Commentary

Rolen, Eckstein back together again in Toronto

Originally Published: March 10, 2008
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- It's 786 miles (and one trip through the customs line) from Busch Stadium to the Rogers Centre. But Scott Rolen and David Eckstein don't measure that journey on their odometers.

[+] EnlargeScott Rolen
Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty ImagesScott Rolen, who's only hit 35 home runs over the last three seasons, isn't too eager to discuss his rift with former manager Tony La Russa.
No matter what you've read or heard, they never wanted to leave St. Louis, a place where they won together. A place where they were once showered with sea-of-red adoration together. But stuff happens. And it sure did happen to them.

So now here they are, bound for the left side of the infield in a city north of the border.

Here they are, about to become the first two infielders to transplant themselves into some other team's infield, within two years of starting at least 80 games for a World Series champion, since Bill White and Dick Groat went from the Cardinals to the Phillies in 1966.

Here they are, in their blue jerseys and blue caps -- not even a red sweatsock in sight. And it sure is fascinating that their new employers don't seem the least bit interested in the events that propelled them toward their awkward exits from St. Louis.

"Those two guys exemplify what we want to be," Blue Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi says. "That's why they're better fits for us. They're grinders, and they're dirtbags. Not that the guys we had before weren't. But that might be the one piece we were missing, from the standpoint of getting in there with the Red Sox and Yankees and just grinding it out from a day-to-day standpoint."

"Just the style of these two guys is something we needed," manager John Gibbons says. "It's not like either of them are such great players that everything comes so easy to them; they're cruisers. They both get down and dirty. And teams that win always have their share of those guys. I think we needed more of that."

Once, their old team said the same stuff about these two men. And it was all true. The fit was perfect, for both of them.

They played on a 100-win team together in 2005. They played on a team that won the World Series in 2006. Eckstein was a World Series MVP. Rolen ripped off a 10-game postseason hitting streak.

But then there was last season. A confusing season. That contract extension with Eckstein never did get done. The relationship between Rolen and Cardinals manager Tony La Russa devolved from dreadful to disastrous. Injuries helped nudge both of them toward the exit ramp.

They had no idea when they pulled out of town in September that they'd be pulling into the same spring training camp this February. But neither of them spends a whole lot of time anymore peering into their rearview mirrors.

"I'm very happy with the situation I'm in," Eckstein says.

"I'm excited to be here playing for the Toronto Blue Jays," Rolen says. "And I've come across nothing but good things and good people here."

The echoes of Rolen's way-too-public, way-too-personal feud with La Russa still reverberate, of course, every time one of us pesky media inquisitors heads in his direction. But Rolen has zero interest in publicly rehashing any of it, or even in responding to the daggers La Russa hurled at him over the winter.

[+] EnlargeDavid Eckstein
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicDespite playing in only 117 games in 2007, David Eckstein hit a career-high .309.

"I'm excited about this opportunity and this challenge," Rolen says, picking his words slowly, carefully, "because I'm excited about playing baseball. I'm excited about competing. I'm excited about competition on the field. Way too much energy got expended on off-the-field competition over the last couple of years. And that's not productive -- for me, for the team, for my teammates, for the fans.

"There were some statements that probably begged for a response. And I've refrained from a response, out of respect for the game and, not to dramatize it, but out of respect for St. Louis baseball -- the city, the fans. That's not in the spirit of what drives baseball in St. Louis."

He knows the world is watching him now, judging him, trying to figure out once and for all if he's the one who has been the troublemaker in these soap operas. Fine, says Rolen. He can handle that part.

"I'm responsible for my actions," he says. "I'm accountable for my actions. And above all else, I have a responsibility and an accountability to be a good person and be good to my teammates. People are going to form their own opinions and their own judgments. I'm just trying to be as genuine as I possibly can."

Full disclosure: I've known Rolen since he was 20 years old. I've known him since before he ever played a game in the major leagues. If you'd asked me then to gaze out over the horizon, he would have been the last player I ever would have figured on to have his career and reputation besmirched by high-profile pileups with two consecutive managers (Larry Bowa in Philadelphia, La Russa in St. Louis).

This guy was too bright, too articulate, too well-rounded. Played baseball too hard. Exuded Hall of Fame talent. Yeah, he had a stubborn streak. But he should have been a manager's dream. So how did he ever wind up being viewed as two managers' biggest nightmares?

If that's how people look at him now, "that's a concern to me," Rolen says. "I understand the perception and where it might come from. … [But] I don't necessarily think we can draw parallels to these situations."

The issue in Philadelphia, he says, was business. Well, mostly business. The Phillies tried to sign him to a seven-year extension. Those negotiations didn't go well. And everything about Rolen's situation in Philadelphia deteriorated from there.

"There were surrounding things in there," Rolen says. "There were plenty of theatrics. But if we come to terms on a contract, do those theatrics or fireworks take place? I don't necessarily think they do. When the contract matter muddied itself, things went down the wrong path. … We realized there was no future. And that made the present rather difficult for all involved."

