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Have baggage, will travel

Rolen seeks a fresh start -- again -- with Blue Jays

Posted: Wednesday March 5, 2008 9:25PM; Updated: Friday March 7, 2008 9:58AM
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Scott Rolen
Scott Rolen is back in black in Toronto, his first American League team after 12 National League seasons.
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images Sport
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By Ted Keith, SI.com

When Scott Rolen arrived in Dunedin, Fla., last month for his first spring training as a Toronto Blue Jay, he likened it to going to a new school for the first time. It would hardly have been surprising then, if Rolen fit the mold of the new kid in class whose spotty reputation from his old school precedes him. After all, Rolen had just been dealt for the second time in his career, and both trades came after clashes with his manager.

Yet if there was any question about whether Rolen would have to, in effect, sit at the lunch table by himself, it was answered quickly. During one of the first team meetings, Rolen was held after by one of the Jays coaches and when he finally walked out to join his new teammates for stretching he was subjected to the same good-natured ribbing as the biggest man on campus: he was slow-clapped.

"It was loud," says Rolen with a laugh. "The sound was bouncing off the roof. That was painful."

A little temporary embarrassment was nothing compared to the pain Rolen has endured the past three years. The lingering effects from a left shoulder injury suffered during a collision with then-Dodgers first baseman Hee-Seop Choi in 2005 sapped much of his power (after smashing 34 home runs in 2004, Rolen has hit just 35 in the three seasons since) and eventually led to a nasty and public battle with Tony La Russa, his manager for 5 seasons in St. Louis. La Russa benched Rolen during the 2006 NLCS, feeling his third baseman's shoulder was hindering him to the point that it hurt the team. Rolen, one of the game's most hard-nosed competitors, took exception, and a chill developed that managed to reach deep-freeze status by the following summer.

At year's end, La Russa wrote Rolen a four-page letter that offered in clear terms the manager's thoughts about Rolen as both a player and a teammate. Then, at the winter meetings, La Russa fired more shots, claiming Rolen was the only Cardinal who didn't want him to return as manager and saying, "If he plays hard and plays as well as he can, he plays. And if he doesn't, he can sit. And if he doesn't like it, he can quit."

Rolen refused to respond, but by then it was clear he neither had much of a future in St. Louis nor wanted one. With the Blue Jays trying to shop Troy Glaus, their own banged-up third baseman with baggage, a one-for-one trade came together that sent Rolen north of the border.

"Things are different here," Rolen said in Dunedin. "The manager's different, it's people with different morals. This is a fresh start, new league, new country, new clubhouse, new guys."

While Rolen has little history with most of those new guys, top clubhouse veterans like Vernon Wells and Frank Thomas chose to focus on Rolen's 12-year history of intense, dedicated play when casting judgment, rather than his acrimonious departure from both St. Louis and Philadelphia, from whom he was traded in 2002 after a disagreement with manager Larry Bowa over the direction of the franchise.

"Who cares?" said Thomas when asked if Rolen's past would have any impact on his future with the Jays. "Sometimes things get blown out of proportion, and you never know what happens. He's a professional."

"I'd never talked to him before, but I saw the person he was and I respect him tremendously for the way he plays the game," says Wells. "He's hard-nosed between the lines."

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