James Calvin Rollins Jr. was born on November 27, 1978 in Oakland, California. (Click here for today's sports birthdays.) His parents, Gigi and James Sr., welcomed another son, Antwon, a couple of years later. Jimmy’s mom and dad were both athletic. James had been a wrestler and weightlifter in school, and also ran track. He also had some success as a doo-wop singer in his 20s. He pushed both his sons into music—Jimmy played the trumpet for a time.
It was Gigi, however, who passed on baseball skills to Jimmy. She was a top infielder in the fast-pitch softball leagues of Northern California. Jimmy often tagged along with her to practices, waiting for a chance to play. In exchange for a couple of swings or a few grounders, he would collect all the balls in the outfield and bring them in.
By following his mom to the diamond and watching her play, Jimmy slso absorbed a tremendous amount of baseball knowledge and strategy. He knew more about the game at age seven than most high school players learn by their teens.
That expereince served Jimmy well growing up. His family lived in the Buena Vista section of Alameda, aka the other side of the tracks. He gained his swagger on the hardscrabble playing fields of his neighborhood. Jimmy made a name for himself in baseball and football. In fact, if asked to choose between the two as a kid, he probably would have opted for the gridiron. Jimmy’s favorite team was the San Francisco 49ers. He played hard and fast, a great two-way star who dominated Pop Warner football.
On the baseball field, Jimmy worshiped Rickey Henderson. For a time, his father and Henderson had been classmates at Oakland Tech. Junior and senior often sat together in the stands at the Oakland Coliseum and watched Henderson do his thing for the A's. Jimmy also rooted for Ozzie Smith and Cal Ripken, a couple of shortstops who had huge impacts on the game in very different ways.
Jimmy’s parents had one rule: You never quit. Anything that Jimmy or his brother started, they had to finish. Jimmy’s uncle also gave him sage advice: you can have whatever you want in life, it’s just a matter of when you get it. Party now and have nothing later, or sacrifice now and then party the rest of your life. Jimmy took both lessons to heart. Over the years, that guidance separated him from the other athletes in his neighborhood.
As a kid, Jimmy looked like a carbon copy of his dad. He had long arms and legs, so everyone assumed he would grow to be 6-1, like James, or even taller. For some reason, he plateaued at around 5-7. This was frustrating for Jimmy, especially when Antwon shot past him a year later. It turned out, Jimmy was built more like his mom—compact and strong.
Instead of retooling his game to work better for a little man, Jimmy simply kept playing like a big guy. And despite every coach along the way begging him to put the ball on the ground and use his quickness to reach base, Jimmy kept drilling balls into the gaps and over the fences.
When Jimmy enrolled at Encinal High School, his parents told him to forget about football and concentrate on baseball. That was cool by Jimmy. All those years pumping iron with his dad and fielding grounders with his mom paid off. By his sophomore year, West Coast scouts already knew his name. Jimy was selected to play in California’s prep all-star tournament, the Area Code Games, and blew away his coaches, including scout Doug McMillan and former major leaguer Butch Metzger. His instincts and feel for baseball were amazing. McMillan often joked that the coaching staff could cut out and let Jimmy run the team.
Over the next four years, Jimmy stole 99 bases and hit .484, both school records at Encinal. He also attracted the attention of pro scouts, most of whom would have normally dismissed a kid of Jimmy's stature. He made this impossible to do.
Bob Poole, who worked the region for the Phillies, was afraid the team would look past Jimmy’s talent when they saw his height. He wrote sparkling reports, and the team took notice. Philadelphia selected Jimmy in the second round of the 1996 draft, and then talked him out of a baseball scholarship to Arizona State.
ON THE RISE
Jimmy started his pro career at baseball’s bottom rung, the Appalachian League. The 17-year-old played 49 games for the short-season Martinsville Phillies and batted .238 with just five extra-base hits. Among his teammates was 16-year-old Carlos Silva, who would one day join Jimmy on the Phillies’ big-league roster.
The following season, Jimmy was promoted to Piedmont in the Class-A South Atlantic League. The everyday shortstop for the Boll Weevils, he fielded his position well, hit .270 with decent pop and led the entire Philadelphia organization with 46 steals.
