April 2, 2006 -- After a white-hot 2005, Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins is closing in on the longest hitting streak in baseball -- Joe DiMaggio's 56-straight games with a hit. Rollins gets his next chance at bat Monday, opening day at Citizen's Bank Park in Philadelphia, where George Will found him unfazed by the pressure.
George Will: You've hit in 36 games. You're heading for 56, DiMaggio's record. Do you ever have the feeling, you look around and say what is a little guy like me from Oakland, Calif., doing chasing this?
Jimmy Rollins: I've never really thought of it that way. You know, I just want to come to the ballpark truthfully every day and do something to help the team win.
Will: You've been telling your brother for years you can break DiMaggio's record. Where'd you get that confidence?
Rollins: That's something I think I was born with. You know, I say it was ingrained in me as a young, young boy, a little shorty. My mother, she never let us, or my father for that reason, they never let us, you know, settle for second best. You know, the word "almost" wasn't accepted in my house. It was like: Almost? Well, why didn't you do it? What kept you back?
Will: You're trying to set a very important record at a difficult moment in baseball history, when a lot of fans think a lot of records are tainted. Baseball, now, has the toughest steroid penalties of any professional sport. Are you confident that the steroid era is over?
Rollins: Oh, yeah. I'm very confident. If you're still doing steroids at this moment, you know, you're running a real good risk by never playing baseball again. And I think that's, you know-- The best threat that you can have is saying that, if you get caught cheating, you're going to get kicked out of the game.
And, you know, as you understand, this is our livelihood. This is how we make money. This is how we feed our families. Without baseball, a lot of us would be up in the air, not knowing what to do. And I'm definitely one of them. And, you know, just with that strict policy -- three strikes and you're out.
Will: I guess one of the advantages of being 175 pounds is no one thinks you're on steroids.
Rollins: Right. Right.
Will: Or if you did, you weren't getting your money's worth.
Rollins: No, I definitely wasn't.
Will: Do you ever look around baseball nowadays and say, where have the African-American ballplayers gone?
Let me give you some numbers. In 1975, 27 percent of all major league players were African-Americans. In 1979, the Pirates win the World Series with a team that's 40 percent African-American. As recently as the '95 All-Star game, all six starting outfielders were African-American.
Fast forward to 2005, the Detroit All-Star game, 64 roster slots, five African-Americans. How do you explain this?
Rollins: I think, personally, a lot of it is, you know, baseball fields in inner cities aren't worth playing on. You go out there, the grass is, you know, 3 feet tall. Nobody's come to drag the field or even try to break up the cement that the dirt has become.
And plus, you need equipment. You know, in basketball, you get a basketball and you can go find a hoop. Football, same thing: You go get a football and just find a field or even a parking lot. But baseball, you need bats, you need gloves, you need cleats, you need a ball. And then you actually need a big place to play. And, you know, those places, especially with development, have been taken away.
Will: About 25 percent of all the people on big league rosters this spring are from outside North America. Fifty percent of all those in baseball, from rookie ball up, are from outside North America. It's a good thing for the game, isn't it?
Rollins: It's definitely a good thing to see baseball expanding. But nevertheless, you still want to, you know, keep it an American game. In my eyes, you just can't go out there and say, well, we have all of these players that have been great.
For example, you know, [scouts can't just look] in Japan or in Korea, or in the Dominican league, or the Venezuelan league, and forget about what's going on at home, because kids will get discouraged. It's like, well, they're not drafting us. They're going out trying to find talent everywhere else.
Will: Bases loaded, bottom of the ninth, tie game, three-and-two count on Jimmy Rollins. The pitcher throws the ball right off the plate. It's your last at bat. You walk in the winning run and you don't break the record. Which would you do?
Rollins: I'd walk in the winning run. But I'd probably try to foul it off if it was that close. If it was that close, I'd really try to foul it off. But if it's a pitch I know I can't get to, hopefully the umpire sees it the same way I do.
Will: Well, Jimmy Rollins, the baseball world will be watching on opening day, and for as long after that as you keep going.
Will: Get to 57.
Rollins: Thank you very much. I'm definitely going to try.