Why 38-year-old Jimmy Rollins just couldn’t say no to more baseball

My first question to Jimmy Rollins was, “Why?”

Why sign a minor-league contract with the San Francisco Giants? Why settle for a chance to make the team as a mere utility player? Why not just retire?

Rollins, 38, began talking. As he spoke, it became clear that while he was fully aware of his baseball mortality, he still wants one more chance to relive the feeling he had in 2008, when he helped the Phillies win the World Series title.

Money is the least of this: Rollins has earned nearly $100 million in his career, according to baseball-reference.com. His salary with the Giants, if he remains on the roster the entire season, reportedly will be $1 million.

I started my tape recorder. Here is how our conversation unfolded.

Rollins with the White Sox, in 2016. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
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Q: Why keep going?

A: I do want to win again. It has a lot to do with that. I always jokingly say to guys I played with and went on and got that second ring — Shane (Victorino), Pat Burrell, Hunter Pence … me, Chase (Utley) and Ryan (Howard) are left with one. It’s like, “You know what? I need to get somewhere where I can help win another championship. That’s my main goal.”

I was fortunate to win one. Some people don’t even get that opportunity. To be part of that, to have that accomplishment and know you played some type of role … that motivates anybody to play.

Q: That’s a different perspective from the one you had last year, when you signed with the White Sox (also on a minor-league deal). Your priority then was to stay at shortstop, right?

A: I (still) want to be a shortstop, but that’s obviously not going to be the case (with the Giants). Last year was definitely about getting to a place where I could possibly play every day and, depending upon how the season went, maybe I could be traded to a team that needed somebody to get them over the top and win a championship.

The end goal was the same. How I was going to get there, that was completely different.

Rollins with the Dodgers, in 2015. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Getty Images/Joe Robbins

Q: What was it like last year when the White Sox let you go and you couldn’t find another job? Was it frustrating? Was it weird? (Rollins’ last game was June 8. The team designated him for assignment on June 10 and released him on June 15).

A: It definitely wasn’t frustrating. A lot of it had to do with being in a new place. They didn’t have to be loyal to me in any way, shape or form. And I knew that going in.

Whenever Tim Anderson was ready, he was going to get called up regardless of how well I was doing. If I’m doing well, maybe they keep me around to help mentor him. If I’m not doing well, you have him and (Tyler) Saladino playing and you’ve got the youth that they want.

It was weird, yes. I wasn’t playing professional baseball for the first time since I was 17 years old. The Fourth of July came quick and I thought, “Wow, this is the first Fourth of July I’ve had since I was 16 years old where I’m actually not on the field. I’m watching fireworks and just doing things that quote-unquote normal people or non-athletes, non-baseball players get to do in those summer months.”

Being with the family was cool. It was cool and different. I got to see my kids all the time. I was around my wife all the time. But I was still hoping. Somebody could get hurt, so I had to be in some type of shape. I didn’t leave Chicago until July, a month later. I was going to a place called “BASH,” hitting off a tee, taking soft toss, just staying in baseball shape until the (Aug. 1 non-waiver) deadline, or until (no job) was likely, whichever came first.

On July 8, I came back home. I was like, “If it hasn’t happened by now, there probably will be nothing.”

Rollins with the Dodgers, in 2015. (Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Getty Images/Jared Wickerham

(Rollins, when he initially went home, cut himself off from the game.)

I kind of just stayed away, honestly. I didn’t watch it for a little while. I thought, “Let’s see what life is like without baseball.”

I’d catch a few innings here or there. There was one point in early September. I was just flipping the channels. And I was like, “Damn, a baseball game is on?” It hit me, how long the season really is.

When you’re in it, you’re playing every day, you understand it’s long, but that’s just what you do. Now being on this side, I hadn’t played since June and it’s 2 1/2 months later, I’m like, “Wow, a baseball game is on. This is crazy. It’s still baseball season.”

I kind of realized what we go through as baseball players, what our bodies go through, what the travel is, to do this every single day. That’s when I started thinking, “Maybe I’m not made to play every day at this point in my career. The numbers tell the story. There is a cycle of shortstops coming through, and they’re all studs. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for a guy like me.”

Rollins returns to Philadelphia after joining the Dodgers, in 2015. (Hunter Martin/Getty Images)
Getty Images

Q: Was there ever a time this offseason when you thought that maybe you wouldn’t come back?

A: I don’t think the thought was there that I wouldn’t come back. It was more, “If I don’t come back, what am I going to do with my life?” But I would have needed to be told honestly that there was no one who wanted me.

I never stopped mentally staying prepared. I would go online to watch video of different guys’ swings. I do that all the time still. I hit the mute button. I want to visually see what they’re doing. I know what a swing is supposed to look like. I would Google guys’ swings and just stay sharp that way. By just studying, studying, studying.

Physically, I didn’t touch a ball until two days ago, when I signed. I started getting myself in shape. Not that I’m out of shape, but you get in different shape to a play.

I started going back to the cage. I thought, “If I’m not going to play, I’m not going to rev myself up. It takes a lot of preparation to get ready.” But my dad would say, “You always have to be in running shape as an athlete.” I always like to be at a point where I’m in shape and all I have to do is work on the skills part of it.

I never shut down. It wasn’t a consideration. Of course, you think about it. But it’s nothing I really considered: “OK. I’m done.” It wasn’t like, “We’ve got interest from San Francisco. I’m going to play again.” It was, “I’m going to play. If baseball is over, then OK.”

