My Favorite Athlete Got Elected To The Baseball Hall of Fame and All I Got Was This Stupid Warm Feeling of Nostalgia

Class Is Boring
11 min readJan 25, 2023

For most of my life I told people I was at Scott Rolen’s first game as a major league baseball player in 1996. I’m not sure if I ever thought it was true or not, but as far as little kid lies go, it’s not outrageous. It’s not on the level of me telling people that I was actually the Eagles quarterback and they were misreading the name “Bobby Hoying” on their TVs, which is sort of the genius of it as a lie: it’s believable and uncheckable. I didn’t think to check just how much of a lie it was until just tonight: the game I remember, against the Marlins, was not even in 1996, it was in the middle of his Rookie of the Year campaign in 1997. You couldn’t easily pull that up on Baseball-Reference in 1999 though, nor would any of my fellow children care to.

What probably happened was, my parents took me and my little brother to a Phillies game, a rare treat, and my dad mentioned that this rookie third baseman, Scott Rolen, was looking like a star. In my memory, he explained to me what the term “the hot corner” meant, but that was probably at a different time. I was six at the time, my brother five; if it had been his actual first game, my dad, busy with some combination of two jobs and night school, would probably not have had the Phillies prospect pipeline knowledge to even mention it. That’s not as cool as being at his first game ever though, so that’s not how I told it. Regardless of the facts of the matter, the game I went to was the beginning of Rolen becoming my first-ever favorite athlete.

Everyone probably feels this way about their boyhood, but the late 90s/early 2000s were a wonderful time to be a young baseball fan. The steroid era absolutely rocked in the moment, and the sense of complicit shame that seems to have either crept in retroactively or poisoned the moment for older fans was nowhere to be found for kids seeing Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa on the cover of Sports Illustrated in togas and laurel crowns. This crisis of conscience, which would eventually draw a firm dividing line between baseball’s romantic past and its current status as a mostly regional living relic, meant nothing to me as a kid, so the games and highlights I was watching were directly related to the games Babe Ruth and Honus Wagner played, and thus were imbued with that same romance.

Scott Bruce Rolen was born on April 4, 1975, in Indiana. He was an all-state basketball player and was committed to play hoops at the University of Georgia before being lured into the Phillies system with a big signing bonus after being selected in the second round of the 1994 MLB Draft. This information, gleaned from the back of various baseball cards, was as foundational to me as the roundness of the earth. My first time getting in trouble on the internet came when I looked up Rolen’s player bio on the Phillies website and left the webpage up when my parents brought me and my brother to a party in Delaware, which put them well over their 30 hours of internet for the month and cost them serious money in overage charges. He is intertwined with my youth.

Had I been an adult or even an older teen at the time I might not remember the era as fondly, especially given that the Phillies were mostly bad during that time, but again, I was a kid. I spent my time reading and re-reading Chicken Soup for the Baseball Fan’s Soul and glossy picture-filled books of baseball history from the library, believing in magic even if I wouldn’t have called it that. I would watch Baseball Tonight at my Nanny’s house and then watch it again two hours later hoping that a Scott Rolen diving catch into foul territory followed by a precise rocket throw to first would have somehow happened in the meantime and made it into Web Gems. I would lay up at night towards the end of the season trying to figure out how many four-home run games Scotty would need to reach 50 or 60 homers on the season — a record five-homer game sprinkled in here or there, why not, he could do it.

What may be becoming obvious is that my devotion to Rolen was not even really about Rolen the flesh and blood player, as awesome as he was. It was about believing that anything could happen and that life wouldn’t let me down; he just happened to be talented enough, especially with a glove, to be a pretty good vessel for that belief. Unfortunately — or maybe fortunately? I would have to learn sometime, and I would have to learn over and over — notable aspects of his career would also help teach me the opposite.

My dad passed down his Philadelphia sports fandom to me — a blessing and a curse. Luckily, he’s a level-headed guy, so any of the sports talk radio-style toxicity associated with that fandom that I’ve absorbed since childhood has not come from him. This is very important in the context of Scott Rolen because Philadelphia fans would come to hate him, and this never got passed to me, because my dad respected the bond between a kid and his hero. So when Rolen famously turned down a $140 million contract and got booed mercilessly, the hate never trickled down to me. I think now that this early lesson in being opposed to the capricious Philadelphia fan orthodoxy was an important and formative one¹.

The Rolen trade was probably my first true sports heartbreak. Sure, the Sixers had lost the NBA Finals to the Lakers the prior summer, but this was BASEBALL. It was so much more important. I bothered my dad all night crying. I asked for a Rolen Cardinals jersey for Christmas — home white, for some reason that was important as a statement of my unwavering fandom. His first game for the Cardinals he wore a number 16 jersey and his red Phillies spikes. I never forgave Placido Polanco and his weirdly shaped head for coming back in that trade and I never will. I learned, in my heart, that things don’t always turn out the way you want them to just because you feel hard enough.

Rolen thrived in St. Louis for a while, winning a World Series, making a handful of All-Star teams, winning a handful of Gold Gloves, and putting up an absurd 9.2 bWAR in just 142 games in 2004 (even more absurd, this was just the third highest WAR total in the National League that year, behind Barry Bonds and Adrián Beltré). But after that year, he never topped 142 games again; after 2006, he topped 130 just once. He left St. Louis acrimoniously (I don’t think Tony LaRussa not liking someone is a black mark against them personally but it’s still worth noting), and made stops in Toronto and Cincinnati before retiring following the 2012 season.

He made a couple of All-Star teams while playing for the Reds, but his career largely petered out due to injury after leaving the Cardinals. This was another important life lesson I could have taken from Rolen’s career: sometimes things just don’t come together, or they don’t come together for long, and it’s no one’s fault but you still have to deal with it.

