You can see summer in Jimmy Rollins' eyes and hear it in his voice. Outside there's snow falling in his little corner of New Jersey, but inside there's a living, breathing, 36-game hitting streak sitting on a low-slung, white-leather sectional in the middle of a palatial living room. Inside it's summer, with the sun shining and a little guy in a red helmet ready to bust it to first like the basepath is strewn with hot coals.
The house is in a tiny burg called Swedesboro, founded by Swedish immigrants in 1634. When Rollins comes to the door, he says, "Velcome. Velcome to Svedesboro," and laughs at the absurdity of his good fortune. He bought the house from former Boyz II Men singer Michael McCary, and when you look down the street, you expect to see Tony Soprano lumbering out to pick up his newspaper.
It's a good time to be Jimmy Rollins. He's got another home down in Florida. Somewhere in Miami there's a car waiting for him, a Mercedes CLS 55 Carlsson, the only one of its kind in North America. He's single, he just turned 27 and he signed a five-year, $40 million contract extension last summer that will start sending him serious cash when he arrives in Clearwater for camp. And he's got the world's longest hitting streak, one that started Aug. 23 and carried right past fall, through the onset of winter and into the plush opulence of this living room.
He's ready to start picking up a bat again, though in some ways it doesn't feel as if last season even ended. The Phillies closed with an unsuccessful and unsatisfying push for a playoff spot, but the hitting streak means Rollins' summer remains suspended, like a long commercial break. He knows what awaits him: questions, about the treak, about the weird limbo of the off-season, about the sanity of expecting early magic from a man who's hit .227 the past two Aprils. His performance in Clearwater will be scrutinized in ways he's never experienced. Every at-bat will be viewed through the prism of the ninth-longest streak in major league history.
Like the man who owns it, this streak is both different and cool. It's the longest in the majors since Paul Molitor rolled out a 39-game streak in 1987. It's the longest in the National League since Pete Rose's 44-gamer back in 1978. It's the third longest in the NL since 1900.
It's more than the numbers, though. Look at it this way: Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak in 1941 lasted 63 days, or roughly two months. When Rollins steps to the plate on April 3 against the Cardinals, he'll be working on more than seven months. "It's pretty wild to think about," he says. "At first I was just happy to get past the longest streak I had, 12 games. Then it kept getting longer and longer, and pretty soon everybody was talking about it. Now I'm taking it into the spring. It's kind of crazy."
No wonder Rollins' speech is all laughter and italics. He talks the way he plays-fast and direct, in packets smart and crisp. He's aware of the hassles that will come with media attention that figures to be both relentless and repetitive. Can anyone imagine, with the current state of electronics, the constant scrutiny that will accompany Rollins if he makes it to 45 games, or even 40? He doesn't care. He brushes it off with a backhanded flick of his right hand, the kind that produces so many opposite-field line drives, and says, "Hopefully, I can get the record."
The record? The DiMaggio record? The one record most often considered unbreakable? Just to tie DiMaggio, Rollins needs to start the 2006 season with a 20-game hitting streak, eight longer than his career high before last year. Surely Rollins, this kinetic 5'7" shortstop ("They list me at 5'8"," he says, laughing, "and who am I to argue?") from the tough side of Alameda, Calif., a guy who's never batted .300 over a full season as a pro, can't be talking about that record, can he? And there's no way he just brought it up himself, is there?
Yes, as a matter of fact he is. And he did.
Baseball's librarians at the Elias Sports Bureau say hitting streaks within the same season are separate from hitting streaks spanning more than one season. That means Rollins' streak is still intact and can continue, but DiMaggio's record will stand as a single-season record regardless. But the rules are mere convention. If Rollins somehow hits in 21 straight to start '06, the man will have a 57-game hitting streak. It will be different, but it shouldn't be disputed.
Despite the scrutiny, Rollins doesn't plan on changing his approach, which is pure and simple: play a game, get a hit, extend the streak. "People think I must have all these superstitions, but I don't," he says. "I use my batting gloves 'til they wear out. I broke four or five bats during the streak, and I didn't cry over any of them."
But spend any time with Rollins and you'll see he has a judicial knowledge of baseball combined with a near-photographic memory of games and at-bats and pitches. He learned baseball by watching his mother, Gigi, play competitive fast-pitch softball in the Oakland area. "They knew the game and talked strategy," he says. "I was 7 years old, and I wanted to interject. They didn't want to hear from me, though, so I just listened and learned."
