Tigers Put Their Trust in Rogers

Kenny Rogers, above,
Kenny Rogers, above, "sets the tone," in helping younger pitchers, says teammate Justin Verlander. (By Elsa -- Getty Images)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 13, 2006

DETROIT, Oct. 12 -- Kenny Rogers walked into the home clubhouse Thursday afternoon at Comerica Park. A leather jacket protected him from the increasing cold outside, but here, inside the carpeted shelter where the Detroit Tigers spent a relaxing day off, there was nothing but warmth.

"Kenny Rrrrrrrogers!" catcher Ivan Rodriguez yelled gleefully when Rogers walked in, rolling the 'r' for emphasis. Immediately, Rogers was pulled into three or four conversations. Immediately, his comfort with the Tigers was apparent.

Friday afternoon, Rogers will make his second start of this postseason, facing the Oakland Athletics in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series. The Tigers have a decided advantage, up two games to none in the best-of-seven series, with the next three games at home.

For Rogers, though, the start provides just another possible chance at vindication, one that would follow his impressive outing in Game 3 of the division series, when he shut out the New York Yankees for 7 2/3 innings. That night, so much of the controversy from the past -- the shove of a television cameraman, the bitterness with which he had been portrayed -- was replaced only by joy, a 41-year-old skipping around the field like a rookie. He put everything -- emotion, frustration, intensity, maybe even rage -- into each of his 113 pitches.

"I think it was a little out of character for him to be that emotional, but I could certainly understand it," Tigers Manager Jim Leyland said. There was the fact that he had never won a postseason start. There was, too, the fact that he hadn't beaten the Yankees since way back in 1993.

So the fist-pumping, the guttural screams into the air as the crowd thundered around him, it all made sense. But Leyland watched, and was worried. "Sometimes," he said, "it works against you."

To deny Rogers that right, though, would have been stripping a man of his opportunity to make good. That is, in some ways, what this entire season has been about for the 18-year veteran. Teams treaded carefully around him last offseason, mostly because he had very publicly shoved a cameraman from a Dallas area TV station, throwing the man to the ground, in the middle of a hot summer when he played for the Texas Rangers.

The act -- shown time and again on ESPN -- earned him a swift 20-game suspension from Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig, one that was later reduced to 13 games by an independent arbitrator. It fundamentally changed how Rogers was perceived. Before, he came off as a bit aloof. After, he came off as mean. When he made an appearance in the All-Star Game at Comerica Park, he was roundly booed, and the feeling of nearly everyone -- from baseball executives to the general public -- was that he deserved it.

And in the offseason, after he went 14-8 with a 3.46 ERA, he was looking for a job.

"Obviously, there was risk involved," said Al Avila, the Tigers' assistant general manager. "Everyone knew what happened last year, and you hear certain things. You have to look into all that stuff."

So the Tigers did. As Avila said, "There's a reason for everything." They had a significant Rogers advocate in Dick Egan, one of Detroit's pro scouts. Egan had been a minor league pitching coordinator with the Texas Rangers when Rogers was drafted in the 39th round in 1982. Over the years, as Rogers bounced from Texas to a failed stint with the Yankees to Oakland to a brief period with the Mets and back to Texas, Egan always kept in touch, always willing to offer frank, direct advice.

"I respect him just as much as anyone, trust every word he tells me," Rogers said.

So Egan, in effect, brokered the two-year, $16 million deal that landed Rogers in Detroit. He whispered to Avila and General Manager Dave Dombrowski to get past the publicity of the shoving of the cameraman, that Rogers was a good person. And he, in turn, sold Rogers on Detroit, where the Tigers hadn't enjoyed a winning season since 1993.

"That was one of the deciding points, without a doubt, that made it easier for me to come here," Rogers said. "Because I knew him, first and foremost, and I trusted him. I don't give my trust away very easily, but when you get it, you have it forever."

The Tigers themselves started to trust Rogers, too, and that process began in spring training. Detroit's rotation was going to consist of two 23-year-olds -- Justin Verlander and Jeremy Bonderman -- 24-year-old Zach Miner and Nate Robertson, at 28, the wise old man. Throwing Rogers into that mix, Avila said, was essential. On the first day of spring training, Rogers was the first to take the field for the tediousness known as "PFP" -- pitchers' fielding practice.

"The young guys, they have no choice but to follow," Avila said. "Now, you transition that to his conversation on the bench, conversation on the airplane, at the hotel, in between innings. There's just little things that, over the period of years with his knowledge, that he can see and make a comment to the younger guys."

Which, the younger guys say, he has. Part of that is simply by performance, by going 17-8 with a 3.84 ERA. But part of it is by conversation.

"He sets the tone," Verlander said. "I know I've gained a tremendous amount of respect for him."

Respect. It's not something Rogers heard during that summer of 2005, when he was the pitcher who shoved the cameraman, something of a pariah. Leyland, of course, doesn't want to hear much about the past, about his influence on the young guys.

"Everybody else is getting caught up in what he's done for the other young pitchers and this and that," Leyland said. "There's probably some truth to that. But like I said all year, we got Kenny Rogers to win baseball games, and he's doing a good job of doing it."

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