Rolen’s counting stats were never eye-popping. His career high of 34 homers was barely pedestrian in the era in which he played. Defense was more anecdotal than quantifiable. I thought Rolen was destined for the Hall of Very Good, that I’d someday try to explain to my kids just how great watching this guy was, and that they’d nod politely and not believe me.

I didn’t count on a couple things. First, Rolen was never connected to steroids. While popular attitudes towards performance-enhancing drugs² have changed since the days of Phillies fans holding up a “RUTH DID IT ON HOT DOGS AND BEER” sign in the left field stands behind Barry Bonds, Baseball Hall of Fame voters still largely punish unrepentant steroid users (unless they happen to like the guy, like with David Ortiz, in which case they’re happy to look the other way); Rolen stood out as a guy who could be rewarded for seemingly excelling cleanly in an era of rampant cheating.

Second, stats got better, and writers and fans became more statistically savvy. Now defense could be measured, and it turned out it could be really impactful! In that 9.2 WAR season, Rolen’s defense was worth a whopping half as much value as his offense. Defensive stats are still not as reliable as offensive ones, but over the course of a sterling defensive career, they add up to a lot of value, even with a lot of missed games.

Over the last couple years I would find myself on Rolen’s Baseball-Reference page just starting at the Hall of Fame Statistic section the same way I used to stare at his player bio as an eight-year-old, periodically screenshotting the page and sending it to group chats and saying “He should be in.”

Last night, he got in. I probably got almost as many texts congratulating me as Rolen did — I had always worn my fandom of him, controversial if not heretical in the Philadelphia area, as a badge of honor. I didn’t cry or anything, because sports means something different to me than it did when I was a kid, but I did get a little emotional.

Scott Rolen is a famously private guy. I know biographical facts about him, and I know he said he cared about winning more than he cared about making money, and he backed it up. But I don’t know what his favorite TV show is or who he voted for in the 2016 election. It can be cool to get to know more about what your favorite athletes are like as people, but it can also be risky. I would argue that Rolen is the ideal first favorite athlete because nothing about him can really mess with the stuff I projected onto him as a kid. It’s a win-win sports relationship.

So, what does my first and forever favorite athlete making the Hall of Fame actually mean to me? More than anything it’s a reminder that sometimes it doesn’t hurt to believe that anything could happen and that life won’t let me down. It means that time might be kinder to me than I expect, that what’s happening right now might not be as bad as it feels in the long run. On a less melodramatic level, it’s cool to turn on SportsCenter and see my favorite athlete in action again, just like I did when I was a little kid at Nanny’s house. It might mean I finally take the trip to Cooperstown with my dad that we’ve been talking about for 20 years. It might mean all these things at different times, and it might also just be cool and mean nothing aside from a chance to reflect on what it was like to be young and full of hope and dreams, and just for a couple of moments to feel that way again.

¹(I think that if the Rolen saga played out today, in a fandom environment that is significantly more sympathetic to the players as the ones who provide the value and entertainment in sports, it would be perceived differently. Some quotes from a Jayson Stark piece published in 2001:

“I looked at this whole thing,” Rolen says. “I looked at history. I looked at the whole deal. And let’s start with a fact. Let’s go back 15 years. Thirteen times in the last 15 seasons, they’ve had losing seasons. That’s history. That’s fact. And that’s a 15-year period. That’s a long time.

“I’m not just a player. I’m a fan. I’m a fan of the game. And the way I look at this is: Fans deserve better than that. Fans deserve a better commitment than this ownership is giving them. I’m tired of empty promises. I’m tired of waiting for a new stadium (not due until 2004), for the sun to shine.”


“There are three points here. One is the players on the field, and what is demanded of the players on the field, which is their utmost every day. Day in. Day out. Their last effort.

“Two is the fans in the stands. The fans in the stands in Philadelphia have a passion about them. Whether they’re Flyers fans or Sixers fans or Eagles fans or Phillies fans, they’re dying to win. And if those fans don’t have that passion, they’re not in the stands. … There’s a reason our attendance last year didn’t reflect the team we had on the field. And the reason is that these fans are upset (with ownership), and they have every right to be. …

“So point №3 is the backing from ownership, to have that same commitment that they expect from the players. And they expect fans to come to the stadium. So why shouldn’t the players and the fans expect that same level of commitment from them?”


“I don’t want to play the blaming game. I just want them to reciprocate. This is the sixth-largest market in the country. We’re competing against two teams in our own division (Mets and Braves) with twice our payrolls. And last year we did that. But I don’t think we can hang our laurels on having to overachieve every year.”

Saying that ownership in a big market with passionate fans is not spending enough money to build a competitive team and that’s why you won’t commit your prime to playing for them is, like, exactly what we should want out of star players. It’s really worth remembering how many worlds away Bryce Harper basically holding current Phillies ownership at gunpoint to spend $300,000,000 on Trea Turner, and the Phillies obliging, is from the situation as it stood at the turn of the century. How did he get villainized for this?!)

²My own attitude towards steroids has also shifted a few times over the years. At first, I was outraged, because the media told me I should be outraged. Later, I thought it was stupid NOT to cheat in an era when everyone else was cheating and baseball was more than happy to let them, even tacitly encourage them; I joked that athletes should HAVE to take steroids, as this would provide the highest level of performance and thus entertainment for me, the fan (this was my libertarian era). Now I think that the problem with steroids is that their unfettered use forces guys who wouldn’t want to take them to either do so to keep up or be left behind. To me, older baseball writers put too much emphasis on what steroids do to the record books and not enough on what they do to other players, particularly minor leaguers scrapping for a chance at their dream or to make a living.