Baseball is a game of comparison, so it was inevitable St. Louis Cardinals star Scott Rolen would begin to hear his name mentioned with the greatest players who ever took a sharp one-hopper off the chest at third base.
Brooks Robinson? Rolen is a bigger offensive threat and has a stronger arm.
Mike Schmidt? Rolen is a more talented defensive player.
The whole package?
Well, that's why they have sports talk shows. You could argue best-ever third baseman all night. No one who saw Robinson in the 1970 World Series is going to defer to a seven-year veteran. No other infielder ever won 16 Gold Gloves. And no one who saw Schmidt menace an opposing pitching staff - and win 10 Gold Gloves - is likely to give him up without a fight.
Rolen, who is off to the best start of his career and leads the major leagues with 35 RBIs, apparently doesn't really know what to make of all this. He responds to the Robinson/Schmidt question with an odd mixture of humility and incomprehension.
"I don't know what to say about that," he says. "That's a huge compliment. I don't know how to rate that, but those are nice words."
Typical Rolen. He clearly knows he is a special player, and he carries himself with a kind of upright dignity that lets you know that he knows, but you'll never hear him admit it. He'll just show you when he gets out on the field - and it won't take very long for you to draw your own conclusions.
He has been the dominant hitter in a strong Cardinals lineup that also includes superstar Albert Pujols, who just might be the best all-around player in the game right now. Rolen is batting .339 with eight home runs and more RBIs than anybody else. He doesn't need to blow his own horn.
"He's going to go down as the best ever, for a number of reasons," said former major league third baseman and Cardinals broadcaster Mike Shannon. "His range is unbelievable and for a big man [Rolen is 6 feet 4, 240 pounds] his footwork is phenomenal - he has incredible balance - but the thing that separates him is his throwing arm. It's probably the best throwing arm of anybody who ever played the position."
Shannon knows what he is talking about. He was a contemporary of Robinson (though he played his entire career in the National League), and he saw a lot of Schmidt from the broadcast booth.
"Don't believe me," he said. "I asked Mike Schmidt, and he said [Rolen] is the best ever. We're talking defensively. The guys you think of are Schmidt and the Baltimore guy. The only thing I can say about Brooks is, he probably had the best hands of anybody, and he had great range to his right. This guy goes every direction well. You've got to put Mike in the top five, and he comes out and says that this guy [Rolen] is the best, hands down. That opened my eyes."
Not a bad testimonial about a guy who played shortstop until his senior year in high school, then moved to third base for one season and was named the top high school baseball player in Indiana. The Philadelphia Phillies took him in the second round of the 1993 draft, and he quickly developed into the top young third base prospect in baseball.
It's a familiar story. Great third basemen generally are not born, they are converted from other positions in high school, college or the minor leagues.
"In my case, it was just happenstance," Rolen said. "I played shortstop all along, but if the high school coach says, 'Go play right field or third base,' you just go out and do it. Then I played there all through the minor leagues."
Three years later, he became the standard-bearer for a new wave of big-hitting third baseman, though no one knew it at the time. Most clubs were desperate to find or develop decent talent at a universally thin position, but Rolen's debut in 1996 was followed within the next three years by the arrival of Anaheim Angels slugger Troy Glaus, Oakland Athletics offensive cornerstone Eric Chavez and power-hitting Pittsburgh Pirates and Chicago Cubs third baseman Aramis Ramirez.
They are all good players, but no one is mentioned in the same breath as Rolen when it comes to scooping up the ball and delivering it to first base.
"I don't think you can really appreciate him unless you watch him every day," said Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty, who pulled off one of the steals of the new century when he acquired Rolen from the Phillies for pitcher Bud Smith, infielder Placido Polanco and reliever Mike Timlin. "You see him do something incredible, and you think: 'How the heck did he make that play?' "
Manager Tony La Russa knows how hard it is to find a great all-around third baseman. He had a pretty good one in Carney Lansford during most of the 9 1/2 seasons he managed the A's, but he has no trouble rating Rolen among the best ever.
"I think it's a hard position to find everything you're looking for - a guy who is competent defensively and a good offensive guy," La Russa said. "You might be willing to settle for a shortstop who catches the ball, but you don't want to settle for a third baseman who just catches the ball."
Rolen does both so well that La Russa said he wouldn't trade him for any other third baseman playing today.
"Who would be better?" he said. "However, comparisons [with players from other eras] is tricky, because you invariably insult someone. You look at Scott and put him in the same company with Mike Schmidt and Brooks Robinson and George Brett, that's a hell of a compliment."
Robinson hasn't seen Rolen play in person, but he also has heard the testimonials.
"I've talked to Jim Fregosi, who managed him, and Tony La Russa, and they say he's really something," Robinson said.
Rolen just turned 29 and he recently hit his 200th home run - more than Schmidt at the same age. If he can stay healthy and play 10 more years, he figures to put up the cumulative numbers to be a Hall of Famer. He has averaged more than 140 games per year, but has had to play through a number of nagging injuries to maintain that pace. His only postseason experience was cut short in 2002 when he collided with a runner during the Division Series against the Arizona Diamondbacks and injured his left shoulder.
Rolen said his fast start this season may be the result of having an entire offseason to get in shape without having to rehab an injury.
"I think you can definitely look at the stat sheet and see that," he said. "I'm very comfortable. We have a great lineup and I'm in a good spot to be consistent."