ANAHEIM, Calif. — Struggling with his swing and sabotaged by a thrice-repaired shoulder, one of the best third basemen of his generation began to wonder two years ago if another round of rehab was just a polite way to delay the inevitable.
That was when Scott Rolen, the former Cardinal who once had difficulty elevating his elbow above his shoulders, "threw up his hands."
He turned to his longtime friend and trainer Hap Hudson and asked the question that had been gnawing on him since he went back on the disabled list:
"Am I done?"
This summer has given him the answer.
Rolen, 35, returned to the All-Star Game for the first time since 2006, sporting a .290 average and 57 RBI. His 17 homers at the All-Star break already are more than he has had in four previous full seasons. If not for the triple-crown output of teammate and Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto, the MVP talk for Rolen would be more than a murmur. Done? He can clearly hear the echoes of Hudson's original answer: Of course not.
It just took a while to get here from two seasons ago, when Rolen wondered whether more than that inside fastball was passing him by.
"What does it mean?" Rolen said at his locker before Tuesday's 3-1 National League victory, a win he helped spark with a single and a dash from first to third. "I don't believe there's much karma in the game, actually. ... Not long ago, I was questioning where my career was going and what was ahead of me. I had two, three years left here in my contract and it was like, 'Can I do it? Can I compete?' That is a bad feeling to go out there and not be able to compete. These were the searches I had."
After a couple of seasons adrift, Rolen has emerged again as a vital and powerful member of a team vying for the NL Central crown. Rolen and the upstart Reds reached the All-Star break with a one-game lead on the defending division champs, the Cardinals. The Reds have announced their return to contention with one of the league's best offenses and a top-notch defense. Rolen is at the heart of both, uniting with shortstop Orlando Cabrera to provide a veteran ballast for a lineup rich with youth — including Votto, two rookie starting pitchers and the greenhorn prospects dotting the outfield. Second baseman Brandon Phillips said Rolen, a veteran of two World Series with the Cardinals, has explained the difference between "competing and winning." Each of the Reds' representatives at the All-Star Game this past week agreed on Rolen's role and one other thing as the second half begins:
They can get better.
"Adding a guy like (pitcher) Edinson Volquez into our mix — he's been here, he's been an All-Star," Votto said of the ace coming back from Tommy John surgery. "If they decide to bring up a guy like (reliever) Aroldis Chapman ... those are two reasons alone that give us some sort of hope that not only can we do the same, we can get better.
"And even if we don't call on those guys, we've got two guys who have won championships in our infield — Orlando and Scott, with the Cardinals," Votto said. "These are guys who know how to win and can keep us in check. There are times when the first instinct is to panic. But they can say we've been here before. Let's just keep grinding."
Rolen knows the grind.
He felt it when he rotated his shoulder.
Since those salad days as part of the Cardinals' "MV3," Rolen has been groping for the elite production that once seemed so assured. Rolen had three surgeries on his problematic left shoulder. The shoulder, held together by screws, became a catalyst for friction with Manager Tony La Russa in the 2006 playoffs and later the organization. A widening rift forced a trade before the 2008 season, but even in the new environment of Toronto Rolen encountered similar struggles. He was on the disabled list again in 2008. Same shoulder. Same injury. Same issues catching up to the fastball, he said.
With Rolen at a nadir and, in his words, "wide open to change," Hudson suggested he lower his hands at the plate and bring them closer to his body. Rolen's shoulder could no longer handle the swing that Rolen spent 15 years using. Returns on this new approach initially were good. Rolen returned from the DL to slug .532 with four homers in his last 27 games of 2008.
"I'm not going back," Rolen said. "I'm not going to fight with that anymore. I know my limitations. ... I'm more in a position to make strong swings, more consistent strong swings and all of a sudden I'm having success. Well, now we're going to breed a little confidence."
From 2005 to 2009, Rolen had one season with more than 20 home runs and his overall slugging percentage in that stretch was .448. This summer, he's slugging .548, loving the friendly dimensions of Cincinnati's home ballpark, and he had his best half season since hitting for 18 homers and contributing 80 RBI with the Cardinals in 2004.
Other comparisons with the Cardinals are hard to ignore.
Not only is Rolen starring as the Reds duel the Cardinals for the division title, but the Reds have borrowed elsewhere from the Cardinals to do so. Reds owner Robert Castellini was once part of the Cardinals' ownership group. General Manager Walt Jocketty was fired by the Cardinals and resurfaced with their rival in the same position last year. Jocketty has reshaped his new team much as he did the Cardinals — with defense, with power at the corners in Votto and Rolen, and with a dash of veteran seasoning. Jocketty once described how the Cardinal castoffs had a vendetta for their old club.
Rolen doesn't view the race through those same cross hairs.
"That's not very healthy for me," Rolen said. "A healthy approach for me is to, hey, let's calm it down and see if I can barrel this fastball. That's plenty for me. I've got enough trouble with that 89 mph fastball coming at me to start wearing my emotions on my sleeve."
With the same realism, Rolen sought to temper any runaway expectations for the Reds.
"I'm not sure that everybody is on board with Cincinnati yet — that we're really in this," Rolen said. "And, fair enough. We have good players. We have a good team. We take good at-bats. In spring training you looked at 'on paper' and it's like, hey, these guys aren't bad. They don't have any holes. But when you run across the lines what's going to happen? ... I think at this point we've found a nice way of, well, a nice way of energy.
"You can take this energy, the young players bringing this energy, and mix in the veterans we have and now let's see where it takes us."