Rollins not intimidated by 56

Originally Published: March 28, 2006
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- He works alone in an empty batting cage, under the stands of a deserted stadium.

There's not another human being in sight. Not one. Just Jimmy Rollins, a batting tee, 100 baseballs … and the ghost of Joe DiMaggio.

Jimmy Rollins
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesJimmy Rollins is getting a Ph.D. in hitting as he chases history.
The last time Jimmy Rollins swung a bat in a game that mattered, he was riding the streak of a lifetime, a hitting streak that lasted 36 games, a streak that lived on for nearly a month and a half.

The ninth-longest streak in history. The sixth-longest since 1900. The longest ever by a shortstop. The second-longest by a switch hitter. The fourth-longest since DiMaggio.

But now the Phillies' effervescent shortstop finds himself in a situation no player before him has ever faced: Nearly six months later -- amazingly, crazily -- his streak still isn't dead. It's just lurking in hibernation, ready to erupt back to life on Opening Day.

Ready to start ticking again toward the great DiMaggio. "Only" 20 games to go. And counting.

So here stands Jimmy Rollins in this cage on a lonely spring training afternoon, long after many of his teammates have headed for the first tee. But it isn't DiMaggio he is hunting.

He is hunting for That Swing. That Feeling. That Zone he was in all those months ago.

"Mentally," he says, "I know where I was. I can see it. I can visualize it. Now it's just getting my body to do it again."

To most of the baseball world, the idea of this guy having this streak doesn't seem to compute, if only because Rollins had never previously been confused with Tony Gwynn, or even Juan Pierre. Let alone DiMaggio.

Rollins' lifetime batting average, after all, stands at just .273. That doesn't merely rank him lower than, say, Quinton McCracken or Alex Cintron. That's the lowest average in history by any player who ever had a hitting streak of 35 games or more.

But is that Jimmy Rollins, the guy who put up those numbers, the same player as this Jimmy Rollins, the guy who ran up this hitting streak?

That's one fascinating little question -- and one that, in the big picture, is infinitely more significant than the question that's been asked most about him this spring: i.e., how long will this streak last?

This question -- which is the real Jimmy Rollins? -- is one we're about to have answered. It's a question that will define Rollins' career. It's also a question that could define his team's short-term and long-term future.

Did he merely get hot, like a character in some schlocky movie? Did he just get lucky, like a guy who kept picking winning lottery numbers because the constellations lined up right?

Or is there something dramatically different about him now -- something the rest of the planet simply hasn't digested yet?

Has Jimmy Rollins finally figured it out? And if he has, how many shortstops are there in the entire National League who are better than he is, if any?

You hear his manager, Charlie Manuel, say almost matter-of-factly, that his shortstop has "turned the corner."

You hear his hitting coach, Milt Thompson, talk about how Rollins has "found himself."

But most of all, you hear Rollins himself sit by his locker on a March afternoon, dissecting the art and science of hitting like a fellow who'd just gotten a Ph.D. in bat-ology. You listen to him and you think:

That wasn't just a light bulb that went on in this man's head last September. It was a whole light tower.

He's a man with an understanding now, he says, of not just what a good swing feels like, but why it feels that way. So he knows exactly what he's searching for this spring -- the "correct swing," the "right path" to the ball, the art of "keeping my hands inside the ball" no matter where the pitch is or what it is.

Listen to him talk, not so much about his streak but about why it was possible:

"I know this sounds funny [to say], that I wasn't trying to go up there and get a hit every day," he says. "But I wasn't trying to get a hit every day. I was trying to take the right swing every day. And I wasn't worried about hitting the ball here or there. I was, like: If I take the correct swing, I'm trusting that the bat is going to hit the ball.

"And when you've got that belief, when you know the bat is going to hit the ball because you took the right swing, you feel like nothing can get by you … like you can't get fooled with anything. You feel like you're going to get a hit every time up. Does it happen? No. But you feel that way."

