When a player gets his first hit in a major league game, the home team dugout calls for the ball. In a time-honored and touching tradition, the ball is marked and dated and eventually presented to the player. That happened for Nate Rolison on Sept. 30, 2000. The former Petal High School star, 23 years old and playing for the Florida Marlins, singled off of Philadelphia’s Wayne Gomes at Pro Player Park in Miami.
Rolison never imagined that would be his only hit in the major leagues, his last at-bat in The Show. No one imagined that.
AS A SENIOR at Petal High in 1995, Nate Rolison attracted bookoodles of attention on the ball fields of south Mississippi’s Pine Belt, where the game is revered. A left-handed, power-hitting first baseman, he led the Panthers to a state championship. He was the state’s Gatorade player of the year and a consensus first-team prep All-America selection. He was recruited by most of the top college programs and signed with the University of Miami.
“He was a dadgum good one,” said Hill Denson, the coach at Southern Miss when Rolison played at nearby Petal. “He was a big ol’, strong country boy. He could play the game.”
The pro scouts had been buzzing around Petal, as well, and Rolison was drafted in June of ’95, going in the second round, 36th overall, to the Marlins. He was the first player from Mississippi to be picked that year, and he went just ahead of second-rounders — and future big leaguers — Marlon Anderson, Carlos Beltran and Sean Casey.
Rolison signed with the Marlins and instantly became one of their top prospects. Baseball cards bearing his likeness popped up well before he reached the big leagues. In his first full pro season, 1996 at Class A Kane County in the Midwest League, he hit 14 homers and 28 doubles in 131 games.
One pro scouting report from the time described the 6-foot-5, 225-pound Rolison as a “massive, dangerous, all-or-nothing power hitter.” That wasn’t entirely accurate. “He had big power, but he could just flat-out hit,” Denson said. “He had all the tools you need. He could throw and even run pretty well for his size.”
Power was Rolison’s dominant tool, and he did strike out a lot, but he batted .277 in his first year in Double-A, .299 at that level the next year and .330 in Triple-A in 2000, when he also belted 23 homers, drove in 88 runs and was named the Marlins’ minor league player of the year.
Shortly after that minor league season ended, Rolison got the call to the big leagues. He debuted on Sept. 5, 2000, striking out as a pinch hitter. Five days later, he got his second at-bat, again as a pinch hitter. Ten days after that, he made his first start, one of only three he would get.
Twenty years later, looking back, Rolison says he was thrilled to get the big league call and put on a Marlins uniform, even if the role he was handed wasn’t ideal.
“Pinch hitting, that’s a tough deal,” he said. “I had never done that. I’d always started, got four or five at-bats every game. It was a challenge, just getting sprinkles of at-bats. Pinch hitting, especially in the major leagues, was a different deal.”
On the next-to-last day of the season, Sept. 30, Rolison started at first base. He was 0-for-11 in his limited opportunities to that point. “I was starting to wonder, When is the ice going to break?” he said. In his first at-bat, he grounded out. In his second, he hit a sacrifice fly, producing his first RBI as a big leaguer. He added another sac fly in his next trip. In his fourth at-bat, in the sixth inning, he smacked a line drive hit into right field.
Per tradition, the ball was relayed into the Marlins’ dugout. Rolison still has it. It’s in a cabinet in his Hattiesburg home with some other items from his baseball career. “It’s a good keepsake,” he said. “It’s a nice little treasure to have. It’s in a special place in the house.”
Rolison sat out the last game of that 2000 season but eagerly looked forward to the coming months. There would be many more hits to come, right?
“I felt like I was on my way,” he said. “I was the organization’s player of the year. I had excelled that year in Triple-A. I felt I’d have the opportunity to make the (Marlins’) club the next year, to compete for a starting job.
“You never know about the business side of the game, how things might work out. But I felt good about where I was at.”
He was scheduled to go to Puerto Rico for winter ball, to continue polishing his game in preparation for spring training the next year. In the interim, he took to working out with the Southern Miss team during their fall ball season. He knew the coaches and a bunch of the players.
One day, he was swinging a bat and felt a sharp pain in his right wrist. Twenty years later, looking back, he calls it “the beginning of the end.”
MAKING THE BIG leagues is a big deal. Most every kid who plays thinks about it. Many hunger for it. Very few actually get there. Twenty years after he got there, looking back, Rolison remains justifiably proud of that accomplishment. “It’s a small fraternity,” he said. “The number of players who ever make it that far, it’s a small group.”
Staying in the big leagues – building a career there — is another challenge in itself, and for Rolison that freak wrist injury in the fall of 2000 may have cost him that opportunity.
“I feel like the time I missed, at the time I missed it, was an unfortunate set of circumstances,” he said. “I never got over that.”
That fateful swing resulted in three broken bones in Rolison’s right wrist. “I didn’t even know at the time what I’d done,” he said. He only knew that it hurt. Two weeks later, he had surgery. He spent 12 weeks in a cast. Winter ball went out the window. Spring training, too. After the cast came off, he had mobility issues and occasional inflammation.
He missed most of the 2001 season, the season that might have been his coming out party in the big leagues. He got into 24 games at four different minor league levels and hit just one homer.
“In my mind, I was still seeing the pitch and reacting, but I wasn’t reacting in the same way I had before,” he said. His hands weren’t doing what his mind was telling them. “Hitting happens in the twinkle of an eye. Timing is everything. And I just wasn’t getting back to where I was before.”
Early in the 2002 season, the Marlins took Rolison off their 40-man major league roster. Seattle claimed him on waivers and sent him to their Triple-A club. He became a free agent after that season and signed with the New York Yankees, spending 2003 in Triple-A again. His numbers were OK, but something still wasn’t right. He signed with the Chicago White Sox in 2004 but was released the last day of spring training. He went home, fielded a couple of offers but turned them down.
“I had gotten married at that point,” Rolison said. “I just decided I had done all I could do. I couldn’t recover what I had. I decided it was time to move on.” He was 26. Once one of the state’s most-decorated high school players, he looks back now with no regrets about that decision and no apparent bitterness over his bad break. He’s happily married with three kids, ages 4 to 11, and owns an auto dealership in Hattiesburg. He’s good.
“I talk to a lot of guys, retired players, guys I played with,” he said, “and everybody faced it. The time comes when it’s time to stop. I gave it all I had. It was a good ride.”
And he reached the pinnacle, the major leagues. The journey is represented by a ball in a cabinet in his house, a ball that a lot of players out there would love to have.