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Scott Rolen enshrined in Cooperstown 2 decades after complicated Phillies tenure ended

Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Jul 23, 2023; Cooperstown, NY, USA; Hall of Fame Inductee Scott Rolen makes his acceptance speech during the National Baseball Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony.

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. – On the final day of February, elected-but-not-yet-inducted, Scott Rolen was about to step into the plaque gallery of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum for the customary orientation tour offered to the newest honorees.

It’s a magisterial room. Awe-inspiring. Arrayed neatly around the walls are bronze likenesses and brief biographies of the best of the best in baseball history. Rolen, who was drafted, signed and developed by the Phillies was about to see for the first time the spot where his contributions to the game will be memorialized for as long as the iconic building exists.

This was during normal business hours on a frigid Tuesday and a lone fan was already in the room, unaware he was about to have company. He was wearing blue jeans and a Phillies T-shirt. What are the odds? He recognized Rolen. And he acknowledged that fact with a greeting that was more than a little discordant in that reverent setting.

“Ya shoulda worn a Phillies cap!”

Oh, yeah, that. . .

On his plaque, he’s wearing a Cardinals cap.

You would have thought that Sunday, when Rolen stood on the stage at the Clark Sports Center to accept his enshrinement, would have been another proud day in Phillies history.

After all, Rolen was marked for stardom almost from the moment he was selected in the second round of the 1993 draft. In 1997 he was voted the National League’s Rookie of the Year. And, for the most part, he lived up to the hype. He ranked first or second in WAR every full season he played for the Phils. His OPS was .877. He played Gold Glove-level defense and had the trophies to prove it. He ran the bases like a rampaging rhinoceros.

And yet. . .

It’s complicated.

When he mentioned Philadelphia for the first time in his touching and heartfelt speech, there was only a faint cheer from the back of the vast meadow.

There were, apparently, no members of the Phillies front office on hand to acknowledge and applaud his achievement.

As he approached free agency, Rolen made it clear he was disenchanted with the direction the organization was taking. Rightly or wrongly, he didn’t believe there was a sincere commitment to winning. Funny thing, that was also the biggest complaint the fans had at the time. But instead of seeing Rolen as an advocate for their cause, many viewed him as a deserter. He wasn’t spurning the Phillies organization. He was turning his back on an entire region. He was dissing us.

It all came to a head on the afternoon of June 17, 2001 at Veterans Stadium. With two outs and the bases loaded in the bottom of the sixth, Rolen struck out. For the first time, boos cascaded from the blue seats. It was more than just making an out. It was right after manager Larry Bowa had been quoted saying that he was “killing” the team with his lack of production. It was right after team officials let it be known that they’d offered him a contract that could be worth up to $140 million even though he’d told them privately that money wasn’t the issue, winning was. But the leak had served its purpose, making the player seem both ungrateful and greedy.

It didn’t help that, on the night he was traded just before the 2002 deadline, he was quoted saying he felt like he was going to Baseball Heaven.

An unscientific random survey of fans wearing Phillies gear Saturday on Main Street, strolling the quaint village now stuffed with charcoal grills and sidewalk vendors along with the stores hawking autographs and memorabilia, seemed to reveal curious antipathy to the fact that the second-best third baseman in franchise history was going into the Hall of Fame.

Most said they were here because they come every year. A couple mentioned that they still hope to see Dick Allen honored someday. And what about Rolen? Mostly shrugs.

Nobody expected Philadelphia to show up in force this weekend like the red wave that engulfed the quaint little upstate village when Mike Schmidt and Rich Ashburn entered together in 1995. But the fans turned out in force for Jim Thome in 2018 and Roy Halladay a year after even though both achieved the bulk of their success elsewhere, Thome in Cleveland and Halladay in Toronto.

In both cases, the Phillies had a large contingent of executives and front office employees on hand for the ceremony even though Thome had an Indians (now Guardians) cap and Halladay’s family chose a generic cap for his plaque.

Rolen was asked, with the benefit of hindsight, to reflect on his relationship with Philadelphia during a pre-induction media availability on Saturday.

“I feel like I've always cherished my time in Philadelphia,” he said. “I still have lifelong friends that came from Philadelphia. People have been texting me back and forth. I still have a ton of friends there.

“I truly believe I learned to play the game there. You have to be real honest out on the field and real genuine with your effort when you're playing the game there. And there's a toughness instilled in you to go out there and play it the right way and play it hard. And physically, that just kind of carried me through my career in different spots, so where I started was the best spot for me.”

To be fair, though, he had his best years in St. Louis. Not statistically, maybe. The raw numbers are pretty similar. But he made the All-Star team once as a Phillie, four times as a Cardinal. Most importantly, he won in St. Louis: Four division titles, two pennants, one World Series championship in five years.

He could have chosen to wear a Phillies hat. Or he could, as many recent inductees have done, have opted for a blank cap; Rolen also played for the Blue Jays and Reds. He decided to rep the Cardinals, though, and honestly it’s not possible to make a fair argument against that choice.

The Phillies will honor Rolen later this season. He will belatedly be added to the Phillies Wall of Fame at Citizens Bank this year but, because of a scheduling conflict, will not be able to attend the official August 12 ceremony. He’ll be honored before the September 22 game against the Mets instead.

Surely some Philadelphians will add another mark against his legacy for that. Just like some still haven’t forgiving him for not playing on Scott Rolen T-Shirt Day at the Vet all those years ago. As if he made out the lineup card.

Maybe it will be different now. Maybe he’ll be shown an appreciation for his accomplishments that has been strangely absent until now. Maybe not. Again, it’s complicated.

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