Jimmy showed enough ability to earn another promotion in 1998, this time to Clearwater of the High-A Florida State League. Though his average and steals dropped somewhat, Jimmy continued his development as an all-around player.
Fortunately, Jimmy’s path was not blocked by another prospect. His climb up the ladder led him to Class-AA Reading of the Eastern League in 1999. There, he had a standout campaign playing for Gary Varsho, another diminutive player who had succeeded in pro ball. Jimmy contributed in every department for Varsho, even crashing 11 home runs. That was enough to earn him a spot in the heart of the Reading order.
Jimmy did well enough in Double-A to get a few games in with Scranton-Wilkes Barre, the Phillies’ top farm team. His first game at Triple-A did not go smoothly. On artificial turf for the first time, Jimmy was unsure of his footing. On a grounder up the middle, he got his feet tangled and fell flat on his face.
Jimmy opened the 2000 season as the everyday shortstop for Scranton. He was also under consideration for one of the final slots on the Olympic team. Unfortunately, a two-month funk to start the campaign cost him a trip to Sydney.
The Phillies, menawhile, were patient with Jimmy. They let him work out of his slump, and he rebounded with a respectable season. Jimmy batted, .274, stole 24 bases and led the International League in triples with 11. He also reached double-figures in doubles and home runs. The Red Barons finished with an 85-60 record and made it to the league finals, but fell to Indianapolis in five games.
After the series,
Jimmy got the call from the big club. The Phillies occupied the NL East
cellar and had the luxury of looking at prospects to close out the year.
Jimmy was inserted in the starting lineup, sending the tag team of Alex
Arias and Tomas Perez back to the bench. In 14 games, he hit .321 and
swiped three bases. Going into the winter, the Philadelphia penciled in
Jimmy as the team's shortstop and leadoff hitter. Though he had batted
down in the lineup for most of his minor league career, the Phils believed
he could make the adjustment as a tablesetter.
With big years from Jimmy, Travis Lee, Bobby Abreu, Scott Rolen, Pat Burrell, Robert Person, Jose Mesa and Omar Daal, the Phillies exceeded expectations and went 86-76. They nearly caught the Atlanta Braves for the division title, finishing just two games back. Had it not been for Albert Pujols, Jimmy probably would have run away with the Rookie of the Year voting.
With a camp full of hot young pitchers, the Phillies had high hopes heading into 2002. But thoughts of a playoff run disappeared when the Philadelphia offense sputtered. The team could not break the .500 mark and ended the year in the bottom half of the NFL East.
Jimmy was part of the problem. Even though he started the season on a strong note, he just never really got untracked, Jimmy failed to reach base consistently and fell into several long slumps. Frustrated, he tried to hammer high balls, and his average sunk to .245. While Jimmy led the NL in triples and at-bats, he became more and more tentative as a player, especially on the basepaths.
Perhaps the lone highlight for Jimmy was getting voted to start in the All-Star Game. He picked two hits against the AL (which he still says is among his proudest moment in baseball).
There were some who believed that 2003 would be a make or break year for Jimmy. He spent part of the winter with recently retired Tony Gwynn, working with the future Hall of Famer on his approach at the plate. When the campaign started, Jimmy began to struggle yet again. Things got so bad that Bowa dropped him to the bottom half of the order. Jimmy regrouped enough to put up respectable numbers—a .263 batting average with 42 doubles and 62 RBIs. Overall, however, his campaign was a disaster. Jimmy failed to reach double-figures in triples and home runs, and he was successful on just 20 or 32 steals.
MAKING HIS MARK
Toward the end of
the '03 campaign, Jimmy began to realize what set the game’s best
players apart. It was one word—commitment. Everyone in the majors,
he realized, had some measure of natural ability. But the players who
made the All-Star team year after year seemed to work at it all the time.