OLD VS. NEW
• Comparing the 2007 numbers of the Jays' former starting shortstop and third baseman with the 2008 tandem of David Eckstein and Scott Rolen:
OFFENSIVE
PLAYER G AVG OBP SLG
SS
John McDonald 123 .251 .279 .333
David Eckstein 117 .309 .356 .382
3B
Troy Glaus 115 .262 .366 .473
Scott Rolen 112 .265 .331 .398
DEFENSIVE
PLAYER IP FP% RF ZR
SS
John McDonald 799.1 .982 4.98 .878
David Eckstein 944.2 .960 4.52 .812
3B
Troy Glaus 928.0 .967 2.52 .737
Scott Rolen 935.0 .969 2.99 .847

But St. Louis was different, he says. What happened in St. Louis was "personal." But only between Rolen and his manager. Not between Rolen and his teammates. Not between Rolen and the people upstairs. Certainly not between Rolen and a city he never wanted to leave.

"St. Louis is as good a place to play baseball as there is anywhere -- the city, the fans, the personnel there, teammates, the whole package," he says. "My wife loved being there. I loved being there. I had every intention of finishing my contract there. And from what I'm told, many of the people who make the decisions there had every intention of me finishing my contract there.

"So the fallout, and the situation that became untenable, was personal. There was no contract issue. There was no organizational issue. So when I'm asked about that relationship [with the manager], the way I look at it, everybody has their story. And if you give both sides of the story, I don't think they're going to match up. I've said it before. We were different people with different morals."

The disintegration of that relationship began with a dispute over Rolen's left shoulder injury in 2005. It isn't worth taking up one more slice of cyberspace regurgitating the debacle it devolved into from there.

It is worth mentioning, though, that his new manager doesn't appear remotely fazed by the prospect of managing a guy portrayed by other managers as Attila the Hun.

"He had his dust-ups with his last two managers," Gibbons says. "But my approach to Scotty is just to be upfront with him and honest. And that's the way I am with all my players. I don't know what happened in other places. It would be unfair for me to even defend one or the other. But you know what? I've just been impressed by what a likable guy he is. He's a lot funnier than I thought he'd be."

So pay attention. Let's see if Rolen can keep his new manager laughing all season. It's safe to say that would be a sign of more than just the restoration of Rolen's reputation. It would be a sign that the Blue Jays are making life as difficult for the Red Sox and Yankees as they seem capable of when you watch them beneath the palm trees.

And for that to happen, they'll also need Eckstein to turn back into that lovable little dirtball who started the engine of two of the past six World Series winners (2002 Angels, 2006 Cardinals).

Eckstein wasn't supposed to be here, either. He just "kind of fell into our laps," Ricciardi says, after the Cardinals passed, a potential deal with the Mets fizzled and Eckstein decided he was willing to take a one-year, $4.5 million contract with the Blue Jays

Eckstein can laugh now when he looks back on his "crazy" winter. But only because "I do nothing easy," he chuckles. "Nothing ever goes smooth in my life. But I think in the end, it worked out for the best."

A year ago, he seemed to be heading toward an extension that would have kept him in St. Louis through 2010. But negotiations kept dragging. And dragging. And dragging right through spring training -- until Eckstein pulled the plug. Pulled it because "I did not want to be that guy looking for a contract" when he was supposed to be playing baseball.

He keeps hearing he could have signed there for three years and $21 million, one fewer year and 15 million fewer dollars than he was looking for. But Eckstein insists: "I'll tell you to this day I made the right decision. If you knew a little more of the inside -- I'm keeping that to myself -- but all I'll say is, I definitely made the right decision."

From the beginning, he says, he had no problem accepting the consequences of shutting down those negotiations, whatever that meant on pay day, and wherever that led him on game day. So he's not second-guessing anything, he says.

I think the best word to describe me as a baseball player right now is 'healthy.' I'm competitive. And I haven't felt this way in a few years.

--Scott Rolen

Nor is he buying into the popular notion that he could have been the Mets' second baseman right now. Did the Mets have interest? Absolutely. But they went into the winter with the obvious intention of bringing back Luis Castillo. And ultimately, they did. In the end, no matter how close they seemingly were to signing Eckstein instead, he says "I can tell you this right now, they got the guy they wanted."

So regardless of the dollars or the opportunities that might have been out there once, Eckstein jumped at the opportunity to play for this team in December. He had no idea that Rolen would waive his no-trade clause to accept a swap for Troy Glaus a month later.

Now the two of them seem turbo-charged by the chance to start over, to add their distinct energies to one of the most talented, but least publicized, teams in the game.

To do that, obviously, they'll need to be much healthier than last season. But both have looked good so far, Ricciardi says. "I don't see either one being a health risk," he said.

We'll see about that, of course. Eckstein is 33 now, coming off a season in which he played just 117 games and more than tripled his errors (from six to 20). Infielders with back issues are always scary propositions. So stay tuned.

Rolen, meanwhile, turns 33 in April, and only finished a third straight season in which that left shoulder trouble caused him problems. He hit only eight home runs in 392 at-bats last season, and slugged .398 -- 109 points below his career average.

But listen to his response to a question about whether he thinks he has something to prove to people now. The wording indicates that, clearly, having a new manager isn't the only thing contributing to his positivity these days.

"I think the best word to describe me as a baseball player right now is 'healthy,'" he says, pointedly. "I'm competitive. And I haven't felt this way in a few years. That doesn't mean I have to go out and prove something. That's not me. And it's not the way I go about my business. But I've got a lot of effort to give out there. … I feel a little freer in my outlook, my mind-set. And I'm ready to direct that competition and that energy right out there."

He nods in the direction of the glistening baseball field right outside the clubhouse door. It's a field, by the way, that doesn't remind anyone of Busch Stadium.

But for Scott Rolen and his old friend, David Eckstein, that might just be the whole idea.

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