On Baseball

A Hall of Famer With All the ‘Ingredients’ for Third Base

Scott Rolen, an all-around star, was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame on his sixth try. Todd Helton, Billy Wagner and the other finalists will continue to wait.

Wearing a red Cardinals hat and white home uniform, Scott Rolen prepares to throw a ball from third base to first base.
Scott Rolen was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in his sixth year of eligibility.Credit...Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

When the major leagues first came calling, Scott Rolen was playing on a sprained ankle. He had hurt it in a predictable way for a tall, rangy high school senior in Indiana: playing basketball. The Philadelphia Phillies didn’t mind.

“I saw all the ingredients you’d want to see,” Mike Arbuckle, the former Phillies scouting director, said by phone Tuesday night, three decades after he first met Rolen, the newest member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. “The body, the athleticism, the tools — and he gave you that ‘it factor,’ that inner confidence in a young player that when you see him play, you just know that he’s not going to be afraid of failing. He gave you the feeling that he was 18 going on 35, mentally.”

When Rolen was 18, he turned down a two-sport scholarship offer from the University of Georgia to sign with the Phillies. When he was 35, with the Cincinnati Reds, he earned his eighth career Gold Glove as one of the finest third basemen in baseball history.

On Tuesday, the baseball writers elected Rolen to the Hall of Fame in his sixth appearance on the ballot. Rolen, 47, will join the former first baseman Fred McGriff, who was elected by an eras committee in December, on the stage in Cooperstown, N.Y., this July. Rolen received votes on 297 of 389 ballots, or 76.3 percent — candidates needed at least 75 percent (or 292 votes) to make it, meaning Rolen had only five to spare.

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Rolen established himself quickly in Philadelphia, winning the N.L.’s Rookie of the Year Award in 1997.Credit...Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The No. 5, of course, is the scorer’s designation for third base, the only position Rolen played in a 17-year career with the Phillies, the St. Louis Cardinals, the Toronto Blue Jays and the Reds. Rolen — who never even appeared as a designated hitter — becomes only the 18th Hall of Famer whose primary position was third base.

No other position has so few representatives in Cooperstown, and it first seemed unlikely that Rolen, who hit .281 with 316 career homers, would join the group. He made his debut on the writers’ ballot in 2018 with just 10.2 percent of support, the lowest first-year figure of anyone who was eventually elected by the writers.

Even so, Rolen said, all he wanted was to clear the 5 percent threshold to remain on the ballot. He learned he had done that while listening on the radio in a parking lot with his son, Finn, before a fourth-grade basketball practice.

“He was like, ‘Dad, I think you’re getting in,’ and I’m like, ‘Mmm, I don’t think so,’” Rolen said in a video news conference on Tuesday. “It was Chipper Jones, Jim Thome, Trevor Hoffman — it was a big ballot. I didn’t know a lot about the system for quite a while, and it came up at 10 percent, something like that, and I was still on. And he says to me, ‘Did we win?’ And I said, ‘Oh, we won. Yes, we won.’”

That initial victory, of sorts, triggered a steady climb: 17.2 percent in 2019 to 35.3, 52.9, 63.2 and finally to Tuesday’s winning figure. Todd Helton, the former first baseman for the Colorado Rockies, was right behind Rolen with 72.2 percent of the vote in his fifth try, followed by the former closer Billy Wagner (68.1) and the former outfielders Andruw Jones (58.1) and Gary Sheffield (55.1).

All of those candidates will return next year, along with a group of 10 other holdovers that includes Carlos Beltrán (the top vote-getter among first-year candidates, at 46.5 percent). The next ballot will also include the newcomers Joe Mauer, Chase Utley and Adrián Beltré, who will likely become the next third baseman in the Hall.

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Todd Helton hit .316 with 369 home runs in his 17-season career, which was spent entirely with the Colorado Rockies.Credit...David Zalubowski/Associated Press

Beltré is one of 11 third basemen to win at least five Gold Gloves, and all except Rolen are 6-foot-2 or shorter. Rolen is 6-foot-4 and 245 pounds, yet the scouts who recommended him to Arbuckle — Scott Trcka, Dick Lawlor and Marti Wolever — accurately predicted that he would never outgrow the position.

“He didn’t look like a guy who was ever going to get really heavy, or too thick through the legs to move well,” Arbuckle said. “And his wingspan, I mean, it’s incredible for a third baseman. So you put that along with the quickness he had in his lower half, it made him one of the top two or three defenders I’ve ever seen.”

The Phillies took Rolen in the second round with the 46th overall pick in 1993 and signed him for $250,000. Three years later they found another stalwart with the 46th pick in shortstop Jimmy Rollins, who would join other homegrown stars like Utley, Ryan Howard and Cole Hamels in making the Phillies a powerhouse.

For Rolen, though, the timing never quite worked out in Philadelphia; unable to reach a contract extension with the Phillies, he was traded to St. Louis in 2002, joining a punishing offense that also included Albert Pujols and Jim Edmonds. Squarely in his prime, Rolen would be an All-Star in each of the next four seasons and a regular in October.

In 2004, Rolen hit a go-ahead homer off Houston’s Roger Clemens in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series, propelling the Cardinals to the pennant. It turned out to be his last hit of the season, as Rolen went 0 for 15 in a World Series sweep by Boston.

“In the off-season, I said, ‘I’m never going to win the World Series, because I can’t play on a better team than that, talent-wise,’” Rolen said. “That was as good a group, inside the group, as you could possibly have — and we got killed. But we came back in ’06 and it changed my mind about a lot of things. We kind of backed in and we got hot and ran the table.”

The 2006 Cardinals won only 83 games (the fewest in a full regular season for any champion), but beat Detroit in the World Series with Rolen hitting a team-high .421. To get there, he had to overcome the Mets in the N.L.C.S. — and the shock of seeing Endy Chavez steal a would-be homer off his bat in Game 7.

“I know I homered that ball and he’s not anywhere near it,” Rolen said. “So to see him flying from nowhere and making that catch when I know that I’ve hit the ball over the fence — and on top of that doubling up Edmonds — it was unbelievable.”

On Tuesday there was no leaping outfielder to pull back Rolen’s accomplishment. This time, he cleared the barrier to baseball immortality.