The boy of summer grows up

A sorely tested Kenny Rogers matures into a pitching ace

It's like watching someone die or seeing Newt Gingrich having sex on a kitchen counter.

I have an image that just won't leave my head, though this particular memory is hardly in the above category.

Years back, Kenny Rogers and then-pitching coach Tom House sat on a secluded bench under an outfield eave at Arlington Stadium. House, the amateur psychologist, was always counseling somebody. And Rogers usually needed it--on the field, anyway.

"Now Kenny," said the coach like the young uncle who has been asked to talk some sense into his teenage nephew, "there is the game before the game [long pause], the game during the game [longer pause], and the game after the game."

Rogers, who struggled so much, looked down at his fingers and counted off each phrase, as he slowly repeated the mantra, as if it were a cheat sheet for a multiple-choice biology test.

Back then, everything was a test for Kenny Rogers. I walked away, half grinning at the sight, but knowing that whatever brain cells were taking notes inside that pitcher's head, they had better do it in shorthand.

Kenny Rogers had a lot to learn to control--the pressure he put on himself, the fear of failure, the occasional flash of temper--before he'd ever control the American League.

Now, Rogers owns his head. Hell, he owns the American League. Last Thursday night, his streak of consecutive shutout innings ended at 39 1/3. Of course there was the perfect game last year. He has been named AL pitcher of the month for May.

With Kevin Brown gone, Rogers is the ace of the Rangers' pitching staff, and unlike Brown, Rogers is acting like one.

When his scoreless streak ended Thursday, the crowd stood and roared for almost a minute.

"I didn't know what to do," says Rogers. "To acknowledge it would have seemed disrespectful to the other team, but finally, I felt like I needed to."

And he--or at least the man rumored to be Kenny Rogers--tipped his cap.
No one, not even Kenny Rogers, knows for sure why he has changed so much--in both attitude and statitude. It's all speculation--from a better breaking ball to better company in the clubhouse.

The latter is a particularly popular theory, though not one Rogers himself espouses.

Rogers was part of the little pack on the far side of the Rangers clubhouse. He was flanked by Rafael Palmeiro and Kevin Brown and seen as a follower.

A friend of Brown's, he was forever lending an ear for Brown's bitching.
"I think it would do a disservice to Kenny to say just because Kevin Brown is gone, he is a better pitcher," says former Rangers general manager Tom Grieve. "Maybe it could be just one small factor, but not the reason. A lot of it just has to do with maturing and experience."

General manager Doug Melvin doesn't detail his thoughts about Rogers prior to Melvin's joining the organization. Though it is clear that reports from "the other side" (when Melvin was in Baltimore) were not overly positive.

"Without naming names from the past," says Melvin," I think he is surrounded by the right people now."

Kenny Rogers has learned how to behave. And he has learned how to pitch. Linking these changes to previous members of this team is more than fair, argues more than one Rangers official.

"Kevin wanted the money and wanted to be the ace, but he couldn't stand the pressure and didn't pitch like the ace," says a Rangers insider. "Kenny enjoys this role. He longs for this role and is adjusting to it well."

Rogers never pitched until he was paid to in the minors. He didn't even play ball until his senior year in high school, and that was in the outfield. He batted .375 and defense was his forte. In the June free-agent draft of '82, the Rangers finally drafted the kid because he had a strong arm.

In 1992, the Rangers were sending him out in relief so much that anyone else in the American League would have been wasted. Hell, anything outside of an octopus would have run out of arm. But Rogers just kept going back, setting longevity records with a chain of inning after inning pitched in relief.

In the middle of that, I asked Rogers what he thought of a variation on the every-guy-has-a-finite-number-of-pitches theory: Rogers was such a horse because he had been picking strawberries on his folks' farm in Florida instead of ruining his arm with the rest of the teenagers.

"You know," Rogers said that night, "I never thought about it, but that might have a lot to do with it."

But what could have to do with Rogers becoming one of the best pitchers in baseball?

Kenny says the change in him--and believe me, he is different--is due a lot to just being happy, in his work, his city, his personal life.

"And I've learned how to pitch," he says. "As a reliever, I was just going out there throwing out everything trying to get guys out.

"I am finally learning to pitch instead of just throwing."
Just throwing 'em up. No one then thought Kenny had the wherewithal to start a ball game, to pitch long innings. The stuff just wouldn't hold out.

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