(Rollins said that working for TBS during this postseason with Gary Sheffield and Pedro Martinez actually motivated him to continue playing.)

As soon as I started covering the playoffs, that’s when I was like, “Now I actually miss baseball. I didn’t miss the 162. But this part of the year, I miss dearly.” Understanding that you can’t get to that without the 162, I’m OK with that. If you have to go through the 162 to get here and this is your reward? Then it’s all worth it.

Staying involved, doing the postseason, kept me from saying, “I’m going to toss in the towel.” No. I needed to be out there. I was talking to Sheff and Pedro, saying, “I need to be out there at this time of year.” That’s just how I felt.

Rollins and his mother celebrate the Phillies’ 2008 World Series title. (Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)
Getty Images

Q: What about learning to play other positions, training to play other positions? What will you do differently?

A: (Chuckling) I guess not take as many balls at short and take more at third and second. The good thing about second is that with so much shifting, it isn’t as foreign to me as it once was. I’ve kind of gotten used to that aspect of it.

Turning a double play, I’ve never had to do it from there. But with the slide rule … the only reason I like the slide rule is because if I have to play second base, I’m protected. Prior to this, I thought it was a horrible rule. But now that I’m over there, me being a newbie, that gives me a little protection.

Third base, I’ll give you a third-base story from when I was a freshman (at Encinal, Calif., HS). But then they would never play me at third base. So we’ll skip that.

Q: Whoa. Wait. What happened?

A: My freshman year, I’m going out for the varsity team. I played third base when I was eight years old. There was a 10-year-old playing shortstop, and we would always flip-flop. But my freshman year, we had a junior playing shortstop. I knew this kid. I grew up with this kid. I was way better than this kid. But he’s a junior, so I get it.

The coach put me at third and I told him, “I just can’t play third. I’ve never done it.” It was different when I was younger. But now I had played short for five straight years, and I was going to play third at the high-school level. I’m 13 playing against 17-, 18-year-old kids, they’re almost grown men to me at that point.

We were playing, I believe, Barry Bonds’ old high school (Junipero Serra). I’m playing third. I’m playing even with the bag. And here comes this big senior. I’m like, “I should back up some.” Sure enough, I take a couple of steps behind the bag. The first couple of pitches go by, ball one, ball two. And I’m like, “Oh my goodness, this is not good for me.”

On 2-0, he hits a bullet in between me and the third-base coach. We both did not see the ball. I followed it, but I didn’t see it, I didn’t react. My hands were still on my knees. The ball was by me. I don’t know what I looked like, my face or reaction. But the next game, I played short. And I played it the rest of my high-school career.

Rollins with the Phillies, in 2006. (Michael Zagaris/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
MLB Photos via Getty Images/Michael Zagaris

Q: What about the guy playing short? What happened to him?

A: After that game, the coach told him I was going to play short. He told him that he could play second or third. He ended up going to Alameda (H.S.) and playing shortstop over there. He just switched schools.

That is literally the last time I ever played third. I make fun of it now. I’m a much better defender now than I was then. But to this day, I still swear that I didn’t see the ball. I heard it. But I didn’t see it. And that’s when I got scared.

But don’t tell the Giants that.

Q: Is being a full-time shortstop out of your system?

A: I always say to my wife, “Is it? Is it a pride thing? Is it something I’ve become used to? Or is it denial?”

Do I still think I can go mentally? Yes. But I know there are days when I woke up even last year and thought, “My body is just a little bit sore. I don’t know how good I’m going to be today. I can still go play. I know I can do something defensively. I’m not going to help us lose the game. But I’m definitely not as fresh as I was.”

Now I have a new training regimen. I haven’t played much, so of course I feel fresh. But I’m OK if I don’t play every day. That will be fine. It probably will be even beneficial at this point. Now, if I had to play every day, trust me, I could do it. There’s no doubt. I’m not going to be who I was 10 years ago obviously. But I’m not going to lose a game for you.

Rollins at his first spring training, in 2000. (Rick Stewart /Allsport)
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Q: Was it difficult to accept a minor-league deal?

A: Obviously, I would love to have gotten a guaranteed deal, a major-league deal. But that’s where they were. I’ve always bet on myself. If I do well enough to make the team, then I’ll deserve to be on the team. If I don’t do well enough, you’ll probably be calling me and asking, “OK, what’s next?”

Q: But you want to get back to the playoffs.

A: That is the main motivation. It isn’t like there are major milestones that are right in my grasp, that you would hang around for.

Last year, I knew that signing with the Chicago White Sox rather than the Giants, I was signing with a less superior team. But the opportunity that presented itself was better. And I went with that.

But there were times in spring training where I was like, “Man, that energy, that excitement, that’s what I need. That’s what I missed. That’s what we had for so many years in Philadelphia.” With the White Sox, you don’t get that following, that excitement when you walk into the spring-training facility. And you definitely don’t get it when you go to the stadium (in Chicago). It was on the north side, that fever of, “This might be our year.”

With San Francisco, ever since Barry was there doing his thing, there’s always a little buzz when you go to that ballpark. I missed that. I was in the right place. I made the right decision. But I was like, “That’s what I’m missing. I need that little buzz. That helps you to turn that dial up just another notch.”

Now I’m there. I’m looking to turn that dial up again.