By Lyle Spencer, MLB.com
The Dodgers acquired Jimmy Rollins over the winter to play shortstop and serve as an offensive catalyst. There was another factor involved in their pursuit, an intangible impossible to measure in numbers.
Known throughout the game as one of its strongest, most vocal leaders, the Oakland native has done it all — 2007 National League Most Valuable Player Award winner; three-time NL All-Star; four-time NL Gold Glove Award winner; NL Silver Slugger Award winner. He also has won it all, with the 2008 World Series-champion Phillies.
Now, with buddy Howie Kendrick sidelined for at least two weeks with a hamstring injury, Rollins’ leadership takes on increased importance. He’ll guide the new kids at second base while continuing to function as a driving force in the clubhouse.
It’s a full plate, but Rollins — 36 and still very good at what he does — is familiar with the menu.
“It’s definitely the time of year where it’s about winning,” Rollins said Monday as the Dodgers opened a three-game series against scuffling NL East power Washington at Dodger Stadium. “Everything else is secondary — feelings, emotions. Everything that happens is about winning. It’s staying focused on a goal. It’s the overall picture you have to see.
“Losing Howie hurts, but somebody else steps up. Your job as a leader is to make it as easy as possible, to help guys be themselves. Nothing changes; it’s still baseball. The only thing that’s different is that everybody’s an All-Star now.”
Kendrick and Rollins bonded quickly in Spring Training in Arizona, new middle-infield partners with histories elsewhere. With Kendrick, the former Angels star, sidelined, versatile Kiké Hernandez and newcomer Jose Peraza, a swift athlete recently acquired from the Braves, figure to share second base.
“So much of the game is in the middle of the field — the pitcher and catcher, center fielder, the shortstop and second baseman,” Rollins said. “You have to have your own relationship at second and short.
“We try to control the running game, take care of the 5.5 and 3.5 holes. We can have a huge impact. At short and second, it’s how many [runs] you’re not letting in that counts.”
Monday’s start was Rollins’ 100th this season at shortstop. Kendrick has started 102 games at second. Their steady, at times brilliant, play was pivotal in the Dodgers’ building a three-game lead over the Giants in the NL West before Kendrick landed on the DL.
Now Rollins, coming alive offensively after first-half struggles, hopes to kick into high gear while helping Peraza and Hernandez fill the void.
“The finish line is right there,” Rollins said. “The first half is trying to build up, maintain. The second half is get it done. You don’t make yourself a hero or superstar; situations in the second half make you that.”
After 19 years in the Phillies’ organization, Rollins has grown comfortable in his new environment, learning which teammates need an arm around a shoulder and which ones respond to strong words.
“I’m going to be myself anywhere I go,” Rollins said. “The best thing you can ever be is real. You can’t just go in and say, ‘I’m here, it’s my way.’ Every organization has a different way of doing things. You talk to the leaders who were here before you; you figure things out. It became clearer as things went on how I can fit in and play that role.
“The good thing is that it’s very similar here to what we had with the Phillies. It doesn’t matter who you are — you’re going to get messed with. You have to be able to laugh at each other and not get offended. You can smile, have a good time — but be ready to play between the lines.”
Dodgers manager Don Mattingly leans on Rollins and Kendrick, with their broad postseason experience, to show the way for younger teammates.
“It’s hard for me to think of one without the other,” Mattingly said. “Jimmy and Howie have given us great leadership.”
In Philly, Rollins teamed with the great Chase Utley and developed a deep respect for Kendrick from a distance.
“It’s rare — sometimes people are just kindred spirits,” Rollins said. “I feel like I’ve known Howie forever. I always thought he was a guy I’d love to play with, and I found out he felt the same way about me.”
Now Kendrick has to watch Rollins hold it together with Peraza and Hernandez.
“I went through this in 2007, when we lost Chase for a huge part of the season, early,” Rollins said. “We had a rotation of guys replacing him at second. We still won the division but ran into Colorado [in the NL Division Series]. Those guys were world beaters that year.”
The Red Sox ended the Rockies’ dream season. One year later, the City of Brotherly Love had its parade for the Phillies. Rollins knows the route, and he’s eager to share it with his new professional brothers.