Rolen shined for Jasper, but remained grounded

By GREG ECKERLE
Guest Columnist

When stories are swapped about Jasper’s most accomplished athlete, Scott Rolen, many people focus on his Major League diamond career that might one day land him in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

St. Louis Cardinals Scott Rolen reaches out to celebrate with fans after winning the 2006 World Series over the Detroit Tigers on Oct. 27, 2006, in St. Louis. (Associated Press, File)

But teammates and coaches also enjoy telling tales of his excellence in other sports, like tennis, basketball and even kickball.

Andy Noblitt, a 1992 Jasper High School graduate, is a year older than Rolen and played sports alongside him beginning with their playground days at Fifth Street School in the mid-1980s.

Kickball was a popular playground game at the school. The kids laid out a playing area that had a fence to clear for a home run, not that it mattered. Until Rolen came along. “Scott, as a fourth grader, was the first kid we’d ever seen kick one from home plate over the fence,” says Noblitt, who was in his fifth year at the school. “We older kids thought, wow, this guy is unreal, because he was a little dude, but he was powerful. Nobody had even gotten close to hitting the fence in the air. He would have been a good punter.” As the oldest children at the school, fifth graders often picked the teams. Rolen was already being selected first as a third grader.

Noblitt also thinks Rolen would have been a good quarterback. Both were injured early in football and decided to concentrate on other sports. He recalls Rolen throwing footballs that “seemed like twice as fast as anybody else, because of his arm strength.” Noblitt also remembered winning the eighth grade softball throw when he heaved one that rolled to about 90 yards. Seventh grader Rolen then bested it by about another 30 yards.

Greg Freyberger was Rolen’s teammate on both the Jasper Wildcat tennis and baseball teams. He had the unique vantage point of playing No. 1 doubles with Rolen on the 1991 tennis squad. He vividly recalls Rolen’s big serve and competitiveness. “Because he was so strong and athletic, his top spin serve, after its initial bounce, would shoot in the opposite direction,” Freyberger says. “It was like a fastball; there were so many times the other team would swing and miss. And when we really needed a game, he would dive on the court going after a ball. Most tennis players aren’t going to lay ourselves out on the court, but you couldn’t deny him. If he laid out and slid into a fence and came up with a scraped-up elbow or knee, he’d brush it off and let it bleed. I think he wore that as a badge of honor. And he would get the point that he wanted. Opponents were astounded. Honestly, if Scott had devoted himself to tennis, he could have been a professional tennis player. I think he could have been a pro in pretty much anything he chose.”

Besides baseball, one of Rolen’s real loves was basketball. He was named to the Indiana All-Star team in 1993 before pursuing his baseball career in the Philadelphia Phillies organization. His Jasper basketball coach, Ken Schultheis, said in a 2005 interview that Rolen was the best shooter he ever coached. Yet one of his favorite memories is the first time Rolen dunked in a game, at Jasper toward the end of his junior year. He had dunked many times in practice. So Schultheis had to chuckle when Rolen told him after the game dunk, “Coach, I got up there and I was kind of scared, I didn’t know what to do, so I just dunked it.” 

“Scott Rolen as a senior was just phenomenal,” Schultheis said. “He taxed his body and his mind to the maximum.” That year, Rolen set the Jasper single-game scoring record of 50 points, but Schultheis recalled his reluctance to do so. “He was the most team-oriented person, he didn’t want to shine above anybody else. He was telling teammates to not throw the ball to him. But I wanted him to get that record, because he had earned it.”

Later that year came the epic game in the Huntingburg sectional, where Jasper lost to Forest Park, 85-80, despite Rolen’s 47 points, including seven 3-pointers in the last five minutes. What made his performance even more remarkable is that in a practice two days before the game, Rolen severely sprained his ankle. “He’s hurt bad,” Schultheis said. “His ankle is as big as a softball. But the legend of Scott Rolen was, if he’s sick or hurt, he’s going to go for 30 or more. He played just a phenomenal last quarter and a half. He puked after the game.”

Of course, there are some unique Rolen baseball stories as well.

In a 2012 interview, Jasper baseball coach Terry Gobert talked about the fun he had trying to hit balls past Rolen during pre-game infield practices, with Major League scouts loving the show. “Scott loved it,” Gobert said. “I would hit them as hard as I could. To his left, to his right, then a slow roller.

“Other players made jokes out of all the attention from the scouts. Kurt Fuhs went out with Rolen’s number on one time to try to fool the scouts. When Scott would go down to the left field batting cage to hit, there would go seven, eight, nine scouts following him, just like a row of ducks. It’s amazing how Scott dealt with that, to have the patience to hit .500 with that kind of scrutiny.”

Gobert also remembers a game Rolen played at third base his junior year after the regular was injured. Rolen had mostly played second base and shortstop. “I have a tape of the telecast, and after Scott made some errors, the announcer said, ‘Wake up, Terry Gobert, you’ve got to get Scott Rolen off third base,’” Gobert said with a laugh. “I think about that every once in a while, after he’s won all those Gold Gloves at third in the majors. It worked out pretty well. The amazing part about Scott is he has shortstop hands and reflexes.”

Noblitt, who played varsity baseball with Rolen in 1991 and 1992, well remembers Rolen’s all-around defensive skills. “We knew Scott could pretty much replace any of us at any of the positions we played,” Noblitt says. “He easily could have been the center fielder, he could have caught, he didn’t pitch very much, but he easily could have been a starting pitcher, probably as a freshman.”

And Rolen could hit in the clutch, too, totaling 58 RBIs in 34 games in 1992, when opponents still pitched to him regularly. “Sometimes you just knew there was going to be a home run,” Noblitt says, laughing. “We’re all like, ‘He’s going deep,’ and sure enough, he would.”

Freyberger particularly recalled two Rolen home runs. One, hit in a road game, was such a mammoth blast that infielders on the opposing team actually shook Rolen’s hand as he ran around the bases. “He destroyed it,” Freyberger says. “The infielders were in awe, like I was. There was another one he hit at Ruxer Field that I think went over the light poles in left field. Those two were the longest. As a pitcher, he had smoke, he could hit any corner he wanted to. And I remember him stealing home for the winning run in a sectional game. He was just extraordinarily gifted. But the beauty of it is, he always stayed grounded, he was always a good guy about it.”

Noblitt talked about the many people that had high respect for Rolen’s approach to the game. “When people know baseball, and they know you’re from Jasper, they know the kind of people that live here, because of the way Scott Rolen played,” Noblitt says. “I think what Scott brought to the field has really been a good influence on our town.”

Greg Eckerle can be reached at gregeckerle@twc.com




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