In 2004, Jimmy finally became the player the Phillies had been waiting for. He batted .289 with a .455 slugging percentage, scored 119 runs, led the league in triples, cut down considerably on his strikeouts, batted well from both sides of the plate, and hit well in the clutch. The workouts with Gwynn had helped, but it was joining morning sessions with Abreu that enabled him to sting the ball with authority and consistency. Jimmy also fielded his position brilliantly, showing better range and more strength on his already accurate throwing arm.
The Phillies thought a playoff bid was within reach, but the Braves slipped by them for the division lead and the Houston Astros got hot down the stretch and snagged the Wild Card. The ultra-intense Bowa was the scapegoat, and the Phils fired him at the end of the season. Jimmy was sad to see the veteran skipper go. He did not mind Bowa’s constant harassment—in fact, he felt it kept guys on their toes.
Charlie Manuel took the helm in 2005 and turned his hitters loose. The Phillies finished with a .270 average and scored 807 runs—both good for second among NL teams. The problem was that too many Philly batters swung for the fences and failed to adjust to different hitting situations. The result was feast or famine in Philly. The inconsistent results led to a record of 88-74 but no postseason apperance.
Jimmy was as guilty as anyone—the fences at Philadelphia]s Bank One Ballpark were temptingly close. His average hovered between .250 and .260 most of the year. That was until August, when he picked up the team and carried it the rest of the way.
Though the Phillies finished out of the money, they remained within sniffing range of the Wild Card thanks to Jimmy’s lusty second-half hitting. He concluded the season with a remarkable 36-game hitting streak, the ninth-longest longest in baseball history (and the longest to end a season). The streak broke the franchise mark of 31, set by Ed Delahanty in 1899. During the stretch, Jimmy raised his average 38 points, to .290.
Jimmy was the talk of baseball as the 2006 season opened. Was there a chance he could challenge Joe DiMaggio’s all-record of 56 straight? When he picked up hits in his first two games, fans in Philadelphia began to think that Jimmy might catch the Yankee Clipper. A day later, however, he took an 0-fer and his streak ended at 38 in a row.
Once the media hype surrounding Jimmy died down, the Phillies were able to focus more intently on winning games. The club was missing two big names—Jim Thome and Billy Wagner—both of whom had left in the offseason. Thome was dealt to the Chicago White Sox, while Wagner signed a free-agent deal with the New York Mets.They were replaced by Ryan Howard (fresh off his fantastic rookie season) and veteran Tom Gordon, who still had a good fastball and great curve. Both came through with big years.
Jimmy enjoyed another
strong seson. He hit for surprising power early in the year and may have
become a bit to enamored of the home run. His average and overall production
was lousy in the first half. Jimmy rebounded starting in July and finished
with a flourish, batting over .300 and collecting more home runs than
strikeouts. His final numbers included 45 doubles, 25 homers, 177 runs,
36 steals and a .277 average.
Howard also had a monster year. In fact, he slugged 58 homers and was named NL MVP. Unfortunately, the rest of the team played sluggishly throughout the season. The Mets built a big lead in the division, and Philadelphia ended up fighting over the Wild Card. The team missed out on the postseason by three games to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
That winter, Jimmy told reporters that the Phillies would be the team to beat in the NL East. The Mets, he said, had failed to capitalize on their good fortune. Now it was Philadelphia's turn. For the first half of the 2007 campaign, it appeared that Jimmy had put his foot in his mouth. New York on the verge of running away with the division again.
But in August, the Mets' seemingly unassailable lead began to evaporate. A four-game sweep by the Phillies put them hot on New York's tail. Jimmy hit homers in two of those games. He later clubbed his 30th homer to join the elite 30-30 club.
With 17 games left, the Phillies still trailed by seven. They went 13–4 the rest of the way, while the Mets won just five times. In one of the great miracles in Philadelphia baseball history, the team made it into the playoffs. The Phils defeated the Washington Nationals on the final day of the season, and the Mets lost to the Florida Marlins. Jimmy was sensational in his team's 162nd game, with two hits, two stolen bases and two runs scored.
