Bringing out the best in Rollins

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- For a decade and a half, the gravitational forces of the baseball earth have been pulling them together, pushing them apart and then drawing them back together.

And now, on a beautiful spring training morning, all these years later, here they are again.

Jimmy Rollins and Larry Bowa. Back on the same baseball field. Driving each other. Jabbing at each other. Laughing with each other. Sharing another baseball journey. Wondering where this one will lead.

Their special bond has taken them through more twists and turns than the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster. Now it’s Bowa’s newfound mission, as he enters his latest incarnation as a Phillies coach, to motivate his team’s iconic shortstop to be the player the 2014 Phillies desperately need Rollins to be, at age 35.

“He does make sure he hits me ground balls, so he can talk trash if I miss one,” Rollins says, laughing contentedly, as another spring day is set to begin. “That’s all he wants me to do is miss one. Honestly.”

“Can we get through this whole round with one ball?” Bowa asks, diabolically, a fungo bat in his hand, Rollins in his sights.

“That depends on you,” Rollins pokes back. “I’m gonna catch ‘em. It’s, `Can you hit ‘em right?’”

Bowa pounds ground balls at Rollins, one after another. The shortstop vacuums them up smoothly, confidently, always comfortable with who he is with a glove on his left hand.

Finally, Bowa calls out, “Infield in,” and waves Rollins closer, then pounds a rocket at his feet that Rollins at least knocks down. Nope. Not good enough.

“There’s one [missed],” Bowa shouts, victoriously.

“Really?” Rollins says. “Really?”

Once, Jimmy Rollins was the kid shortstop, climbing the Phillies ladder, finding it impossible to escape the shadow of the Greatest Shortstop in Franchise History -- especially when that legend became his manager. Later, as the Bowa years turned turbulent, their relationship would become more complicated, at times even fiery.

But mostly, they would develop a classic case of mutual respect and powerful baseball friendship -- a friendship strong enough that it endured, even after Bowa got fired in 2004.

“There are a lot of things we have in common,” Rollins says, and then ticks them off: Both shortstops -- Phillies shortstops. Thought of as “little guys.” From Northern California. Switch hitters. Exceptional defenders. Forceful personalities.

“A lot of people have things in common,” Rollins says, after running through all of that. “But there’s just something there. I don’t know how to explain it.”

And now, it’s their unique connection -- on the field, off the field and even in their team’s record books -- that makes people around the Phillies wonder if Bowa’s new role, as Ryne Sandberg’s bench coach, could include a special niche, one the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Matt Gelb catchily described as “Rollins Whisperer.”

It wasn’t the reason Bowa got this coaching gig. It’s just “kind of a residual effect,” says Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. But nobody makes any secret of the fact that this team wants and needs more from Jimmy Rollins than it got last year, when Rollins hit a career-worst .252/.318/.348/.667, in a season that was worth a mere 0.2 Wins Above Replacement, according to baseball-reference.com.

And better play isn't all the Phillies are looking for from their shortstop. They’ve made that clear, too, starting with Sandberg. They want energy. They want leadership. They want early arrivals and attention to detail. And they honestly believe that if anyone can bring all that out of Rollins again, it’s Bowa.

“I don’t know if I’m that guy,” Bowa says. “But he knows I’ll say something to him if I have to. I’ll say it all year if I have to.”

And because they have so much history with one another, Rollins gets it when Bowa speaks.

“We’ve been on different teams -- he’s coached against me, I’ve played against him -- but he hasn’t changed, and I haven’t changed,” Rollins says. “So there’s really not anything we have to figure out about each other.”

One thing no manager ever had to worry about with Bowa was his energy level. There was no neutral on his gear shift. There still isn’t, for that matter. And that’s a quality Bowa would love to see more of from the Phillies’ current shortstop.

“I’ve said this from the beginning. Jimmy’s a red-light player,” Bowa says. “He loves when the game’s on the line. He wants to be up there. He wants to make a play. But it’s not a perfect world here. When you’re 18 games out or 20 games out, you’ve still got to go out there and perform. That’s your job. And as great a career as he’s had, that still disappoints a lot of people when they see him out there, maybe giving 70 percent.”

Bowa played on enough teams that went nowhere to understand how tough it was on Rollins last year, when the Phillies careened to their first losing season in 11 years and finished 17 games out of a playoff spot.

Human beings play these games. And empty Septembers don’t pour the same sort of fuel in anyone’s tank that playoff races do. Bowa gets that. But when he talks about what a great leader Rollins can be, he means in good times and bad.

“You can’t be a leader verbally and then go out and not run out balls,” Bowa says. “You can’t do that. I don’t care if you’re 0-for-16 or 14-for-16. ... People watch him. Cody Asche watches him run. And he watches Chase Utley run. Now, this is my own opinion, but I think the difference between those two guys is, Chase Utley does it every single at-bat. And I want Jimmy to do that.”

Well, there might not be a more perfect guy on earth to deliver that message, because Rollins admits that no one in his career has ever driven him to be better the way Bowa has -- and in more ways than one.

“We’ve known each other my whole career, ever since I first came up,” Rollins says. “Obviously, he played in this city, in this position, and was considered the best ever to do it. So it was my job to come here and try to make people forget Larry Bowa. Well, not necessarily forget him, but for me to be better than him.

“Not taking take anything away from him, but of course, I made it clear that, at the end of my career, I wanted people to look at me and say I was better than Larry Bowa. You know, all I heard coming up was `Larry Bowa, Larry Bowa, Larry Bowa, Larry Bowa, Larry Bowa.’”

Now, after 13 seasons as the Phillies’ shortstop, Rollins hasn’t merely passed Bowa in just about every category on the stat sheet. He’s 60 hits away from roaring past Mike Schmidt for the most hits in the history of the franchise. And if you look closely at his career sometime, you’ll find no shortstop ever has assembled the unique collection of awards and power/speed/defense/longevity numbers that Rollins has.

Meanwhile, the only two shortstops ever to win a World Series in Philadelphia are (guess who?) Jimmy Rollins and Larry Bowa. So Rollins has done nearly everything he ever set out to do when he arrived in Philly. But Bowa wants him to recognize there’s still more to do besides vesting his 2015 option (with 434 more plate appearances).

“He’s a special player,” Bowa says. “I mean, you look at his numbers. I know [Derek] Jeter won a lot of World Series, but you look at this guy’s numbers [next to] Jeter’s, they’re pretty comparable. If Jimmy guy plays two or three more years, you’ve got to consider him for the Hall of Fame, I think.”

But more than anything, this is about winning, too -- for both of them. About not letting an otherwise-memorable era in Phillies history end with a meltdown and a blowup of the entire roster, possibly including the exit of the soon-to-be all-time hit leader (if he were to waive his trade-veto rights, that is).

So that’s what’s at stake here. Not just a season but a legacy. People on the outside may think they know where this is leading. But Rollins and Bowa have a different journey in mind, one with a much happier ending.

And if they can write that ending -- together -- that, says Bowa, “would be awesome.”