The Askew Slant

Wade Askew

By Wade AskewThe Daily Northwestern

Turns out Kenny Rogers is a Detroit Tigers fan – the singer that is. Kenny Rogers the pitcher has always been linked to the country music star by name and even received his nickname, The Gambler, from the singer’s hit single.

However, the similarities between Kenny Rogers the singer and Kenny Rogers the baseball player stop there. The singer was known as “Hippie Kenny,” something the athlete will never be called due to his temperamental nature. The singer also enjoyed something foreign to the player: popularity.

What a long, strange road it has been for baseball’s Kenny Rogers. The abrasive southpaw has seen his fair share of ups and downs in an eventful 18-year career. First, he was drafted as a pitcher out of high school despite only playing one year of high school ball – plus the minor detail that he played right field, not pitcher.

After spending seven years in the minors, Rogers saw his first action as a reliever for the Texas Rangers in 1989. He remained in the bullpen for four years before becoming a full-time starter at the age of 28. In 1994, a typically mediocre year marked by an 11-8 record and 4.46 ERA, Rogers threw a perfect game, indirectly resulting in his appearance with Kenny Rogers the singer in Texas later that year.

Rogers made his first All-Star appearance in 1995, but did not return to the mid-summer classic until 2004, when he was an ancient 39 years old. He has inexplicably entered the prime of his career in the years that most other pitchers retire, starting in the All-Star game for the first time this year at age 41. The resurgence may be due in part to the rib Rogers had removed in 2001 to improve circulation and consequently the velocity of his pitches, typically topping out at a blistering 90 mph.

Despite his recent renaissance, Rogers has maintained the reputation of a first-half player who inevitably falls apart over the second half of the season; he lived up to billing while going winless in his first six starts after the All-Star break. However, Rogers closed out the season uncharacteristically well with a 6-2 record, leaving him 17-8 on the year.

As odd as his career path has been, Rogers’s most malicious yet entertaining story took place last year. Always known to be a hot-head, Rogers attacked a cameraman during a pre-game warmup for, well, being a cameraman.

Controversy surrounds Rogers yet again after his remarkable win in Game Two of the World Series was put into question by a mysterious brown smudge on his throwing hand. Rogers claims the smudge was simply a combination of dirt, resin and spit, all legal substances, but speculation has run rampant that Rogers used a prohibited substance to artificially affect the baseball’s movement. The brown smudge can also be seen on tape during Rogers’ previous postseason starts against the Oakland Athletics and New York Yankees.

St. Louis manager Tony La Russa said simply, “I don’t believe it was dirt. Didn’t look like dirt.” Still, La Russa decided to ask the umpire to require Rogers to wash the substance off his hand instead of demanding an inspection. Of course, the umpire obliged and the smudge was gone after the first inning, and Rogers went on to throw seven more scoreless innings.

Why the issue exploded and remains to loom over the Series is beyond me due to the fact that even if the substance on Rogers’ hand was illegal, he still pitched seven of eight innings to near perfection without it; in fact, of the two hits and three walks Rogers gave up all game, one hit and one walk came during the inning in question.

What is more unbelievable than the “smudgegate” scandal is the fact that Kenny Rogers is on the brink of breaking the record for consecutive scoreless innings thrown in a postseason, currently held at 26 by Christy Matthewson, a member of the first Hall of Fame class in 1936 (Rogers is currently at 23 innings). This is the same journeyman who went 5-7 with a 6.19 ERA in 2001, has played for six different teams in his career and assaulted a cameraman. While his career has been solid overall, nobody in their right mind would have expected this out of a man who, in his three previous playoff appearances, went a combined 0-3 with an 8.85 ERA.

Such is the nature of Rogers’ career. Rocky one day, steady the next. Unimpressive at times, spectacular at others. A nice mixture of reservation and violence. But for this one postseason at least, Rogers has become a wise veteran much like the one described in his singing counterpart’s work that gave the pitcher his nickname. The song’s Gambler says, “If you’re gonna play the game, boy, ya gotta learn to play it right.”

Just how “right” baseball’s Gambler plays the game is for you to decide.