Rolen embracing upcoming journey to Cooperstown

Written by: Bill Francis

Three days after receiving the phone call with the career-defining news that he had been selected to the game’s greatest ballclub, a still beaming Scott Rolen was donning the Hall of Fame jersey reserved for only a select few.

Having had some time to reflect on his recent election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, Rolen took part in a midafternoon press conference held at the MLB Network Studios in Secaucus, N.J., on Jan. 27.

Speaking with the assembled media, the longtime third baseman known for his defensive prowess and powerful bat talked about the journey in becoming a member of the National Pastime’s most exclusive fraternity.

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With candidates needing to appear on at least 75 percent of all ballots cast to earn election, Rolen, in his sixth year on the BBWAA ballot, received 297 of the 389 votes for a percentage of 76.3. He made an impressive climb after debuting on the ballot in 2018 and receiving only 10.2 percent of the vote. This year, Rolen received five more votes than the total of 292 needed to be elected.

The two-member Hall of Fame Class of 2023 – which also includes Contemporary Baseball Era Committee electee Fred McGriff – will be inducted on Sunday, July 23, in Cooperstown.

Jack O’Connell, the secretary-treasurer of the BBWAA, began the day’s ceremonies by speaking of this full circle moment with Rolen.

“I’m going to take you back in time 26 years ago, when Scott here was a candidate for the National League Jackie Robinson Rookie of the Year Award. This was 1997, the 50th anniversary season of Jackie’s debut,” O’Connell said. “And Scott was the overwhelming favorite that year. In fact, he eventually was elected unanimously. I’d say a day or two before I was going to make the call to him, his agent called me and said, ‘I don’t want to be presumptuous, but if you’re going to make the call to Scott, we wondered if his parents could listen in on the phone call.’ I was relatively new to doing this. Then I said, ‘Well, it sounds good. Yeah, I guess we could do that. Just let them know that the announcement isn’t for another hour, so kind of keep it in the family.’

“And so, when I did make the call, I could hear the click of another line coming in. And it was a really meaningful call – one that I remember.”

On Tuesday, when Rolen received the phone call of his Hall of Fame election from O’Connell and Hall of Fame Chairman Jane Forbes Clark, he was home in Indiana with his wife, daughter and son. But later that day went to his brother’s home where he shared the big news with his parents.

“So, it came full circle,” O’Connell said. “And now you and your family are in another larger family and a special family, the one in Cooperstown, New York. Congratulations.”

Rolen burst onto the baseball scene as the 1997 National League Rookie of the Year after getting his feet wet in 1996 with the Phillies and would go on to win eight Gold Glove Awards and make seven All-Star teams. A lifetime .281 hitter and 2002 NL Silver Slugger for third base, he clubbed 316 home runs with a career OPS of .855. Among third basemen, the Indiana native ranks in the Top 10 for WAR, while defensively only Brooks Robinson, Mike Schmidt and Nolan Arenado have won more Gold Gloves than he did at the hot corner. He batted .421 in the 2006 World Series helping the Cardinals to a Fall Classic crown.

After joking that today was the first time he had put a suit on for probably 11 years, Rolen admitted: “It’s going to be a fun six months.

“I never thought I was going to be a Hall of Fame player. But I never thought I’d get drafted. I never thought I’d make it through the minor leagues, the major leagues, and get a chance to win a World Series with the Cardinals,” Rolen said. “I wasn’t born and raised in Jasper, Indiana, to be a baseball player, to be a major league baseball player, to be a Hall of Famer. We were doing our best and were trying to be respectful of people and be accountable for who we are and grow up and treat people well and get a good job and a good education.

“And then I enjoyed playing basketball, baseball, football, tennis, all the sports, and played with our buddies and played pickup ball. Then I get drafted. And that’s fantastic. And I start playing and I started learning what work ethic is and how you work. Then I have coaches that finetune what I’m actually trying to do – I’m not just running around trying to sweat. I’m actually focused in on some things that I’m trying to get better at my game defensively and learn how to run bases and who I’m going to be as a player. It was a way that I could take just a hard work ethic maybe that I got back from Southern Indiana and learn how to do it, focus on my work and realize that if I’m going to stay here in Major League Baseball, if I’m going to be here, I have a little bit of ability, but I can outwork everybody on this field every single day. So, let’s give that a shot.”

A sturdy third sacker, listed at 6-foot-4 and 245 pounds during his playing career, Rolen – just the ninth third basemen elected to the Hall of Fame by the BBWAA – played 17 seasons from 1996 through 2012, splitting his time between the Phillies, Cardinals, Blue Jays and Reds. Selected out of high school by the Phillies in the second of the 1993 MLB Draft, collected at least 20 home runs in 10 seasons (1997-2004, 2006, 2010), hit .300-or-better in two seasons (2004, 2009), reached the 100-RBI mark in five seasons (1998, 2001-04) and scored 100-or-more runs twice (1998, 2004). He is one of only four third basemen in history (players who appeared in at least 50 percent of their games at third base) with at least 300 home runs, 100 stolen bases and 500 doubles, along with Adrian Beltré, George Brett and Chipper Jones.

Asked about an opportunity to attending the University of Georgia on a basketball scholarship after high school, Rolen said being drafted by Philadelphia changed everything.

“That became the best opportunity for me, certainly, to further my baseball career I thought,” Rolen said, “not just because I can go play baseball, but it just seemed like a good fit and a good setup. And like I said, my parents traveled their motorhome and followed me everywhere, so I got through some of the homesick part, too.”

Defensively, Rolen, who ranks 12th all-time with 2,023 games played at third base, led the NL in putouts by third basemen twice (1997, 1998) and assists twice (2002, 2004).

“I went through my whole career and I never asked for a day off. Not that I didn’t accept them,” Rolen said. “Quick story, and he may not remember this, but I was young and we were playing exhibition game against the Orioles, I went over and knocked on the clubhouse door and asked if I could speak to Mr. Ripken. He came out, and he’d broken the record and done everything, and in my head I wanted to play every day. I wanted to play every game. I didn’t want to break his record, obviously, that wasn’t the thing. But I wanted to know what are we dealing with here?

“And he gave me some incredible advice, that I hold the place on my team in the lineup whether I’m going to be good or not good. That doesn’t matter. There’s some accountability to have for your position on the field and your position in the lineup. And even if you know that you’re going to go 0-for-3 or 0-for-4, that other manager may have to make a move around you even though you know you have no chance. So, you can have a result in the outcome of a game by just being there and showing up and doing your job and playing.”

Rolen and McGriff will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame at 1:30 p.m. ET on Sunday, July 23, on the grounds of the Clark Sports Center in Cooperstown.

Bill Francis is the senior research and writing specialist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum