By Mary Cunningham

Perhaps lost in all the hoo-hah about the Phillies trade of Jimmy Rollins to the Dodgers and what it represents as a benchmark of the end of the team’s era of excellence is:

How vital Rollins has been to the elevation of the team from also-ran to MLB elite.

He was the leadoff hitter and Gold Glove defender. He radiated a confidence that infected the entire clubhouse. He was a red-light player, at his best when it mattered most. Before heading to the Dodgers in a trade completed on Friday, he became the best shortstop in Phillies history and the all-time hits leader (2,306) for a club that has been around for more than 130 years.

The numbers are impressive. There were 216 homers, 479 doubles, 111 triples and 453 stolen bases accumulated over 15 years.

There are individual moments that became instant parts of franchise lore.

Rollins made a terrific stop on a grounder by the Nationals’ Ryan Zimmerman and started a game-ending double play that clinched the division. The Phillies went on to win just the second World Series title in their history.

In Game 4 of the 2009 National League Championship Series against the Dodgers his bottom-of-the-ninth, two-out double off Dodgers closer Jonathan Broxton drove in the tying and winning runs to lift the Phils to a 5-4 win. The next night they punched their ticket for a second straight trip to the Fall Classic.

But his enduring legacy remains an intangible, the challenge to himself and his teammates that he voiced going into the 2007 season.

At that point, the Phillies were beginning to develop a reputation as next year’s champions, forever coming up short. They finished second in 2004, ’05 and ’06, with an NL wild card slot eluding their grasp.

So his January answer to a standard question about how he viewed the Phillies’ chances that year got a lot of attention.

“The Mets had a chance to win the World Series last year. Last year is over. I think we are the team to beat in the NL East, finally. But, that’s only on paper,” he said, painting a target on his own back in the process.

The bravado was pure J-Roll. And it appeared to be misplaced when the Phillies trailed New York by seven games with 17 left to play. But the Mets began to fade and the Phillies came on strong, clinching the division on the final day of the regular season. And it wasn’t just that Rollins was right. It was that he helped make it happen. He became the first player in history with at least 200 hits, 20 triples, 30 home runs, and 30 stolen bases in a season. And he topped it off by being voted the National League’s Most Valuable Player.

That was foreshadowed when Bobby Abreu was dealt at the trade deadline a year earlier. At the time, then-general manager Pat Gillick said he didn’t expect the Phillies to contend for a couple of years. What happened instead was that it allowed some of the younger players, notably Rollins, to more openly exert their personality. After a 46-54 start the Phillies went 39-23 the rest of the way.

Rollins wasn’t always appreciated in his time. Fans and media griped that his on-base percentage wasn’t as high as a prototypical leadoff hitter. He didn’t always run out grounders and, in fact, was once benched for not hustling on a popup. Another time he was pulled from the lineup for showing up late to the park.

It seemed important at the time. The passing years have added balance. Along with wife Johari, he was active in charitable endeavors.

The Phillies started turning things around at the same time Rollins made it to the big leagues for good. That’s not a coincidence. He didn’t do it all by himself, although according to baseball-reference.com Rollins has the 10th-best WAR (wins above replacement) in team history. But it’s difficult to imagine the Phillies being nearly as good as they were without him, either.

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