You don't get many opportunities in life to take a trip inside the brain of a man who got this locked in for this long. But once Rollins starts rolling, he is taking us with him on a ride that beats the heck out of Splash Mountain.

"I don't know if I can put this into words," he says. "But [when you're in that zone], you just pick up a bat and you're like, 'This is a hit.' You know it before you get to the on-deck circle …

"I don't know what it is. But I'd take a couple of swings warming up, and then I'd take That Swing, and I'd be like, 'OK, I'm not going to swing anymore. I'm going to save it until I get in the box.'"

But just remembering, just visualizing, just finding the words to describe it doesn't bring That Swing back. Only taking those March hacks, over and over and over, a thousand times, maybe 10,000 times, can bring it back -- if that's even possible.

Except this year, as Jimmy Rollins drags his bat and all those baseballs into the cage every day, he has something he never had before, he says: "a starting point."

The starting point is a drill he now does every day -- "The Drill," he calls it -- that is designed to propel him back to that feel, that swing he had last September.

He first learned The Drill from Bobby Abreu, the Phillie who once would have been voted Most Likely to Chase DiMaggio. The Drill involves swinging the bat with just one hand -- the lead hand -- as a coach or teammate flips balls his way.

Rollins has been doing it off and on for a couple of years. But it's now as standard a part of his day as a trip to the food spread.

"He started it last year in spring training, and he continued it the whole year," Thompson says. "After he finished regular batting practice, he'd go do his one-handed drill. And he'd do at least 100 swings from each side. He was diligent about doing it every day, even on the road. And it's incredible, the difference it's made. It's night and day, how it's worked for him."

He loves to be in the big moment. And that's something you can't teach guys -- to want to be there in that moment. What that says to me is, you're a prime-time player.
Phillies hitting coach Milt Thompson
on Jimmy Rollins

"Some days," Rollins says, "I'd take BP, and I'd be horrible. But I'd be, 'That's OK. I've got to just go into that cage and take my one-hand drill.' And once I got that right, I knew how to take it into the game. I'd find it, and it was like my body remembered. I'd feel it go" -- and here he launches into computer sounds -- "ch-ch-ch-ch-ch … lock."

The Drill got to the point that it worked as such a mental and physical trigger, there were days he even used it during games, almost the way a lost driver might break out his GPS.

There was the night of Sept. 27, 2005, for instance. The night he broke the Phillies' modern hit-streak record. A night when he'd started out 0-for-3 and had to lead off the seventh inning against a Mets reliever he'd never faced before: Juan Padilla.

So between innings, he grabbed teammate Shane Victorino, headed up the tunnel for the cage and said, "Toss me a few."

"By the sixth swing, I was like, 'I'm getting a hit,'" Rollins chuckles. "By the sixth ball in the cage, my body almost realigned, like a chiropractor was in there, lining up my swing."

Two pitches later, he roped a single to center. And the streak was at 32.

So now, if The Drill still works, if That Swing is still in there someplace, what might that mean, exactly? It might not necessarily mean the DiMaggio family needs to get nervous. But it would mean the new, improved Jimmy Rollins was no mirage.

We forget he's still only 27 -- less than a year older than last year's rookie of the year (Ryan Howard), the same age as Chase Utley, Lance Niekro and Xavier Nady. So it would make sense that this is a guy who's just now figuring it out. And maybe he has.

The tipoff is in the numbers. After five years of listening to all the grumbling about his fly-ball swing, the Jimmy Rollins of 2005 hit 26 percent more ground balls than fly balls, the best ratio of his career. He still wasn't Juan Pierre. But he did hit a higher percentage of ground balls, in fact, than Chone Figgins or Brady Clark, among others.

He also was among the league leaders in line-drive percentage, according to the "2006 Hardball Times Baseball Annual." About 19 percent of his plate appearances resulted in line drives -- a higher percentage than Ichiro Suzuki, Derek Jeter or Sean Casey, among hundreds of others.

So if this is Rollins' new swing, it's a much more workable model for a 5-foot-8, top-of-the-order burner, than his old up-the-elevator-shaft hack.

