|Saturday, February 16
Updated: April 17, 5:53 PM ET
Rolen stands by 'principle' in ordeal with Phillies
By Jayson Stark
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- It takes a different kind of guy to turn his back on 140 million bucks of negotiable American currency.
In fact, says Scott Rolen, it takes an "idiot."
So guess who did, in actual real life, turn his back on the chance to accept 140 million actual bucks of the Philadelphia Phillies' actual United States money this winter? An "idiot" named Scott Rolen himelf. That's who.
It's true, by the way, that technically, Rolen didn't turn down anything -- because the Phillies simply made public what they were prepared to offer him after Rolen broke off negotiations. But it's also true the two sides had talked about contract parameters last spring, so Rolen knew he was walking away from the opportunity to negotiate one of the half-dozen biggest contracts in baseball history.
It wasn't an easy decision. He doesn't need to consult Merrill or Lynch to know it definitely wasn't a financially sound decision. And Rolen is the first to admit that from the standpoint of sheer basic intelligence, "it was a stupid, stupid thing to do."
So how come he also says he wouldn't change a thing?
Not for $240 million. Not for $340 million. Not for any amount of negotiable American currency. That's his story. That was his decision. And he's sticking to both of them.
"I don't play the game to make money," Rolen told ESPN.com in an exclusive interview this weekend. "I play the game to win. And what they offered me -- or didn't offer me, depending on how you look at it -- was money. And that's not enough.
"It's always been about principles first for me. All I've told them (Phillies ownership) is that I want the same commitment from them that they expect from me and from my teammates. And those principles -- let's just say they don't have a price tag on them."
To the shock of many, Rolen is still the Phillies' third baseman as another spring training opens beneath the Florida palms. It is now three months since he told his bosses he wasn't interested in entertaining their contract overtures this winter, three months in which they tried to trade him but never did.
So now here he is, in the beginning of his free-agent walk year. He is Philadelphia's version of Jason Giambi (2001 edition), living life as a lame-duck leader on a team trying to win with a payroll half the size of the favorites in its own division.
It could well be the most difficult year of Rolen's life and career, in part because the always-sympathetic fans of Philadelphia have jumped to numerous conclusions -- many of them half-baked -- about how he got to this point.
So Rolen used both his conversation with ESPN.com and a mass interview with the Philadelphia media Saturday to try to explain, for what he says is the final time, why he cut off negotiations before the Phillies ever had a chance to offer him that $140-million deal:
He knows what people think the reasons are. But in reality, he says ...
It was, he says, simply about a 26-year-old, three-time Gold Glove third baseman who wasn't ready to commit essentially the rest of his career to a team he feels hasn't shown enough commitment in return to make him want to stay.
"I looked at this whole thing," Rolen says. "I looked at history. I looked at the whole deal. And let's start with a fact. Let's go back 15 years. Thirteen times in the last 15 seasons, they've had losing seasons. That's history. That's fact. And that's a 15-year period. That's a long time.
"I'm not just a player. I'm a fan. I'm a fan of the game. And the way I look at this is: Fans deserve better than that. Fans deserve a better commitment than this ownership is giving them. I'm tired of empty promises. I'm tired of waiting for a new stadium (not due until 2004), for the sun to shine."
In a 90-minute conversation, Rolen touched on all this and more. Here are the highlights:
"I thank the Phillies for being willing to offer that, and I'm an idiot for not signing that contract. It was a stupid, stupid thing to do. It's a ridiculous amount of money. But I've kicked this around 100 times since then. I've said to myself that I should just sit back and enjoy what they offered. But every time I think I should do that, my heart tells me it's just not right."
"But at the same time, I realized those were issues I had to get over so I could make a solid contract decision later in the offseason. I needed to get away -- from the game, from the whole process -- to make a clear, open-minded decision.
"So I took three weeks. I went on a west-coast trip and got away from absolutely everything. And the farther I got away from everything, I was able to clear my head and look at things more objectively. ... And I'm over that now."
