La Russa Can't Shake Rogers's Dirty Hand

Tony La Russa
Tony La Russa has come under fire for not being more aggressive in his pursuit of Tigers starter Kenny Rogers, who was found to have a substance on his hand. (Reuters)
By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 24, 2006

ST. LOUIS, Oct. 23 -- Tony La Russa faced a critical decision in the fateful, controversial first inning of Sunday night's Game 2 of the World Series -- a game, an inning, a decision and a controversy that continued to reverberate throughout Monday's day off, as La Russa's St. Louis Cardinals and the Detroit Tigers worked out at Busch Stadium in preparation for Tuesday night's Game 3.

When all the rhetoric and the posturing and the examining of baseball's complex "code" is boiled away, the decision comes down to this question: How far was La Russa willing to go to try to win the World Series?

Had La Russa followed one particular, aggressive path Sunday night, the following might have occurred: La Russa would have asked the umpires to inspect Tigers pitcher Kenny Rogers for an illegal substance, most likely pine tar. The umpires quite possibly would have found precisely that substance on Rogers's hand or glove, resulting in his ejection from the game, plus a potential suspension that might have sidelined Rogers for the remainder of the series.

And with the Tigers' hottest pitcher out of action, the Cardinals' hopes of winning their first World Series title since 1982, and the second of La Russa's 28-year managerial career, would have been greatly improved.

Instead, La Russa took a different, more tactful approach. He asked the umpires to tell Rogers to wipe away or wash away the substance -- which Rogers said was dirt, but which almost everyone else (including, apparently, La Russa) believes was pine tar -- and let the game go on. Rogers, whose once-dirty hand appeared to be clean from the second inning on, wound up carrying a shutout through the eighth inning in the Tigers' 3-1 win, giving Rogers 23 consecutive scoreless innings this postseason and squaring the series at a game apiece.

"I don't have any regrets for the way I handled it," La Russa said Monday. "It's not the way we wanted to win."

However, among the many questions that still lingered Monday over the handling of the bizarre controversy involving Rogers on Sunday night -- a list that still includes the central question of whether Rogers cheated -- was this secondary, but important one:

Did La Russa, a meticulous manager known for exploiting every advantage possible, put something -- either his proclaimed sense of sportsmanship, or his close relationship with Tigers Manager Jim Leyland, or perhaps a fear of what Leyland knows about the habits of La Russa's own pitchers from his years as a Cardinals scout -- ahead of his duty to do everything possible to help his team win baseball's ultimate prize?

"It had nothing to do with Leyland," La Russa said flatly when that question was posed to him. "And if someone seriously accused me of that then I would get very upset."

On Monday afternoon, both La Russa and Rogers -- but not Leyland, who said he did not care to "chew yesterday's breakfast" -- rehashed the curious events of Sunday night, a sequence that began when Fox TV cameras detected a dark substance on the palm of Rogers's left hand. After La Russa, prompted by Cardinals players who were watching the telecast in their clubhouse, spoke to the umpires about it, Rogers was asked to get the substance off his hand, which he evidently did.

On Sunday night, Rogers said it had been a "clump of dirt." On Monday, he said it was "dirt, resin, spit." But he said, "I don't put anything on the baseball." And anyway: "I just don't think it would give you any benefit. . . . It's not making my pitches do anything crazy."

Nevertheless, a multimedia attack on Rogers's "dirt" claim gathered strength on Monday, with television reports showing clips of his two previous postseason starts -- one against the New York Yankees, the other against the Oakland Athletics -- that also appeared to show the dark substance on his hand, and a report on questioning why Rogers wears the Tigers' batting practice cap, which has a dark underbill, during games, while the rest of his teammates wear official game caps, with a light underbill. Could it be because he hides pine tar under there?

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