And if this is going to be his swing, it will motivate his coaches to spend less time obsessing on his lack of walks. Which would be a switch. If his hits are up, his strikeouts are down and he's still lashing his 40 doubles and 10 triples a year, that ought to translate into enough runs to help his bosses tolerate the things he doesn't -- and might never -- do.

"Look at his September," Thompson says. "He was the whole key to what we did in September in that [wild-card] race with his streak. He got on base. He set the table. He scored runs. That's the reason we had the success we had."

September was also a month when Rollins began creeping closer to home plate, found he could apply his new swing to pitches on the outer half and kept creeping.

"The more it worked," Thompson says, "the more he started getting closer. … He's always been able to handle the inner half. But what that does is, it almost makes that pitch on the outer half look like it's down the middle."

No matter how grooved Rollins got, though, we need to remember that he didn't exactly compile this streak for a team just killing time till it could start those offseason hunting trips. He did it for a team that had to win, every day, right to the end. Which tells us something about Jimmy Rollins, too.

"This guy is a clutch player," Phillies third baseman David Bell says. "He's the kind of player you want to play with. He wants to be up there in a big situation -- maybe as much as any player I've ever played with."

Hmmm. Should we even mention Bell has played with Barry Bonds, Manny Ramirez, Albert Belle, Jim Thome, Junior Griffey, A-Rod and Edgar Martinez?

"He loves to be in the big moment," Thompson says. "And that's something you can't teach guys -- to want to be there in that moment. What that says to me is, you're a prime-time player."

But men who come to the park every night with a smile on their face tend to be men who least fear those moments. And that smile is Rollins' signature. He carries it with him -- through the door, up the runway, out there beneath the bright lights.

So maybe we shouldn't be wondering why a hitter with his approach and lifetime numbers could compile a streak like this. There's another side to these streaks: living with them. And players who have this much fun playing might actually be best equipped to deal with all the insanity that the pursuit of history produces.

"I had a lot of fun with it," Rollins says. "It was the first time people actually came to the ballpark to see me get a hit. I was, like, 'Wow. I feel like Barry Bonds.' It became an event. … The whole stadium was like X-ray vision on J-Roll. And that was exciting."

So this spring, when the streak has come up -- in other words, every five minutes -- he has shocked the folks who have asked about it, just because he refuses to look at 56 games as being unreachable.

"It's a long ways away, but if I get The Swing back, it's definitely doable," he says. "Will it happen? With some good swings, and some luck, and some balls falling in, and maybe catching somebody [in the field] who's a half-step slow, because they've still got a little spring training legs, it can definitely happen."

Joe DiMaggio
SN Archives/ZUMA PressThe Yankee Clipper collected 2,214 hits and compiled a .325 lifetime batting mark in 13 seasons.
Wait. After a lifetime of painting 56 as one of baseball's most unbreakable records, we're not used to this. A hitter who isn't intimidated by the great DiMaggio's greatest record? How can that be?

"If you look at it, that's a big ol' number -- 56," Rollins admits. "That's what I always said, even though I've always told my brother every year I was going to break that record. But because we were winning [in September], it gave me something else to focus on. So 56 wasn't even a number. It was: 'What can I do every day to help us win?'

"So I got to 20, and it was, 'What can I do every day?' Then it was 30, and it was still, 'What can I do every day?' Then it was 36. So now I'm thinking, if I can just get a hit the first four games, I'm only 16 away. And then that's only two weeks of ball right there. So then the number's not as big."

On the other hand, now that 714 and 755 (homers) aren't what they used to be, it's possible there's no bigger number left in baseball than 56.

True, DiMaggio's record would still stand as a single-season record. It would still be 56. It would still be Joe's number. And it's as romantic as any number in the modern sports universe.

And the man who can see it now, off in the haze, isn't scared of it. Not one bit.

"Oh, it can definitely happen," Rollins says. "But will it happen? We'll see after Game 1 … and Game 2 … until it's over."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com