Commentary

Long wait over for Burrell, Rollins

Originally Published: October 5, 2008
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

MILWAUKEE -- No, Pat Burrell and Jimmy Rollins haven't been part of the Phillies for all of their 10,000 losses.

They weren't on the field when Mitch Williams gave up that home run to Joe Carter 15 Octobers ago. You can't blame them for any of those 10 games in a row the '64 Phillies lost in their ultimate tragic September.

So maybe Burrell and Rollins haven't quite seen it all since they arrived in America's most parade-starved city eight years ago. But they've seen more than anybody around them. That's for sure. More losing. More angst. More stereophonic boo-fests. More everything.

But on the first Sunday of October, in a jam-packed dome in Milwaukee, the two longest-tenured Phillies on the roster got to witness something even they hadn't seen:

The Phillies -- their Phillies -- winning an actual postseason series.

They closed out the Brewers in four games Sunday, whomping four homers, silencing 43,000 Thunderstix and cruising to a 6-2 thumping that earns this team an NLCS appointment with the Dodgers.

But there was something fitting about the way this edition of a long-downtrodden franchise finished off the fifth postseason triumph in team history. This time, it was the two men who had worn this uniform the longest -- Burrell and Rollins -- who put the biggest stamp on the festivities.

Rollins sucked 2 billion decibels out of Miller Park with a stunning home run leading off the game. Burrell joined Leonard K. Dykstra on the list of Only Phillies in History to Hit Two Home Runs in One Postseason Game.

And afterward, no one had a greater appreciation for what all this meant than they did.

"It took a while to get here," said Burrell, the champagne waterfalling down his face. "But that just makes it all the sweeter now that you're here."

"I never wondered if this day would come," said Rollins, who hit .375 in this series. "I always knew it would."

How he knew is another story, though. It wasn't as if there was any positivity in the beginning to infuse him with that sort of hope. But there's no rational explanation for blind faith. And there doesn't really have to be.

Rollins joined the Phillies in September 2000, at the tail end of a 97-loss disaster. Burrell beat him to the big leagues by four months. Their first taste of big league life was a gruesome march to nowhere, on a team that finished 30 games out of first place.

It was a taste neither of them could wait to expunge, like a giant plate of overcooked brussels sprouts.

"I always said, when I got here, that I wanted to try to change the tradition," Rollins said. "I said it to myself, 'We need to change the mentality, change the way people think about this organization, change the way the young kids feel about being in this organization.' And the only way you can do that is by winning."

Well, it's a little early to start lining up the parade floats. But they're getting there. At least this sure beats all those Septembers in their rearview mirror, when 6,000 people clattered around old Veterans Stadium and the only big games were visits by all those other teams, the ones that still had something to play for.

"To have played on some teams that were not very good," Burrell reminisced, "and to play against other teams in September that were getting ready to go on to the next level, I'll be honest. There was a sense of jealousy. You just wanted to be part of that, to experience that."

And now they have. Now they know. They've played in a half-dozen meaningful Septembers. They've felt the stab in their guts from a bunch of near-misses. They've sprayed champagne after two straight improbable NL East titles.

Then, on Sunday, they finally took the next step up that stairway to baseball heaven, by winning the first postseason series by a Phillies team in 15 years.

But they weren't just riding in the passenger seats, enjoying the October scenery. More than anyone in the ballpark, this was their show.

Jimmy Rollins
Tom Fluegge/US PresswireJimmy Rollins opened Game 4 against Milwaukee with a homer.

They've known each other since high school, these two native Northern Californians, since they played together in a California high school draft showcase called the Area Code Games. And they've been big league teammates through more than 1,300 eventful baseball games.

So Rollins and Burrell know how to push each other's buttons when it matters most. And this was one of those times. After a Game 3 loss Saturday. With a potential Game 5 start by CC Sabathia lurking. This was a day to get it done. So suffice it to say the button-pushing was in full throttle.

"He was giving me some lip [Saturday], about not getting [Ryan] Howard over," Burrell confessed Sunday afternoon. "[Howard] was on second with no outs, and he's right. I didn't get him over. So I said, 'Hey, why don't YOU do something.'"

So of course, Rollins did. Almost willed himself to do it, in fact.

The shortstop had found himself thinking before this game, he said, that "You know what? It had been a long time since I hit a leadoff home run. So I looked up at that blue sky and said, 'God, this would be a great time for it.'"

