Somewhere in Idaho last November the Winnebago crested the ridge of a mountain pass, revealing the cinematic vista of a fertile valley sparkling in the midday light. The driver, Scott Rolen, suddenly pulled the cellphone far from his ear and gazed slack-jawed upon the expanse. "Look at that!" he said to his fianc�e, Niki Warner, seated beside him. The voice coming out of the cellphone, full of energy and Brooklyn, was that of Rolen's agent Seth Levinson, who chattered on. But Rolen did not want to hear any more about the $140 million offered by the Philadelphia Phillies that could be his with the mere stroke of a pen.
With the phone still at arm's length and Levinson still jabbering, Rolen said, "You're breaking up," and clicked off the phone. The Winnebago rolled on, carrying Scott and Niki; their two dogs, Emma and Enis; another couple and their dog; and a few James Patterson thrillers. The purpose of the trip was to put as many miles as possible between Rolen and the 2001 baseball season. Despite driving in 107 runs for a contending team, Rolen, the Phils' 27-year-old third baseman, looks upon last year as "the most unhappy season of my career."
The Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons, Mount Rushmore, the one-story motels that welcome dogs and advertise COLOR TV on their marquees ... for three weeks all of that and more washed over Rolen like a cleansing rain. "Peace of mind," he says when asked the reason for the sojourn. "A little Jack Kerouac trip."
Just before he gassed up the RV, Rolen, weary of what he saw as the franchise's tepid commitment to winning and wounded by his acerbic manager, Larry Bowa, told the Phillies he didn't want their money—not even the $140 million they were willing to pay him over 10 years. His plan was to exercise his right to become a free agent at the end of this season, his sixth in the majors.
Of course, before he could truly get away, Rolen would have to return for another season under Bowa, setting up one of the most awkward walk years in recent memory. Consider, for example, the reception awaiting him at the club's home opener on April 5 in Veterans Stadium, where Rolen would be introduced to the Philly fans for the first time since he rejected the organization's offer. Rolen was so nervous about the crowd's reaction that he suggested that Niki, whom he married in February, not attend, and that his parents, Ed and Linda; his sister, Kristie; and other family members stay home in Florida. All insisted on being at the Vet, figuring Rolen would need the backing.
Some of the 50,958 fans at that game booed, but most cheered. Someone in the rightfield seats held up a sign that read I SUPPORT SCOTT ROLEN. All in all, the day was a success: Rolen stroked a single and a double and drew three walks (one to force in a run) in the Phillies' 6-2 win over the Florida Marlins. In fact, the home opener went better than he had hoped. "I was anxious," he said afterward. "When it was my turn to be introduced, I had to hold my breath a little bit. I was very pleased with the way everything came out."
"As a fan you want to see a guy bust it for nine innings," Bowa said after the game. "With Scotty, you're not getting cheated. You may be getting cheated as far as the number of games he's got left to play here, but you're not getting cheated on effort."
The next morning, though, Rolen said he was prepared for harsher treatment as the season wore on. "I know it's not over," he said. "I know if I strike out, they'll boo. I think I learned a lot last year. It was really the first time I was ever booed." He went 0 for 4 that afternoon in a 7-3 loss to Florida. Sure enough, the fans booed.
The Philadelphia fans expressed the ebb and flow of their feelings toward Rolen in more dramatic fashion last week. On April 8, with runners at the corners, he drew the wrath of the Vet crowd by popping up in the ninth inning in a 2-1 loss to the Atlanta Braves. Two nights later, with the Phillies down to their last out, Rolen brought the house down with a game-tying home run off Braves closer John Smoltz; Philadelphia went on to win 7-5 in 11 innings. At week's end Rolen was hitting .280 with three homers and nine RBIs as the team stumbled to a 6-7 start.
Respecting Rolen's wishes, Philadelphia general manager Ed Wade says that during the season he won't try to persuade Rolen to sign a new deal. Says Wade, "We're fully prepared to play the whole season with Scotty. That gives us the best chance of winning. Then we will take our chances convincing him to come back after the season."