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The day before Thanksgiving, Aaron Rowand was at home in Las Vegas, headed out for a morning round of golf, when his cellphone rang. White Sox general manager Ken Williams was calling to tell Rowand he'd been traded to the Phillies with two minor leaguers for Jim Thome. Rowand, who had been the starting centerfielder for the 2005 World Series champs, was blindsided by the news. "I didn't golf real well that day," he says.
It wasn't just that Rowand was practically still cleaning championship confetti out of his hair. The 28-year-old had spent his entire career in the Chicago organization, having been drafted by the White Sox in 1998. "I was real comfortable there," Rowand says. "I knew the city, knew the fans, knew all the people in the front office. I had great relationships with my teammates. I had hoped to spend the rest of my career there. In this day and age I guess thinking like that is pretty unrealistic."
Though the deal shocked Rowand, it came as a pleasant surprise for new Phillies general manager Pat Gillick. Thome missed the second half of the 2005 season with an elbow injury, and Gillick thought the 35-year-old slugger might have to prove he was physically sound in spring training before he could be traded. Not only did the deal bring the Phillies a new starting centerfielder, but it also made room at first base for Ryan Howard, who replaced Thome in the lineup last summer and went on to be named National League Rookie of the Year.
Rowand's stats actually slipped last year from his breakout season of 2004, when he batted .310 with 24 home runs and 17 stolen bases, but numbers aren't the entire story with him. Says Phillies manager Charlie Manuel, "He wants to play the game right, and he's always talking about winning. In our clubhouse we're going to need that. I think he goes with [second baseman] Chase Utley in that they are blue-collar players, hard-nosed guys who just live to play baseball."
Rowand, 28, says he has acclimated to his new team, which has plenty of players who are about the same age and at a similar point in their careers. The fans should also embrace Rowand, who'll no doubt remind the hoagie-eaters of former Phillies favorite Lenny Dykstra--another spark-plug centerfielder who came to Philadelphia after winning a World Series elsewhere. Like Dykstra, Rowand has a tendency to run into walls. "The bottom line is, I'm trying to catch the ball," Rowand says. "Whatever it takes to do that, that's what I'm going to do."
Rowand is a prominent acquisition in an otherwise middling off-season for Philadelphia. Free-agent pickup Tom Gordon, the former Yankees setup man, is a capable closer, but he can't fill the shoes of Billy Wagner, who signed with the Mets after a season in which he had 38 saves and the second-lowest ERA in the majors (1.51). The Phillies also must juggle the rotation, with righthander Vicente Padilla gone in a trade and lefty Randy Wolf recovering from elbow surgery. Free-agent righthander Ryan Franklin (12-31 in 2004 and '05 combined with the Mariners) and converted reliever Ryan Madson (15-8 over the last two seasons) will likely fill those spots.
Manuel believes that if he can get consistent performances from his pitchers, his club can compete with the Mets and the Braves for the division title. "Defensively, our infield was as good as any in the National League [in '05]," he says. "Offensively, we are definitely going to score runs."
Gillick also likes the mood in the clubhouse. "This group will play together quite well," he says. "If you compare them part by part with other teams in our division, maybe we don't stack up, but I think as a unit they're going to be pretty good."
One thing Gillick especially likes about Rowand is that the new centerfielder brings World Series experience to a team that hasn't been to the postseason since 1993--the year Dykstra was a big part of a worst-to-first turnaround for the Phillies. Rowand downplays that notion. "We had a pretty inexperienced group [with the White Sox] last year," he says. If his first year in Philly turns out like his last in Chicago, that would be a shocker too. --B.S.