(John Grieshop/MLB Photos)
LAS VEGAS — You can take Aaron Rowand out of Chicago but you can’t take Chicago out of Aaron Rowand.
Sitting in a Las Vegas resort over lunch Wednesday, Rowand came dressed in one of his favorite uniforms — a Chicago Bears sweatshirt and color coordinated Bears baseball cap. With this season’s playoffs nothing more than a remote dream for last year’s NFC Champions, Rowand’s support remains just as intense.
A strong connection still exists between one of baseball’s most sought after free agents and the city where he began his now somewhat iconic career. That connection actually hasn’t wavered, even after Rowand successfully patrolled center field for Philadelphia following a trade sending him east two Thanksgivings removed.
And while Rowand stands by a plan to leave the specific negotiations for free agency to his agent, Craig Landis, he wouldn’t rule out a return to his home away from home.
“Oh, of course,” said Rowand during a conversation with MLB.com, when asked if a chance still existed to get a deal done with the White Sox. “Yeah, I would never count [White Sox general manager] Kenny [Williams] out of anything.
“So, yeah, I mean, it’s still a chance that it happens. I would be open to going back there and I don’t think the door has been shut on that at all. They haven’t even started the Winter Meetings yet.”
Baseball’s annual Winter Meetings begin this Monday in Nashville, running through the Rule 5 Draft next Thursday morning. If Rowand’s free agency came one year later, he could have traveled 20 minutes from his home just outside of Las Vegas and paraded through the host hotel at next year’s get-together in Nevada.
Then again, that sort of grandiose gesture just doesn’t seem to fit Rowand’s hard-working, blue-collar sort of demeanor. At 30 years old, a milestone birthday celebrated in late August, Rowand simply wants the respect — as it pertains to future years and money through free agency — he has earned over the past few seasons.
Not surprisingly for a man who would rather run through a wall than pull up and play the ball safely off it, Rowand also wants to find the best possible fit beyond the dollars for the next half-decade or so within the organization he selects.
“How’s the situation in the clubhouse? How’s the situation, performance-wise, on the field?” said Rowand, rattling off a handful of his concerns. “Is the team competitive? Are they going to be competitive? How are the guys? Who are the coaches?
“Much more goes into it than years and dollar signs, but hopefully I’ll know when the situation presents itself. I’m not stressing out about any of it. I’m not getting worked up about it.
“I’ve never worried about a whole lot of [things],” added Rowand with a laugh. “So, why start now, you know what I mean?”
Rowand’s specific outfield position just happens to feature the top players grouped together in this year’s free agency class. Torii Hunter, considered by many as the No. 1 center fielder available with his seven Rawlings Gold Gloves and coming off a 107-RBI season, already has signed a five-year, $90 million deal with the Angels. Hunter’s move left the White Sox shocked as to how their primary target traveled a different road at the 11th hour.
Andruw Jones once was labeled the gold standard in center but comes off of a .222 season with Atlanta, following two sensational years in which he hit at last 41 home runs a campaign. The scenario for Rowand plays out at the opposite end of the offensive spectrum, with free agency arriving on the heels of the best individual performance of his career, although Rowand is quick to point out nothing has come close overall to matching the White Sox World Series championship he was a part of in 2005.
As much as Rowand didn’t want to leave Chicago, his voice cracking with emotion two years ago when talking about the Thanksgiving deal bringing Jim Thome to the White Sox, it might have been his best short-term career answer. This statement, at least, seems to be true where Rowand’s development on offense is concerned.
Leaving behind Greg Walker, a man Rowand refers to as “not only the best hitting coach in baseball, hands down, but also one of my best friends,” Rowand was forced to rely more on his own knowledge to make corrections with his swing. This bit of personal growth should help answer critics who point to 2007 as a spectacular anomaly compared to his past solid seasons.
“During the last couple of years, I learned a lot about myself and my swing,” said Rowand, who hit .309 in 2007, with 27 home runs, 45 doubles, 89 RBIs and 105 runs scored. “[In Chicago] I depended on [Walker] to watch and break down every one of my swings, and I leaned on him and depended on him too much, instead of learning a feel.
“Milt Thompson is Philadelphia’s hitting coach, and I have nothing bad to say about Milt whatsoever. But he doesn’t break down your swing mechanically the way that Walker does. He’s more of a feel guy than about mechanics with the swing.
“So it’s almost like I became my own hitting coach and had to make adjustments myself,” Rowand added. “I’m already out swinging right now. Two months have gone by, and normally when I start hitting, I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing. This year, I feel like I’m right there still.”
Over the next month or so, Rowand will decide where he will continue to work on this swing, while pushing for his second straight Gold Glove and All-Star appearance. That particular locale figures to come from a list of five or six teams, and could include the White Sox.
During a Wednesday conference call to announce the signing of free agent right-hander Scott Linebrink, Williams mentioned how the White Sox still are actively looking for an outfield upgrade before the question could be asked. Williams spoke in broad strokes without mentioning any individual, focusing on the organization’s respect for all the players on his targeted list and letting any player they have talked to know about the White Sox future plan and where he would specifically fit for the team.
Of course, it doesn’t take much work to figure out Rowand’s fit, a man who many point to as the prototype for the White Sox famous “Grinder Rules.” In fact, some fans still speak or write of Rowand’s departure as an overriding reason for the White Sox postseason absence since 2005. Rowand laughs at talk of his cult-hero status or having such a perceived direct impact, but certainly seems flattered.
Chicago’s bond with Rowand remains as strong as Rowand’s bond with the city.
“Remember, there were 25 guys playing, and I was just a piece of that puzzle,” said Rowand of the 2005 World Series champions. “As far as being in the locker room and all that, I come to the park every day to have fun, that’s it. I like having a good time.
“I’m not going to sulk or pout or let any of my teammates do that either. That’s what being a good teammate is, picking up your teammates when they are down, or stepping up and staying something when something needs to be said. More than anything else, it’s just keeping things loose. When you are loose and everyone is having fun, it’s easy to go out and perform to your best, perform to your abilities.
“It would be wonderful to go back to Chicago,” Rowand added. “I love the city. I love the fans. I love my Bears. It’s a great organization. Good coaches. Good ownership. Good everything. Let’s see what happens. When the time comes, I’ll weigh my options and see what the best fit is for me and my family.”