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Rolls' play makes role grow

A Rule V pick expected to head to the minors soon, the rookie infielder may wind up staying put.

By BRUCE LOWITT

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 22, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- Damian Rolls probably can stop counting. The Rays rookie utilityman seems to have found a home at second base for the time being.

When the season began, the Rays had to keep him on their roster until May 30, under the provisions of the Rule V draft. Only then could they ship him to Triple-A Durham without first exposing him to waivers.

And their infield seemed set: Vinny Castilla at third base, Bobby Smith at second, Felix Martinez at shortstop, the Fred McGriff-Steve Cox tandem at first base, Aubrey Huff as Castilla's heir apparent and Russ Johnson backing up Smith (with Brent Abernathy the second baseman-in-waiting at Durham).

That left Rolls, 23, on the bench.

But Castilla was released. Smith was demoted to Durham. And Johnson landed on the disabled list. Andy Sheets was called up, initially to fill in for Johnson. Now, though, he is replacing -- temporarily, at least -- the suddenly error-prone Martinez.

And although Rolls' natural position is third base, he is getting his first shot at second.

"Hopefully if I'm doing it the right way and doing it enough, I can stay up," said Rolls, batting .304 with five doubles. He also has stolen eight bases without being thrown out.

Rays manager Hal McRae hasn't found anything in Rolls' game about which to complain.

"He's done everything we've asked of him," McRae said. "He's caught the ball. He's gotten on base. He's run. He's swung the bat well. And he brings a lot of enthusiasm. He's fun to watch. ... He's playing well (at second). There's no reason to make any changes."

Rolls is a work in progress. He played in 68 games (214 at-bats) above Class A before this season.

"A developing player," Rays general manager Chuck LaMar called him. "He skipped Triple A, which is usually very difficult for a position player to do. ... He has a chance to be an everyday player at third base or second base. At worst, he has a chance to be a utility player, which is a very valuable role."

Rolls spent most of 2000 on Tampa Bay's disabled list recuperating from shoulder surgery. He went on the 40-man roster Sept. 1, appearing in four games and batting .333.

"I'd tease my brother," Damian said of Daniel, 22, "because I had three at-bats last year and got one hit. I said, "Hey, man, you seen my career stats?' "

Last year was Rolls' toughest emotionally.

"Every year since I was 4 I played baseball during the summer," he said. "To have it taken away like that, to have to sit the whole summer and not play the game, it dang near killed me."

Still, not playing had its benefits. Rays veterans treated him like any other player, he said, and made him feel like an integral part of the team.

"My first time ever being up in the major leagues, sitting there and watching, I learned a lot more about the game than going to Triple A, or even jumping right in there and playing. Sitting there and talking to the veterans taught me a lot," he said.

"I respect the game more (because) I know it can be taken away from me just like that. I could walk out of the clubhouse today and something could happen where I'd never be able to play again. That's what last year helped me realize."

Parents Al and Jan Rolls, home in Kansas City, Kan., follow their son's progress on cable TV. Damian got the chance in three games last week to show his stuff (4-for-10, three steals) in person to his family and friends at Kauffman Stadium. That's more of a chance than he had in 1999, when he was a member of the Royals -- for about 10 minutes, the time it took the team to sell him to Tampa Bay in a prearranged deal after it drafted him off the Dodgers roster.

"Someone from the Rays called me -- Damian was rehabbing in San Bernardino; they thought he was here -- and told me, "We just took Damian,' " Al Rolls said. "Then Damian called me and said, "Guess what; Kansas City just took me in the Rule V draft.' I told him, "Don't get too excited. You've been traded to the Devil Rays.' He was ready to come home."

It would have been nice to be a Royal, Damian Rolls said.

"It would have been different, that's for sure. I'd have been able to live in the house I grew up in, sleep in my own bed," he said. "But at the time, I was so happy to be part of a big-league team, I didn't care where it was."

Rolls, who lives in Tampa with his fiancee, Chaunte Lockhart, got a chance to stay at home for those three games in Kansas City.

"I loved it. I just wanted to sleep on my waterbed," he said. "I got a bed where you could roll over five times and still be in the middle.

"I messed up the house a little bit, but I cleaned it up for my mom before I left," Rolls added, to which Jan said: "I was surprised he did such a good job cleaning up after himself. I don't think he'd have done it if his fiancee hadn't told him to."

The Damian Rolls file

BIRTHDATE/PLACE: Sept. 15, 1977, Manhattan, Kan.

RESIDES: Kansas City, Kan.

PERSONAL: Single; fiancee, Chaunte Lockhart.

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Dodgers' first-round selection in 1996 June free-agent draft. Selected by Royals in Rule V draft Dec. 13, 1999; sold to Rays that day. Right shoulder surgery before 2000 season. Went on disabled list March 31. Hit .239 in 19 rehabilitation games with St. Petersburg and Orlando; returned Sept. 1. Major-league debut Sept. 3 vs. Royals as pinch-hitter (struck out). Four major-league games in 2000, three as pinch-hitter, one as eighth-inning defensive replacement at third base vs. Athletics on Sept. 9. First major-league hit an eighth-inning pinch-single (for Fred McGriff) vs. Yankees on Sept. 28. -- BRUCE LOWITT

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