Jimmy had actually been the driving force for Philadelphia all season long. He finished the year second in the league in hits and second in the majors in total bases. Jimmy produced career-highs in a host of offensive categories, including his .296 batting average, 20 triples, 30 home runs, 41 stolen bases, 94 RBIs and 139 runs scored. In the field, he committed only 11 errors in over 700 chances. Jimmy would later get the nod over Matt Holliday and Prince Fielder as NL MVP.
The playoffs found the Phillies hosting the Colorado Rockies, the only team hotter than Philadelphia. The Rockies steamrolled the Phils in the first two games, and then closed out the series sweep at Coors Field. It was a devastating end to a surprising season for Philly, but all in all it had been quite a ride for the players and fans. Jimmy thanked the Philadelphia faithful publicly for sticking with the team throughout the year.
Jimmy made no guarantees heading into 2008, but that didn't mean the Phillies weren't confident. After addressing their bullpen and depth issues, they felt they could outdistance the Mets again. This despite Carlos Beltran’s challenge to Jimmy that New York—which had acquired Johan Santana—was the team to beat. Alas, the Mets proved to be older but not necessarily wiser, and their inability to put a healthy lineup on the field gave the Phillies the opening they needed. After dueling all summer, Philly pulled ahead in September and locked up the NL East on the final weekend.
Jimmy’s year started badly when he turned an ankle in a game against New York and hit the DL for the first time in his career. He recovered in time to have a productive summe, and hit particularly well down the stretch. Although his overall numbers were down, he did set a new personal high with 47 stolen bases. Jimmy batted .277 with 11 homers in 137 games.
In the Division Series against the Brewers, Jimmy helped the Phillies build a 2–1 lead, and then homered to leadoff Game 4 against Jeff Suppan in Milwaukee. Philadelphia went on to win 6–2, and Jimmy had a hand in the final out, throwing Jason Kendall out at first.
In the NLCS, the Phillies built a lead after four games over the Dodgers. Once again, Jimmy got the clincher off to a fast start with a leadoff homer in Los Angeles. Philadelphia went on to win 5–1 and take the team’s first pennant since 1993.
Jimmy struggled to start the World Series against the Tampa Bay Rays. He went hitless in the first two games, but the Phils still managed a split on the road. Jimmy swung the bat better in front of the home fans. He collected two hits in Philly's Game 3 victory and three more in 10-2 laugher the following night. In Game 5—a contest that took three nights to play because of bad weather—the Phils won 4-3 and celebrated their first championship in more than 20 years. Jimmy helped the cause with a sac bunt in the sixth after a lead-off double by Geoff Jenkins, who then scored on a bloop hit by Jason Werth.
In Jimmy and teammates Chase Utley and Howard, the Phillies have perhaps the most dynamic and talented first-second-short combination in NL history. If all three remain healthy and productive, Philly has to be considered a contender every year.
Meanwhile, the strange and oft times tentative love affair between Philadelphia fans and their hip-hop shortstop continues. In a city that tends to alienate its most charismatic athletes, Jimmy seems to have found a home.
JIMMY THE PLAYER
Jimmy is far from an ideal leadoff man, but he is the best the Phillies have had since Len Dykstra. Jimmy loves to hit and is disinclined to take a walk, which means when he hits a slump, he has no dependable way of getting on base. That being said, no other top-of-the-lineup hitter can produce double-figures in doubles, triples and homers the way Jimmy has over his career. And a run is a run—no matter how you get yourself around the bases.
When Jimmy reaches first, fans are seeing one of the NL’s smartest baserunners at work. He understands when to go, when to stay put, and when to send a message. Watching him feint and duck is like watching Rickey Henderson sometimes. Like his idol, Jimmy is good at committing pitch sequences and patterns to memory. He is also adept at not tipping off his intentions—a trick he actually learned as a rookie from coach Tony Scott.
In the field, Jimmy is good with the glove and possesses a strong and very accurate arm. He has decent range and usually makes the hard plays. Jimmy won his first Gold Glove in 2007.
Jimmy is very animated, talkative and funny. Opposing baserunners can often be seen hiding a smile when they lead off second and Jimmy begins to chatter. His teammates love his upbeat attitude, as well. When Jimmy speaks out to the media, the Phillies don't mind, because he normally backs it up.
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