By Tim Casey
PHILADELPHIA -- As Chuck Smith waited in the Dallas airport for his flight home on Monday afternoon, the 44-year-old mayor of Woodmere, Ohio, reminisced on the phone about his previous career in baseball and his link to a recent milestone by Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins. For the previous few days, Smith had attended the United States Conference of Mayors, a gathering of more than 200 mayors from all over the country.
Before entering politics, Smith pitched 16 years in professional leagues throughout the world, including two years in the majors. On Sept. 17, 2000, Smith started for the Marlins during a game at Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium. Rollins, a fellow rookie making his major league debut, led off the bottom of the third inning with a line drive to right field off Smith. Sliding headfirst into third base, Rollins beat the throw for a triple and the first hit of his remarkable career.
Earlier this month, Rollins singled for his 2,235th career hit, breaking Hall of Fame third baseman Mike Schmidt's all-time Phillies' record. Schmidt, the team's television analyst, hugged Rollins and gave him a high-five as he stood near first base. When he heard the news, Smith couldn't believe what had happened to Rollins, a 5-foot-8 shortstop who has spent 15 seasons with the same organization and become a franchise icon.
"I always knew he could hit and he was gonna be a good major league hitter, but I didn't know he would be who he is now," Smith said. "It's totally amazing with the size he is. You wouldn't have thought a guy would have lasted that long."
And yet there Rollins was on Monday night at Citizens Bank Park, the man of honor as the Phillies commemorated his accomplishments during a 15-minute ceremony before their series opener against the Marlins. Rollins leads the franchise in career hits, doubles and at-bats and ranks among the top three in total bases, games played, extra-base hits, stolen bases, runs scored and triples.
Rollins, 35, is no longer the player he was in his 20s when he made three All-Star teams, won the 2007 National League MVP and played a leading role during the Phillies' 2008 World Series championship run. He is struggling this season and hitting .244/.329/.385, but none of that mattered on Monday. The Phillies were honoring one of its most beloved players with an impressive celebration.
"The organization did a fantastic job, above and beyond anything I would have thought or even wanted, but they wanted it," Rollins said. "They went out and got it."
Rollins was particularly impressed when the team showed short, taped greetings on the large video screen in left field from an eclectic group of people congratulating him. They included Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett, Jill Biden (wife of vice president Joe Biden), Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter, Eagles quarterback Nick Foles, former Flyers goalie Bernie Parent, Eagles running back LeSean McCoy, Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, Hall of Fame outfielder Rickey Henderson (Rollins' idol growing up), ex-76ers star Charles Barkley, weatherman Al Roker, actress Jamie Lee Curtis, television host Kelly Ripa and Jimmy Fallon and The Roots.
"Just for the record, I'm not friends with a lot of those people," Rollins said. "I'm working on it, though."
With Aloe Blacc's "The Man" as background music interspersed with narration from late broadcaster Harry Kalas, the team also displayed a three-minute video of Rollins' highlights from youth leagues, high school and the majors. Around 7:05 p.m, Rollins walked out of the home dugout and greeted his family, including his parents, who surprised their son and flew in from northern California. Former teammates Marlon Anderson, Bobby Abreu, Mike Lieberthal and Pat Burrell were introduced, too, and stood by Rollins' side. He had no idea they would be there, either.
Chase Utley and Ryan Howard, longtime teammates, presented Rollins with a silver bat. Phillies senior vice president Michael Stiles gave Rollins Gucci travel bags and an all-expenses-paid trip to Italy for he, his wife and two young daughters. Rollins, who has never been to Italy, said he had Rosetta Stone tapes in Italian at his home in Tampa. He's ready to learn the language.
"I guess I gotta press fast forward on that," he said after the game, smiling.
Addressing the crowd, Rollins thanked the Phillies for drafting him in the second round of the 1996 draft out of Encinal High School in Alameda, California. He referred to himself as a "little dude from California" who achieved his dream when the Phillies won the 2008 World Series. He said his mother, Gyvonnie, a former softball player, instilled in him his love of baseball. He joked his father, James, "couldn't play at all," although he helped him develop as a player.
Jim Saunders, Rollins's high school coach, remembers James Rollins hitting his oldest son grounders in the backyard and watching him take 250 swings most nights. During Rollins' senior year, Saunders said eight to 10 scouts attended every game. He recalled Rollins as a "walking scouting report" who positioned his teammates in the field depending on the batter.
"He just worked harder than anyone I've ever had," Saunders said. "Not only was he good, he was good at being good. He always thinks he can get better. What he's doing now does not surprise me at all."
Saunders, who remained in California on Monday, plans on catching up with Rollins in person when the Phillies visit the Giants in August and the A's in September. By then, Rollins may no longer be in Philadelphia. After breaking Schmidt's hits record on June 14, he told reporters he would consider waiving his no-trade clause if the Phillies "blow everything up" and deal their veterans. However, in an interview with USA TODAY Sports baseball writer Bob Nightengale last week, Rollins said he is hoping to remain with the only team he's ever played for, although he indicated he would not fight the Phillies if they tell him they want to trade him.
With a 4-0 loss on Monday night, the Phillies are now 34-41 and in last place in the National League East, six games behind the division-leading Nationals. Another summer of baseball awaits Rollins with more questions and uncertainty than usual. Still, he's not planning on retiring anytime soon, and he's had a career that few could have envisioned back when he drove Smith's inside pitch into right field for his first career hit.
"I respect everything he's doing," Smith said. "Hey, I wish I was in his spot right now, to be honest with you. I hope the best for him."
* * *
Tim Casey is a freelance sports writer and a former Sacramento Bee sports reporter. He works for HMP Communications, a health care/medical media company.