"It was, for all intents and purposes, as hard a decision as I've had to make in my professional career," he said. "I signed with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2002 an eight-year contract to play eight years there -- to finish my career as a St. Louis Cardinal. That was obviously what my intention was when I started. It was my intention all the way through.
"[It was a] great opportunity for me to be there. I loved it there. My wife loved it there. I think it's the greatest place to play baseball in the game. The atmosphere, the fans, the city, the celebration of the baseball. I'd recommend it to anybody. I cherish the memories that I have there. Won a world championship. We had success. I can't say enough good things about it."
There was just one obstacle, one too great to overcome. Now, Rolen and former Cardinals shortstop David Eckstein are teammates again with the Toronto Blue Jays. Both kept quiet, for the most part, during their departures from St. Louis. But in Dunedin, separated from their former team, they're both a little more willing to discuss the situation.
Neither has any interest in re-opening old wounds, and be assured that whether fair or not, each felt wounded. But they now at least have enough distance to provide some insight and some explanation.
Rolen's situation is straightforward. For a variety of reasons -- some dating back to a left shoulder injury he sustained in 2005 and some more intangible -- he and his manager simply didn't get along over the last year and a half.
In Eckstein's case, it's a little harder to pin down. He has no gripes about the negotiations, or lack thereof, this fall between his agent and the team. Rather, he was stung by what he perceived as the team's unfair characterization of his position.
"I was not surprised that they never came to me and offered me anything," Eckstein said. "I was not surprised with that one bit. I was just surprised with the way that they were telling the fans that it was going down. I fully believed they were going to just go to the paper and say we were going to go in a different direction. And the way things came out, that's where I was really shocked and surprised."
According to sources, the club offered Eckstein a multiyear deal during Spring Training in 2007, and Eckstein turned it down. When the '07 season ended, the Cardinals were loath to offer anything less than that. Eckstein, meanwhile, badly wanted some offer from the club -- regardless, he says, of how lengthy or lucrative the offer might have been.
"I was willing to listen to anything," he said. "And that's all we wanted. Just, 'Hey, come talk to us.' I was willing to listen to anything. I had zero parameters on anything. I can't honestly tell you what I would have done if they did that, because I was never put in that situation."
Eckstein, like Rolen, has bouquets to toss all over St. Louis when he looks back at his tenure as a whole. The fans embraced him, and he responded in kind. He became not just part of the ballclub, but part of the city.
"I want to thank them for all the support and what they did for me and my family while I was there," he said. "I greatly appreciated that. It was something that was very, very special and I'll never forget that. But the situation that went down, I believe everything is meant to be. And that's the way it was supposed to happen.
"I promise you this: at the end of the day, I know I ended up where I'm supposed to be."
Rolen doesn't spend a lot of time thinking about where he's supposed to be. He knows where he is now, and he's having fun. Like Eckstein, he loves playing ball. He already jokes with teammates, and coaches already give him a hard time.
He's settled in quickly, and he's not interested in looking back.
"There's blame on both sides," he acknowledged. "It's not just one side's fault. So I wish it would have been different. I wish there were things that could have been done. At the same time, I'm happy in my situation. I get to play baseball."
Rolen worried that if he returned to St. Louis, his conflict with his manager would affect his ability to perform on the field. The club, meanwhile, had concerns that the dispute might mushroom beyond its already volatile state.
All parties -- Rolen, La Russa, and general manager John Mozeliak -- have said that they held out hope that the situation could be resolved. But the fact is, it's difficult to imagine the Cards not moving Rolen.
So the seven-time Gold Glove and five-time All-Star third baseman is gone. He has no parting shots for La Russa or the club, but he would like to speak with the La Russa face-to-face at some point.
"What I want to say about the manager is that we're different people with different morals," Rolen said. "I'm sure we will cross paths down the road and I'm anxious to finally make some eye contact."