to know that his fans weren’t going to say “wow, J-Roll, it was unconditional support you wanted all along? I never knew!” Rather, he’s going to be something bordering dangerously close to persona non grata, and now might have to start dealing with some boos regardless of whether or not he plays well and follows the rules. As the team’s lead-off man and de facto leader, it’s hard to think of a single defense for this not being the absolute wrong time for him to be offering his city’s fans such constructive criticsm.

Unless, of course, he simply wants out. That’s the only possible interpretation I can offer as to why Jimmy would make such stupifying remarks at such an inopportune time, and why he would neglect to make the necessary mea culpas once the backlash started–that he no longer wants to play in Philadelphia, and is pushing management’s hand by making his PR situation in Philly untenable. Is it that hard to imagine? Well, yeah, kind of–he’s been on the team since the beginning of the decade, and has been one of the major reasons for its recent upgrade from perpetual mediocrity to perennial contention, earning him an MVP to show for his troubles. But then again, maybe not–it’s not hard to imagine him getting frustrated after his scuffles with manager Charlie Manuel, his occasional abdicating of the leadoff spot to the hotter Shane Victorino, and the wildly fluctuating ability of the team’s cleanup hitters to knock him in when he actually gets on base. Maybe he’s frustrated at being replaced by Chase Utley as the team’s golden boy, so quickly after his career-making season. Maybe he’s sick of losing to the Mets, sick of getting shown up by the now almost inarguably superior Jose Reyes. Maybe he just decided he’s not up to the challenge anymore.

But then again, for all the team’s problems, things could be a lot worse for Mr. Rollins. The Phils dropped out of first today, but they’ve got series coming up against the execrable Padres and Nats, and the one thing the Phils have been able to do consistently this year is beat up on significantly inferior teams. Plus, he could be in the AL, where teams actually have to be significantly over .500 to be in playoff contention. And truth told, he’s not even the player on the team with the most to complain about–that’d have to be staff ace Cole Hamels, who despite putting up near-Cy Young numbers all season (3.32 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 154 Ks to only 43 BBs, 30 more innings pitched than any other starter), has only a 9-8 record to show for his efforts, not even registering a W since the beginning of July, thanks to the Phils’ inexcusably poor run support.

So Jimmy, while I can’t say I don’t understand where your frustration is coming from, I really must question your intelligence for venting it so loudly and so publicly. My only hope is that you can erase this from the public’s memory (as well as mine specifically) by going on a monster tear these final six weeks of the season and leading the Phils back to the post-season where they belong. Then we can all get back to ripping on Carlos Beltran for copying your ’07 cockiness without copying your ’07 stat line.

One Response to “Clap Clap ClapClapClap: Say It Ain’t So, J-Roll”

  1. […] even a month ago, I was envisioning trade scenarios after it looked like his comments about the nature of Philly fandom was going to make his future in the city untenable. But a five-hit night in a season-highlight […]

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