Ailing Rolen not in mood for a break

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

The St. Louis third baseman carts his bum knee to the All-Star Game.

By R.B. Fallstrom ~ The Associated Press

ST. LOUIS -- The wise course of action for Scott Rolen during the All-Star break would be to find a place to relax and rest his sore left knee.

Of course, that's not what the St. Louis Cardinals' third baseman is going to do. Like he does every day on the field, the National League's leading vote-getter for the All-Star Game is going to give his best on tonight in Houston.

"Which knee?" Rolen said.

Rolen, who's been basically playing on one leg the last month or so, approaches every game with that attitude. He's started 84 of the Cardinals' 87 games despite a condition he described, after an MRI exam last week, as knee joint irritation.

Earlier in an 8-1 homestand to end the first half for the team with the NL's best record, he grudgingly dispensed that information after reporters noticed him hobbling to first base during a game at Pittsburgh. The play, he ruefully noted, had "blown my cover."

On Sunday, he wished he had said nothing about the knee, which likely will require surgery after the season.

"As far as you know," Rolen said, "I'm great. I'm healthy."

"It kills him that you guys know his knee hurts," said catcher Mike Matheny, whose locker is next door. "It kills him that he has to go to the training room to get an ice bag and everybody sees it.

"His style is to just keep going and not bring any notice to himself, and that's why everybody has so much respect for him."

Despite his woes, Rolen enters the break in the midst of a career year with a major league-leading 80 RBIs and a .339 average that ranks among the NL's best, and, of course, the usual vacuum cleaner defense.

Nearly every day, he robs someone of a hit. And nearly every day, he makes a big contribution at the plate from the cleanup slot.

At this stage of the season, he's the MVP frontrunner. Plus, he batted .405 during an 11-game hitting streak that ended in an 0-for-5 day on Sunday.

"Nobody is playing better," manager Tony La Russa said. "Sometimes you get really hot and you're hot for three months."

Rolen's career high for RBIs is 110. His best for average is .298.

This year, he's threatening to blow those numbers out of the water. This is Rolen's second full season with the Cardinals after coming from a trade with the Phillies, and with six years to go after this year on his eight-year, $90 million contract, there's a definite feeling that he belongs.

"It's a good situation for me," he said. "I was able to buy a house and able to settle down here. I have a no-trade clause, I'm going to have a locker in this clubhouse for six more years and it's comfortable.

"If you're comfortable and you're happy, you're a better player."

It doesn't hurt hitting behind Albert Pujols, the NL MVP runner-up the last two seasons. Pujols arguably is coming off the best three-year start to a career in major league history.

Rolen has feasted in clutch situations, batting .416 with runners in scoring position and .476 with fewer than two outs.

Beyond the numbers, he's proudest of his hard-nosed attitude on the field.

"I'm aggressive in my approach and I'm aggressive in the strike zone, and I'm hitting pitches I want to hit and I've been in nice spots," Rolen said. "That's what I feel best about for the first half.

"If that's 80 RBIs, that's fine. If that's 60 RBIs, that's fine."

Notice that Rolen made no mention of his batting average. He's never hit .300 and that's never been one of his goals.

In 2000, the year Rolen batted .298 for the Phillies, he passed up a chance to go for .300 in the final weekend to avoid risking aggravating a back injury and perhaps hurting him the next season.

"I didn't play," he said. "I could have gone 2-for-4 and hit .300. What I'm saying is I don't care. If it happens, it happens."

Rolen's only concession to his injury is restricting his All-Star Game activities to game day. He'll pass on the periphery events.

"There's lots to do, parties everywhere and obligations here and there," Rolen said. "Last year in Chicago my wife and I just kind of relaxed and let my family and parents go do the fan fest and everything.

"I said, 'You guys go right ahead, we're going to take it easy right here and relax and try to have a few days off."'

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