CLEVELAND -- There have been moments in this latest return from his long-running shoulder woes in which Scott Rolen has tried to absorb and appreciate his surroundings. Like when the Progressive Field speakers blared "Hang on Sloopy" -- this state's annoyingly catchy official rock song -- between innings and the crowd punctuated it with an "O! H! I! O!" Or when he took a quick glance at himself in full uniform in the bathroom mirror before taking the field, a brief acknowledgment of how cool it is, even at the age of 37, to be wearing a big league uniform. There have been the less-satisfying moments, too. A throwing error here, a groundout there. Or basically anytime the ubiquitous scoreboards -- broadcasting his .180 batting average to the masses -- catch the corner of his eye.
"You try to smell the roses," Rolen said. "But they're foul sometimes." Rolen is undoubtedly nearing the end of an illustrious career -- one that has included a World Series win, seven All-Star nods and eight Gold Gloves, along with more than 2,000 hits and nearly 1,300 RBIs. It's not a bitter end, by any means. But the constant discomfort emanating from that troublesome left shoulder -- an injury that dates back to a 2005 collision with Hee-Seop Choi and has necessitated four separate surgeries -- has made it a limp toward the finish line. Rolen knows he's no longer a threat to hit 30 homers or be a dynamic run producer, simply because the shoulder makes the mere act of taking the field on a nightly basis seem a considerable accomplishment. So why put himself through the agony and ennui of rehab when the performance expectations must be measured so carefully? If you're looking for some rah-rah, "for love of the game" speech, Rolen will disappoint. But his honesty shouldn't. "I have a job, you know," he said. "That's the short answer, I guess. Having four surgeries and rehab, I don't like any of that. But I wasn't given a choice, necessarily. That's kind of where I am and what I'm doing. We're free to feel sorry for ourselves, and I do. But I have a job. I play baseball for the Cincinnati Reds, and I take it very seriously. I have a responsibility, an accountability to get myself in physical and mental shape and go to work." Rolen went back to work earlier this week, more than a month after landing on the disabled list and weeks after the Reds' uncertainty regarding his timetable made in-season retirement seem a realistic possibility. He had two hits and two RBIs his first game back against the Indians, then surrendered to an 0-for-4 in the Reds' 3-2, 10-inning loss on Tuesday. The Reds aren't asking or expecting him to be a game-changer, necessarily. Manager Dusty Baker describes him as more of an "icing on the cake" type of player, at this point in his career. But if Rolen is healthy, he's certainly their best option at the hot corner. So, how healthy is he? "I'm 100 percent of whatever I've got," Rolen said with a laugh. "That's about it. I don't know what that equates to [relative to] the rest of the league." Nor can he say for certain how long he'll feel this way. For Rolen, the shoulder situation always lurks in the background, always prompts more time on the trainer's table. "Right now, he's back healthy again," Baker said. "A month from now or two weeks from now, it might be different. I saw Hank Aaron go through it. I saw guys like Andre Dawson go through it. To get ready to play every day and go through whatever you're going through to continue to play, you have to love to play." Rolen loves to play, no question. But with two young kids at home, he also knows there's more to life than this. "I feel like I'm more valuable," he said, "than just where my locker space is." And so you can sense his acceptance -- in this final year of his contract -- of the end that is very likely near. "People say, 'Go out and have fun,'" he said. "But there's stress and there's pressure when I'm out there to compete and perform. That's not overly joyful all the time. It's a focus, it's a job. It's something I enjoy doing, without a doubt. But live it up and have fun? Those are three pretty strict hours for me, and I'm away from my family. So I'm sorry, where's the fun? Do I get to have an ice cream cone afterward, without my kids?" Surely, Rolen doesn't want to come across as ungrateful for this opportunity. In fact, as the injuries have mounted over the years, his appreciation for that time on the field has grown exponentially. But at this point, Rolen is playing not for personal glory or individual accomplishment but rather out of respect for his job, respect for himself, respect for this first-place Reds team and respect for the fact that, someday soon, he'll look back on all of this as merely a memory. "That time will come and go quickly enough," he says. "You can come back in the crowd and watch a game. But sometimes you've got to take a look around and see where you're at and enjoy it." Rolen is not enjoying life as an oft-injured, sub-Mendoza Line hitter. "Unfortunately," he said, "our contentment is numbers-based as much as anything else." So while on his latest rehab assignment, he reclaimed some of the mechanical tweaks that helped him resurrect his career a few years back. He hopes they'll help him raise that average while easing the stress on his shoulder for the rest of 2012. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn't. But the Reds know they're a better team with a healthy Rolen, and Rolen knows the preservation of these last gasps of his 17-year career is worth the effort. After all, some sweet-smelling roses might await.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.