By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Finally, it was over.
After seven months of pain and six hours of mediation, they reached an agreement. Documents signed. Sighs exhaled. Farewells exchanged.
As the former Texas Rangers pitcher, the KDFW-Channel 4 cameraman he assaulted last June and a mediator exited a Dallas office last month, the 6-foot-1 Rogers reached over the 5-foot-7 Rodriguez and closed the door in front of him.
"I had no idea where things were headed at that point," Rodriguez recalls over lunch at Primo's. "But I was ready for anything. He wasn't going to sucker-punch me again."
Face-to-face for the first time since the infamous attack that slapped Rogers with a 13-game suspension and stuck Rodriguez with a 9-inch needle down his spine, it was the pitcher who again started the shit. But instead of an unprovoked shove, this time Rogers stuck out his hand and gripped Rodriguez's in a firm shake. And held it.
For 10 minutes.
All the while delivering an eye-to-eye, heartfelt on-the-verge-of-going-Dick-Vermeil apology that Rodriguez and baseball's plummeting image desperately needed in public last summer instead of behind closed doors this spring training.
"He told me he was truly sorry," says the 45-year-old Rodriguez, with his wife, Angelita, by his side. "We talked for about 20 minutes, just us. It was weird how he just held onto my hand, but I think for the first time he was really sorry."
Rogers then walked down the hall and subjected himself to Angelita's venom. He listened, he nodded, he apologized again and, in the end, he hugged both husband and wife.
Says Angelita, "It meant something because it wasn't scripted."
And with that, Rogers walked out the door and began focusing on a $16 million contract with the Detroit Tigers. Rodriguez walked out the same door knowing the confidential settlement--a ballpark guess is $100,000--was enough to pay off medical bills but not erase the incident from his past, present or future.
Though Larry and Angelita now have realistic dreams of retiring to New Mexico in five years, let's not confuse L-Rod with A-Rod.
"I'm still a working-class guy who has to have a job," Rodriguez says. "But we didn't do so bad for David going up against Goliath."
Despite the doubts of John Q. Cynical, there are permanent scars--physical and psychological. "People are going to think what they're going to think," Rodriguez says. "But they weren't there when I was strapped upside down on a machine and told, 'There's a chance of paralysis.'"
After Rogers violently wrenched Rodriguez's back while shoving the photographer's 45-pound camera to the ground on that surreal June 29 afternoon, Rodriguez became ill. In Fox's studio suite at Ameriquest Field, his neck stiffened, his head ached and his stomach...
"I blew chunks," Rodriguez says. "I was strapped to this backboard, and the paramedics just tilted me to the side, and I let fly." While Rogers turned mute and the Rangers turned the spin cycle on high, Rodriguez spent two and a half hours at the hospital.
"I'll never forget how he was shaking like crazy," Angelita says. "He didn't stop until they slammed the morphine into his leg."
Three days later Rodriguez was worse. What initially felt like a pebble in his right shoe grew to a knife. During one procedure, Rodriguez suffered an allergic reaction to dye shot into his spine. In a workman's compensation examination, doctors discovered two inguinal hernias. To alleviate chronic pain, fusion surgery was recommended. Rodriguez chose Plan B, which included intense physical therapy, enough drugs to make Ricky Williams cringe and three epidural shots.
"The needle is thatlong," Angelita says, holding her hands nine inches apart. "They stuck it in the base of his neck, and when they were finished you could barely see any needle. It was horrible."
Forced to return to work prematurely in October when insurance benefits didn't cover the bills, Rodriguez got a shot of reality. In the Texas Stadium tunnel before the Cowboys-Giants game, receiver Keyshawn Johnson walked past and gave Rodriguez's camera lens a playful love tap. The resulting pain knocked him to the ground, as if touched by Benny Hinn.
"I had to tell Keyshawn to knock it off," Rodriguez says. "I know he didn't mean it, but it almost killed me."
These days Rodriguez, who returned to Channel 4 full time on February 1, spends 45 minutes stretching each morning, takes anti-inflammatory pills and daily meds to fend off migraines. An active dad who loved playing basketball with sons Adam, 21, and Gabriel, 15, has deteriorated from hyper to napper.
"No more jumping up and down," Rodriguez says. "Just the thought of it gives me a headache."
Says Angelita, "He just moves slower. Now I find myself telling the boys, 'Be careful with your father.'"
His psyche is equally fragile.
During his ordeal, Rodriguez got a lot of support--from his Mansfield neighborhood's kids' cookies to Troy Aikman joking that he thought Rodriguez "would be in the Caribbean by now." Stars coach Dave Tippett playfully handed him a helmet and stick "to defend yourself." A deaf basketball player from Dallas' W.W. Samuell High School recognized and supported Rodriguez via sign language. Even the Irving Convention and Visitors Bureau sent a cooler of steaks to put on his "black eye."
But for whatever reason, there are assholes that still side with Rogers. Like the one at The Sports Authority who ran up behind Rodriguez pretending to deliver a shove before being stopped by an off-duty police officer. Like the belligerent one who followed Larry and Angelita from a Stars game all the way to their car yelling, "You're the guy Kenny Rogers beat up!" And the group at Mansfield High School who, at a recent basketball game, spotted Rodriguez and began chanting "Ken-ny! Ken-ny!"
"The whole thing," says Rodriguez, "has changed me forever."
More than the jerks or even Rogers, Rodriguez remains most miffed at the Rangers. Six days after the incident, owner Tom Hicks called to apologize. But since July 4, not a peep from the organization whose lax security and lethargic reaction to Rogers' 90-second tirade left Rodriguez with permanent wounds and the franchise with a stained reputation.
"It's very disappointing," says Rodriguez, who will likely be working at Ameriquest Field when Rogers returns to Arlington during the Rangers-Tigers series beginning April 6. "If my son was responsible for hurting another kid, my involvement and concern would consist of more than one phone call."
Through it all, not once did Rodriguez dream of starring in a South Parkepisode and screaming the recurring obituary, "Holy freaking crap, they killed Kenny!" OK, maybe once, but...
"I forgive him, I really do," Rodriguez says of the anti-Mr. Rogers, who still has misdemeanor assault charges pending in Arlington. "I actually wished he was still a Ranger, because we need a good left-handed pitcher."
Forgiveness 1, Forgetting 0.