Enter the talented, self-assured Rollins. At 21 years old, he had the ability to control a game and command a room. Not easy when you stand 5-foot-8 and weigh about 155 pounds. This guy could walk the walk and talk the talk.
"There was an aura about him," Larry Bowa recalls. "He was small in stature, but he played like he was 6-foot-4. He had a cocky attitude. A little-man syndrome. I had it, too."
Rollins' first full season was also Bowa's first year as manager of his former club. The kid from California had a chance to capture the hearts of a hungry and frustrated fan base that was flaming out.
Bowa told Rollins, "You have a chance to be the leader of this team. This is a rebuilding team, they've been terrible -- it's not fun to lose in this city."
Bowa spoke from experience. As the Phillies' starting shortstop for a dozen seasons, he patrolled the same Veterans Stadium turf as Rollins. Two decades earlier, Bowa was on the field when the Phillies won their first World Series championship.
"'You're the guy who has to lead us here,'" Bowa told Rollins. "We got to be competitive every year, and we were. He had a lot to do with it."
Fast forward a dozen years. Rollins, still a fixture in South Philly, has his own World Series ring. Bowa is an analyst for MLB Network. And leadership is once again a topic of conversation when the three of us speak on camera. Several current Phillies have questioned the club's leadership and level of pride. An urgent situation for an older club whose window of opportunity appears to be closing.
"It's back and forth," Rollins says. "It's tough to put a finger on it. There are times we come out, and the energy is there behind us and we perform as a team. There's games or series where it's like we're stuck in neutral."
Rollins believes the team will find its groove and also points out that he arrives at the ballpark earlier than he used to in order to prepare for the game.
That's what some leaders do. They lead by example. Others, like Rollins, seem to be more effective when they lead with ability and swagger. (Remember his 2007 prediction that his Phillies would dethrone the Mets in the National League East?)
While Bowa says Rollins does not have it in him to yell and scream at underachieving teammates, he does believe Rollins' skills can still carry a club.
"Jimmy's the guy who gets the lineup going," says Bowa. "He can still steal bases or score from first on a double. I've never seen him take a slump into the field."
But Bowa adds that Rollins' knack for working at his own pace can frustrate the fans.
"Jimmy's never been a guy to say, 'Nine innings, nine outs, I'll go as hard as I can,'" says Bowa.
Current manager Charlie Manuel knows all about that. He had to yank Rollins from the lineup on a few occasions over the years for not giving maximum effort. At 34 years old, Rollins has matured on the field and off.
Over the last decade, Rollins has become a husband and a father -- not to mention a World Series champion and a player worthy of a Hall of Fame conversation.
While much has changed, at least one crucial facet of his game has remained the same.
The bigger the game, the better he plays.
"He's a red light player," says Bowa. "When there's a series you need or need to make a statement, he steps up."
The Phillies need to make a statement. And they need to win as many series as possible if they are to to return to an elite level.
So in 2013, The Phillies need Rollins' leadership, attitude and skills as much as they needed it more than a decade ago. An entire fan base is depending on it.