Rollins excited to chase DiMaggio
Phillies shortstop 20 games shy of 64-year-old record
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- It was uttered as a simple pledge, a boast from Jimmy Rollins to his younger brother, Antwon.He might wind up being prophetic. "Every spring since my rookie year, I told him I'm going to break [Joe] DiMaggio's record," said Rollins. "It's such a symbol of consistency. Up until now, that was impossible." It's very possible now for those who want to believe Rollins -- who ended the 2005 season with a hit in 36 straight games -- is capable of starting this season with a 21-game hitting steak, and shattering DiMaggio's 64-year-old record. Rollins believes he can, as he spoke with reporters on Monday at Bright House Networks Field on his second day of camp. He entered to a celebrity's welcome, holding a morning press conference to discuss his accomplishments. The diamond earning in each ear shone nearly as brightly as the spotlight that will shine on him over the next six weeks, and intensify through the regular season's first month. Can he extend the ninth-longest streak in Major League history, one that began with a ninth-inning double off San Francisco's Brian Cooper, driving in the 10th and final run of a 10-2 win last Aug. 23, then went into hibernation on a fourth-inning single off Washington's Hector Carrasco on Oct. 2? "Sure, why not?" said manager Charlie Manuel. "It will be fun to watch him try." The switch-hitter batted .379 during the streak, totaling 19 doubles, four triples, four homers, 24 RBIs, 97 total bases, 17 walks and 15 stolen bases, as he kept the Phillies alive in the National League Wild Card race. Of his streak-extending hits, he smacked 22 singles, 10 doubles, one triple and three homers. His batting average rose from .262 to .290. For those into advance planning, Rollins would break the mark on April 26 at home against the Rockies. If nothing else, Rollins has gained an appreciation for what DiMaggio accomplished nearly 6 1/2 decades ago. "That's one heck of a long hitting streak," Rollins said. "When I looked back after the season, it was like, 'Wow, that's 36 days of working to be successful, but he did it for 20 more games.' It's almost unimaginable that someone can even hit in that many games straight, but here I am across the halfway point. This is when it gets tough." Always considered a "red-light player" since signing with the Phillies in 1996, the 27-year-old has emerged as one of the game's elite shortstops. He's been thinking about it since his rookie season. His statistics say it, and his lofty five-year, $40-million contract extension validates his claims.
After batting .188 in August -- which encompasses the streak's first seven games -- Rollins hit .400 over the final 32 games to keep the Phillies on pace with the Astros. The Phils fell a game short in the NL Wild Card race, but Rollins learned a lot about performing down the stretch."That's what separates the men from the boys, what you do when crunch time is on," Rollins said. "Though we didn't get to the playoffs, it was an important race. It brought a lot of attention to me and to the team." Through the steamy stretches, Rollins has maintained his aggressive hitting style, which doesn't include a lot of 3-2 counts. That won't change. He'll never be the prototypical 100-walk leadoff man who works counts, though so few of them exist. As long as he's finding ways on base and scoring runs, the Phillies are content. "Our shortstop turned the corner," said Manuel. "He learned what works best for him [during the streak]. He has a great personality and he can be very special. He's going to get better." Much, much better, if you ask the supremely confident source. His performance last season enhanced his ego. He maintains a goal of scoring 150 runs in a season (he scored 115 last year), and doesn't hide the fact that he wants to be remembered as one of the best at his position. He already ranks himself on a level with Orlando Cabrera and close to Edgar Renteria. Can Rafael Furcal and Derek Jeter be far off? "I have no doubt that I'll be regarded as one of the best shortstops," he said. "In which way, offense or defense, I don't know. Hopefully, it's all the way around. Those are my plans. If I don't feel that way, I shouldn't be playing this game." Recognition as the holder of the game's longest hitting streak in history might help his Hall of Fame chances. "Shoot, I'll get to Hall of Fame for reasons other than that," he said, laughing. "But that'll definitely help." Even without Cooperstown, Rollins has forged a pretty nice lifestyle. He owns two homes -- one in Tampa, Fla., and one in Swedesboro, N.J. -- and tools around Clearwater in a Mercedes that he joked is a rental. The flash fits his personality. His celebrity athlete friends include Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb and Sixers guard Allen Iverson. While he's not in that group in terms of how he's regarded -- he can still eat in a restaurant without incident, since "people don't recognize me without the dreds" -- the streak would vault him higher than he can imagine. He could own the city of Philadelphia. "That's what I'm here for, to hopefully do something special, something that hasn't been done in a long time," Rollins said. "If that happens, that's fine. Everybody wants to be that man at least once in their career. If I have an opportunity to do that, I'm going to relish it."
Ken Mandel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.