In the moment, it seemed like an eternity. A gung ho ballplayer smashes face-first into an outfield wall, crumbles to the ground like… well, a guy who just ran face first into a wall.
There was the moment where the centerfielder, almost in slow-motion, gamely held the ball aloft to show that he had, indeed, caught the ball after running full speed into the inanimate, pitiless barrier.
Within minutes, Aaron Rowand rolled over to all fours, bled all over the rubberized track lining the field, and 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 centerfielder 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.
Certainly within the throes of the situation, Rowand thought his daredevil act was precisely what needed to be done. With two outs and the bases loaded in the first inning of last Thursday’s game against the first-place New York Mets, Rowand chased down a sure game-breaking blast from Xavier Nady. But at the last minute, Rowand reached out as far as he could with his gloved hand, pulled the ball in, took a half step and crashed – nose first – into the exposed bar beneath the green padding near the 398-foot sign.
“I knew I was going to run into (the fence),” Rowand said during a meeting with the press on Monday afternoon in the basement conference room at Citizens Bank Park. “I saw it coming. It was a situation where the bases loaded with two outs and [pitcher] Gavin (Floyd) had been prone to giving up big innings so I knew I had to catch it.
“It's one of those things that happens. I needed to catch that ball in that situation. I've run into a lot of walls in my day, never with this consequence. But I knew I was going to run into it. That's just how I play the game.”
Obviously, the ever contrarian press wondered if such a valuable player like Rowand – who smacked three home runs, 10 RBIs and .333 batting average during a stretch in which the Phillies went 9-1 – should have thought twice before running into the wall. Wasn’t he more valuable to the team on the field than rolled up in a heap on the warning track with blood leaking from his face like water dripping from a faucet? Shouldn’t a guy who once knocked himself out running into a cinderblock wall in college and separated his shoulder colliding with a wall in Chicago consider some… ahem, restraint? Well, Aaron?
“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.”
That blood-and-guts style more than wins over the fans in town that often saves its affection for players that display grit than graceful skill. But Rowand is more than a battering ram. According to the number crunchers at Baseball Prospectus, Rowand’s catch certainly did save the game against the Mets. In fact, writes Clay Davenport, “The Catch,” as it’s now known, was equal to Rowand hitting two home runs. 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 writes. In other words, for a team that missed the playoffs by one game a season ago and has not seen post-season baseball since 1993, The Catch could have some long-term effects.
“I think it can be contagious,” Rowand said of his all-out style. “I said it before about last year (when he was with the World Champion White Sox): When you have everybody playing together and pulling on the same end of the rope, it’s easy to win. You create your own bad hops.”
More importantly, Rowand answered a burning question that has plagued the sporting public in Philadelphia since it was first asked more than a decade ago.
“For who? My teammates. For what? To win,” Rowand said without hesitation or wavering. “That’s what it’s all about.”