It was the greatest catch many of us saw and that was before we understood the aftermath. Like a receiver on a fly pattern, Aaron Rowand ran as hard as he could to a point where he thought the ball was going to land, which was amazing enough.
The situation called for it, Rowand said. With the bases loaded and two outs and pitcher Gavin Floyd nearing his 30th pitch in the first inning, the May, 2006 game was hanging in the balance. Xavier Nady’s long fly had escaped Rowand's glove, he could have run for days.
It was when his momentum carried him that extra half-step and he looked up where things went wrong.
In retrospect, maybe it didn’t all go wrong. Sure, Rowand got hurt pretty badly. Who can forget Pat Burrell and Bobby Abreu frantically waving for the training staff to rush out to the center field warning track to help as blood poured from Rowand’s face? Very quickly, he was helped from the field by some paramedics to an ambulance waiting to rush him to Thomas Jefferson Hospital in Center City. In that short time, Rowand went from just the very capable center fielder that arrived in town as part of the Jim Thome deal to a cult hero.
And all it took was a face plant into an exposed metal bar, a broken nose that required surgery, stitches for his mouth and nose, a plastic splint to protect his still-tender nose, dark violet bruises ringing his eyes and cheeks, and two weeks on the disabled list.
It was a few days later when Rowand truly became the cult hero when he dropped the retort to Ricky Watters’ infamous explanation as to why he developed alligator arms while going for a pass from Randall Cunningham over the middle.
“For who? My teammates. For what? To win,” Rowand said without hesitation or wavering. “That’s what it’s all about.”
Looking back on it, a writer for Baseball Prospectus named Clay Davenport surmised that Rowand’s catch was the equivalent to him hitting two home runs in the game. Had Nady gotten a double or triple on that play, the Phillies would have had just a 30.8 percent chance to win the game based on Davenport’s situational data. But making the catch gave the Phillies nearly a 60 percent chance to win, Davenport wrote. In other words, for a team that missed the playoffs by one game in 2005 and had not seen post-season baseball since 1993, “The Catch” was something that could have transformed the team.
Of course the Phillies barely missed the playoffs in 2006, though they rallied for a strong second-half when Abreu was traded to the Yankees. In 2007, with Rowand playing 161 games, the Phillies finally made it to the playoffs, though the trip lasted just three games.
Interestingly, Rowand missed one game in 2007 because he injured his shoulder playing tag at his daughter’s birthday party. Oh yes, no matter what the game was Rowand went all out.
“The next day I got shot up a little bit and went back out there and it was fine,” Rowand remembered for us before Tuesday night’s game between the Phillies and Giants at the Bank.
So as he’s getting closer to the end of his current five-year deal with the Giants and his career creeps closer past the middle toward the end, how does Rowand feel about that one play — one that sent him to the hospital and kept him out of action for a couple of weeks — defining his legacy? Yes, it was the greatest catch some of us ever saw, but a baseball player with a World Series ring with the White Sox in 2005, a Gold Glove and an All-Star Game berth should be known for more…
Then again, if that’s what it is, Rowand doesn’t mind.
“I look at it more along the lines as there are a lot worse things you can be or be remembered for,” he said. “If it’s going to be me being remembered for playing the game hard and being a good teammate, I don’t think anyone could ask for more than that. If that’s what I’m remembered for, after I retire and I’m bleeping long gone, so be it. It’s a good thing to be remembered for.”
Looking back, that’s not too far off from what Rowand told us in the moment. Clearly Rowand was more valuable to the Phillies on the field than rolled up in a heap on the warning track with blood pouring from his face like it was a spigot. After all, he was a player who knocked himself out cold when he ran into a cinderblock wall in college and separated his shoulder colliding with a wall in Chicago — didn’t he understand the concept of restraint?
That answer is obvious, and here’s how Rowand explained it:
“That’s why [the critics] are sitting behind a desk or a microphone,” he said tersely with his purple-ringed eyes narrowing. “I enjoy doing what I’m doing and my teammates enjoy it, too. I want to win. That’s how I play. People can call me stupid. I don’t care. I’m sure the fans got a kick out of it and I know my teammates did. Think what you want — I’m here to play and play hard.”
Rowand was clearly the heart and soul of those Phillies teams, just as he was when he was playing for the White Sox, too. More interestingly, Rowand became a “Philly Guy” in a relatively short time. Think about it… Rowand spent two seasons playing for the Phillies, just missed out on winning the World Series here (“hell yes I’m jealous!”) and took the five years offered to him from the Giants, which was better than the deal offered by the Phillies.
Still, does Rowand ever wonder how he became so beloved in Philadelphia?
“The thing about these fans is they are some of the smartest baseball fans in the country,” he said. “I think everyone knows they can be rough sometimes, but it stems from a good spot. It stems from passion, it stems from their infatuation with this team. It’s a blue collar town, people here work hard and they come out and watch their sports teams play and they can relate with the guys who have the same mentality they have when they go to work.”
When Rowand was here he went to work. No doubt about that. So when the Phillies fans cheer the return of Pat Burrell, don’t doubt for a second that they will cheer for Rowand, too.