Double (play) trouble
There was a mix-up around second base last June 27 in Kansas City. Royals second baseman Tony Graffanino and shortstop Angel Berroa were confused on who had the bag on the double play, so, both wound up there. No matter. The runner on first, St. Louis' Scott Rolen, took them both out.
That's why he's our choice for the best in the major leagues at breaking up a double play. "He's the best there is today,'' said Brewers third base coach Rich Donnelly, who has been in the National League for the last 15 years. "One of our guys, Junior Spivey, is really good. He and Rolen, they'll try to take out your back molars. And, they do it cleanly.''
Yankees second baseman Tony Womack, who played a lot of games against Rolen, and last season with him, said, "Scott goes in the hardest among active players. Al Martin went in hard, so did Kevin Young. Butch Huskey had that pop-up slide; he flipped me over once. Albert Belle came in really hard. But today, Scott is the hardest. He does that like he does everything else, he goes after you. He will break up two by any means necessary.''
There weren't a lot of candidates. "It's a shame,'' said one manager. "Today, guys peel off or slide early because the second baseman or the shortstop has the same agent as they do. They're friends. They don't want anyone getting hurt.'' Indeed. The days of Frank Robinson, Don Baylor and Hal McRae coming at you are over. "When Bo Jackson used to get on first base,'' said Harold Reynolds, who played second base for 11 years in the big leagues, "I used to yell to him 'Bo, this is baseball, not football.' Man, he came in hard.''
So did former outfielder Andy Van Slyke. "I worked at it,'' he said. "I used to take notes to remind myself about which guys (second basemen, especially) went which way. But it's a different game now. There is no longer an emphasis on that extra out, it's no longer imperative. Now the game is played to hit the ball over the fence. That extra out doesn't mean as much.''
It does to Rolen. He plays the game the way it's supposed to be played, that is, hard, on every play. Plus, he's really big: 6-foot-4, 240 pounds. He's not fast, but he's one of the five best baserunners in the league, which means he gets good jumps, which means he's on the middle infielder quickly. And he's not afraid to slide late, which some runners are -- that base is immovable and dangerous. Some runners don't mess with it unless they have to.
"Breaking up a double play ... it's the same premise as playing good defense in basketball: it's about your gut,'' said Van Slyke, who lives in St. Louis, and sees a lot of the Cardinals. "Scott Rolen never takes a play off. We have genetic engineering now, if I could genetically engineer a baseball player, I would genetically engineer Scott Rolen in every way. For every second baseman across the league, this is their worst-case scenario: they've got to make the double play to keep the score tied, there's a medium ground ball hit to the shortstop, and Scott Rolen is on first base. The second baseman is blind, he can't see him coming. I guarantee, on that play, they rather be playing a different position.''
Womack plays second base. "I don't hang around the bag, I get out of there,'' he said. "I'm not afraid of being hit. A lot of guys worry about that, but they're worrying about the wrong person. I worry about the guy running to first, how fast he is. Other middle infielders worry about Scott because he's big and he's country strong. When he hits you, you know it.''
Womack remembers the game in which Rolen took out both middle infielders for the Royals. "Scott had gotten on base because he'd just been hit in the middle of the back,'' he said. "He was p-----. I think Albert (Pujols) had just hit a home run, or Scott had hit one his previous time up. Everyone knew they better watch out. And sure enough, he got 'em both.''
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to Baseball Tonight.