Bingo. On the sixth pitch of Game 4, Brewers starter Jeff Suppan served up a full-count meatball. Rollins lofted it into the right-field lower deck. And as he circled the bases, Burrell laughed to himself and said, "OK, now it's on me."

Only a couple of hours earlier, in the early-morning dead time before a noon game, these two had had another conversation that turned out to be just as prescient.

"I walked in [to the clubhouse]," Rollins said. "And he said, 'They've been pitching around the big guy [Howard] and Chase [Utley].' And he said, 'I'm going to get 'em today.' He said, 'I feel good. My back's all right. I worked some things out in the cage.' … He said it. I heard it. And I was paying attention."

Yep. Obviously. Too bad Brewers manager Dale Sveum wasn't.

With two outs in the third inning, and that 1-0 Phillies lead still on the board, Sveum had a decision to make. Runner on third. Two outs. Howard heading for the plate. Burrell on deck.

It might seem like an easy call to hold up four fingers, whoosh Howard down to first base and take on Burrell. But hang on for a second.

True, Howard has been just about the hottest hitter alive since September dawned. And Burrell has been just about the coldest. But not when Suppan is 60 feet away. Burrell had faced Suppan 28 times before that at-bat -- and reached base in 16 of them (a .571 on-base percentage).

So as Burrell watched Howard trotting down the first-base line, he knew the Brewers had made the right decision. ("If I'm the manager, I'd do the same thing," Burrell admitted later. "You can't let Ryan Howard beat you.") But he also knew it was time to make them regret it.

[+] EnlargePat Burrell
Tom Fluegge/US PresswirePat Burrell's three-run shot in the third helped break open Game 4 for the Phillies.
Suppan floated a 2-2 fastball, right down the chute. And Burrell smoked it off into the distance, directly into the middle of an unsuspecting nacho plate on the deck of Friday's Front Row Sports Grill, for a 4-0 Phillies lead.

"It was kinda like, 'Drop the beer, keep the nachos,' right there," Rollins chuckled later, in a clubhouse full of people who were a lot happier than those diners.

And once Burrell had finished trotting around the diamond, this series was never the same again. Three pitches later, Jayson Werth cranked the Phillies' third homer of the day. And five innings after that, Burrell would foil another Sveum brainstorm -- yanking Manny Parra and bringing on right-hander Guillermo Mota, just for him -- with his second home run of the day.

It made Burrell only the fifth National Leaguer in history to hit two home runs in a series-clinching game. You've probably heard of the others: Steve Garvey (1974 NLCS), Johnny Bench (1976 World Series), Fred McGriff (1995 NLDS) and Carlos Beltran (2004 NLDS).

But it also made him something much more important -- a man who had finally made a meaningful contribution to a team making its first real October run in a generation.

Before this game, Burrell's lifetime postseason batting average was worse than Brett Myers' -- as in .095 (2-for-21). And even worse, he'd gone 0-for-this-series as the Phillies scuffled for offense.

So this wasn't just a game for the memory banks. This was a game that pumped oxygen back into the lungs of a guy who wants desperately to leave an imprint on the only franchise he has ever played for.

"In April or something, if you had three games where you didn't get any hits and really weren't a factor, it doesn't seem to be as magnified," Burrell said. "But when you get into a situation like this, where the emotions are there, and all the excitement, and you care, to not be a factor and not help your team win -- it gets old. It affects you. So I was just happy to be a factor and contribute. That's all it was."

He was 21 years old a decade ago, when the Phillies made him the first player picked in the country in the June '98 draft. Now it's half a lifetime later. He'll turn 32 this week. And with free agency looming, these could be his final days as a Phillie.

But that's a topic for another time. This was about floating inside a moment he'd waited his career for -- and fulfilling the 2008 vision of his old friend, Jimmy Rollins.

Way back in the cold of winter, Rollins raised the bar for the 2008 edition of his franchise by predicting his team would win 100 games. Now, they're at 95 and still playing. And Rollins never did say the Phillies would win those 100 games during the regular season now, did he?

"You know, that's what's great about [those predictions]," Rollins deadpanned. "You can always adjust."

So does this, someone asked, mean the Phillies are the team to beat?

"Hey," smiled the great oracle of Philadelphia. "Now we'll find out. Won't we?"

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

SPONSORED HEADLINES

ALSO SEE

MORE MLB HEADLINES

MOST SENT STORIES ON ESPN.COM