CHARLOTTE — Like a lot of Charlotte 49ers baseball games in recent years, Sunday’s 2-1 victory against George Washington ended with a groundball to shortstop.
That 5-foot-8 senior shortstop’s name is Justin Roland, and if it seems he’s been wearing the green and white of the Niners at Hayes Field for nearly as many years as Cal Ripken Jr. hung around in Baltimore, well, there’s a reason.
Roland verbally committed to the 49ers way back in the fall of 2007, early in his senior year at East Rowan, so he’s been part of Charlotte’s program for an extra-long time.
“He’s done a lot of great things here,” Charlotte coach Loren Hibbs said. “I’m proud of him. Everyone at East Rowan should be proud of him. He’s got some stick-to-itiveness, if that’s a word.”
When Roland was a true freshman in 2009, Hibbs joked that the hawks hovering over Charlotte’s field had mistaken Roland for a big rat. He also quipped that he couldn’t see Roland at shortstop when the grass got too high. But Roland won a starting job right away.
He started 15 of Charlotte’s first 16 games before he tore the meniscus in a knee. He was granted a medical redshirt — a mulligan for that aborted season — but the stats counted. And now, Roland’s unusual longevity means broken records.
He broke a significant school record— a Cal Ripkenish record — on Sunday when he showed up for work once again and started for the 49ers for the 216th time.
“How many starts?” said Charlotte’s junior slugger Justin Seager, shaking his head in disbelief. “That’s pretty amazing — 216 — but it doesn’t get any better than J-Rol.”
If you’re keeping score at home, besides those 15 games Roland started in 2009, there were 54 in 2010, 59 in 2011, 53 in 2012, and 35 so far in 2013.
Over the last four years, he’s started 201 of a possible 203 games.
If you remember Roland during his time at East or during his marvelous career with the Rowan County Legion team — he’s still second all-time in runs, hit and doubles — you won’t be surprised that he was focused more on winning Sunday than on a record.
“I did hear them call out my name in the fifth inning, but I really didn’t understand what they said or why they did it at that time,” Roland said.
The reason was this. It was a perfect day for baseball, but there’s always a chance for a sudden rainstorm or stray lightning bolt, so the game wasn’t deemed official until 41/2 innings had been completed with Charlotte leading 2-0.
Roland always has been able to play through normal aches and illness, but there was one time when he couldn’t go.
“Last year, I strained my neck lifting weights,” he said. “If we’d had a game scheduled the next day I wouldn’t have been able to play, but I got treatment and was able to play two days later. Of course, the first two balls they hit landed just over my head, balls I would have caught if I couldn’ve moved my neck.”
Bad luck has carried over to this season. Roland is a good offensive player, but he entered Sunday’s game at .220.
“I haven’t gotten any soft hits, and when I do hit it hard, it’s at ‘em,” he said. “ I just try to do what I can, and fortunately, we’ve been winning. I’ve also been fortunate that I’ve got a coach who has faith in me. He sends me out there.”
Roland was the middleman on a critical eighth-inning double play that saved the 49ers on Sunday, so he’s doing his share.
Jeff and Tina Roland watched their son break a record Sunday. He’d already broken a defensive school record for career assists.
“The parents tell me Justin is dependable, that he’s always there,” Jeff said. “I think that’s a good way to put it. He’s competed hard, he’s dedicated and he’s stayed healthy. It’s been wonderful watching him.”
Hibbs realizes he probably won’t totally appreciate Roland until he’s finally gone.
“I know everyone on this team respects the heck out of J-Rol,” he said. “That’s a guy who has maximized his abilities to the fullest.”