Jimmy and his younger brother, former minor leaguer Antwon Rollins, sat in the stands at high school and big league games with their parents and watched the intricacies of the game the way robbers study the routines of a bank. Jimmy Rollins Sr., a former doo-wop singer who steered his sons toward music (Jimmy Jr. played the trumpet) and sports, would follow a play by asking, "What would you have done there?" The Rollins boys always had an answer.
In 1994, after Jimmy's sophomore year at Alameda's Encinal High (Dontrelle Willis is also an alum), he was invited to play on a Northern California team in the Area Code Games. With the team in Long Beach, Rollins would sit at the park all day, sometimes from 10 a.m. to midnight, watching the competition. In the mornings he would hang out in the hotel room of his coach, current Nationals scout Doug McMillan, and break down situations. One day, after Rollins had headed for the ballpark, McMillan turned to his pitching coach, former big leaguer Butch Metzger, and said, "They really don't need us here. We should just go home and let Jimmy run the team."
He's still the same guy, confident without being annoying, smart without flaunting it, relentlessly inquisitive. He says things that make you laugh but also make you think, like when he talks about the perceived disadvantage of being a 5'7" shortstop: "I came in when the trend was the Cal Ripken, 6'4" shortstop. But I'm closer to the ground than they are, and that's my job-to catch ground balls."
Before the Phillies played the first of a three game series in Atlanta on Sept. 20, with the streak at 24, Rollins engaged in the following pregame exchange in front of his locker:
Atlanta writer: "Jimmy, this is the town where Pete Rose lost his 44-game hit streak."
Jimmy: "Good thing I'm not Pete Rose."
The streak almost ended that night. Jorge Sosa walked him in the seventh inning, and it took a bout of wildness from Kyle Farnsworth to bring the switch-hitting Rollins to the plate with two out and two on in the ninth and the Phillies trailing the Braves 4-0.
First pitch, a slider at 91 mph for strike one. "I was like, whew. So that's how we're going to play?" Rollins says. Second pitch, a slider at 89 for strike two. "I looked back at Johnny Estrada-we used to play together-and he didn't say anything. But I could see the little smirk on his face." It's clear Rollins is back in the box, back in the middle of the streak. Outside, it's snowing harder.
"So now I'm waiting for the fastball, and here comes another slider," he says. "But I was ready and recognized the pitch. It was the same exact slider." Rollins waited, kept his weight back and dropped a soft liner in front of Andruw Jones in centerfield. "Three straight sliders in the same spot?" Rollins says. "You don't do that. You throw one, then throw another, then you throw the 0-2 in the dirt."
So maybe it's fitting that Rollins, a homebody who lives alone, is mesmerized by Forensic Files and Cold Case. The shows share a narrative arc. The cases always turn on an obvious clue that was inexplicably overlooked during the initial investigation. He studies baseball the way those medical examiners study corpses, and he's stumbled upon a connection: sometimes the most obvious thing about the game is the furthest thing from anybody's mind.
Rollins used to be the little kid who was too small for pro ball until it became obvious he could play-and play shortstop-at any level there is. A lot of baseball people tried to make it too complicated, and in the process they missed the obvious clues. "Even after I made it to the Phillies and was playing every day, I kept waiting for them to bring in their real shortstop," he says. "I knew I could play, but I just got used to fighting the labels."
Here's another one: he's not patient enough to be a good leadoff hitter. But when he listened to the experts and forced himself to take pitches, he became less aggressive. He lost a step in the field, was a click slow at the plate and swears he didn't get down the line the way he used to. So he did the simple thing. He ditched what he didn't do well in favor of what he does best: swing the bat, run like hell and play the game with a joyous fury. He finished last year third in the NL in runs (115) and in hits (196).
You are who you are, and right now Jimmy Rollins is a sunny man trapped in a dark world. He wants to do something about it. It's dreary and cold outside, and the house needs more light. Rollins walks toward the wall of two-story windows in the living room, grabs a remote control off the sill and points it at the blinds. They begin their obedient rise, steadily heading toward the ceiling.
As the white-gray of a wintry afternoon gradually overtakes the room, it's suggested that Rollins can safely say he's made it in life. Not with the $40 million contract or the three All-Star selections or the 36-game hitting streak or the one-of-a-kind Benz waiting down in Florida. No, this-the idea of someone who controls his surroundings so thoroughly that he can push a button and create light-is the ultimate sign of a man's station in life.
Rollins scrunches up his eyes and frowns. "Nah," he says. "All this means is a man's got tall windows."