"Two is the fans in the stands. The fans in the stands in Philadelphia have a passion about them. Whether they're Flyers fans or Sixers fans or Eagles fans or Phillies fans, they're dying to win. And if those fans don't have that passion, they're not in the stands. ... There's a reason our attendance last year didn't reflect the team we had on the field. And the reason is that these fans are upset (with ownership), and they have every right to be. ...
"So point No. 3 is the backing from ownership, to have that same commitment that they expect from the players. And they expect fans to come to the stadium. So why shouldn't the players and the fans expect that same level of commitment from them?"
"I told them it doesn't matter what uniform I'm wearing as far as that approach. If they chose to trade me, that was their right. And if they didn't trade me, that was their right, too. I didn't demand a trade or want a trade. I just said I wouldn't sign a contract right then.
"So all I'm going to do now is walk into Philadelphia and give everything I have. And at the end of the season, I'll become a free agent. They've known that since three weeks into the offseason. That's why I told them as early as I did -- to give them every opportunity to do what they thought they needed to do."
"The only thing I can hang my hat on is what's right and on principle. If I hang onto that principle in the city of Philadelphia, and by not signing a contract for that amount of money, it somehow gets some kind of point across and helps bring these people the kind of team Philadelphia wants and what they deserve as fans, I can live with that. ... If that puts a burden on me, I'm prepared to live with that burden."
After Rolen had finished making many of these same remarks to a large contingent of Philadelphia media types Saturday afternoon, Wade expressed hope that the Phillies could still find a way to change the mind of "our franchise player."
But when asked what the club could do to demonstrate that it shared Rolen's "commitment," Wade replied: "All we can do is to continue to try to make sound, solid baseball decisions and put the best team on the field we're capable of putting on the field. And I'm very comfortable with the progress we've made. I'm very comfortable with the moves we made in the offseason. I feel we've improved this team.
"As I've said a million times, our goal wasn't to go out and match other teams, move for move, in the offseason. ... Our goal at the end of the season was to objectively assess our needs and go out and address those needs. And I believe we're a better club today than we were at the end of last season. Now we've got to go out and play and show it.
"There's nothing else we can do at this point, other than show we are everything we think we're capable of being. And if somebody wants to be in a winning environment for an extended period of time, we are putting the pieces for that to occur right here."
Wade said he and team president Dave Montgomery had given Rolen plenty of information to justify why the Phillies' revenues don't support a payroll in the same range as the Braves' and Mets'.
"Scott and I have talked about those issues," the GM said. "And I've tried, in all honesty, to convey to him what the circumstances are and what reality is. And obviously, he's chosen what he believes is a piece of reality, and he's pinning his opinions on that. But obviously, I disagree with some of those opinions.
"I've told him on more than one occasion what type of losses a $47-million payroll brought about a year ago. And how do we respond to that after setting ourselves up in a position of losing money? We increased our payroll 25 percent. We went from $47 million to $60 million. We didn't go into this offseason, as a lot of clubs did, saying we've got to cut payroll back or we've got to stay status quo. I don't know how many clubs made a 25-percent increase in payroll this year. But I don't think there were a lot of them."
The Phillies' best defense to all this, of course, is that they are a team on the rise, a team that won 86 games last year without its All-Star catcher (Mike Lieberthal), a team that is young enough to win for years. And by showing they were willing to give a player like Rolen a contract of that magnitude, they can argue they were demonstrating that they do plan to make that commitment to winning he's looking for. But Rolen is skeptical of that, too.
"Right now," he says, "I look around the field and I see Pat Burrell and Doug Glanville and Mike Lieberthal and Bobby Abreu. So I see that core of players they talk about. But history says that in two or three years, when I turn around, I won't see Burrell and Glanville and Lieberthal and Abreu.
"So if I were to take their money, the issue is not who I would see around me in Year One of a 10-year contract. The issue is who I would see around me in four years. And again, history tells me those guys are not going to be there. ... And I don't want to be a $140-million player standing there at third base alone five years from now."
Obviously, then, if the Phillies are going to convince Rolen to stay beyond October, they'll have to do more than just write the biggest check in franchise history. They need to use this season as their last opportunity to prove to their third baseman that they will do everything in their power to win with him, or else face the certainty that their future means trying to win without him.
But you don't have to read too far between these lines to get the distinct impression it might already be too late.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.