The boy of summer grows up

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.

In those days it was fastball, changeup. Fastball, changeup.
Now, Rogers' breaking ball is suitable for framing as well.
But how does a man get to be this much different? OK, maybe not to people who see him in sound bites or on a TV screen, but I left last year to cover the Phillies, came back, and didn't even recognize the words I heard from this man's mouth as belonging to Kenny Rogers.

He has matured, and he has worked at maturing, both on the mound and at the locker. Some guys are content to live with their immaturity in this game. Like being a fat woman working in Lane Bryant--it's real easy to stay that way. This game is full of children, with no mechanism to compel them to grow up.

It would have been easy for Rogers to stay the way he was. To his credit, he has worked hard to get better, in his heart, his head, and within the game.

Not that Kenny Rogers was ever a bad guy. Though he has had his transgressions, such as last year when he pushed reporter Simon Gonzalez out of the clubhouse. Other than an apology from Rogers, the two have never discussed the incident.

But take the Rangers luncheon last month. The man I heard talking up there was a leader, humbled by his success more than anything.

Rogers told Doug Melvin that he had been in the Rangers organization almost half his life. That includes seven years of struggling in the minors, being more chronically injured than an old Chihuahua, and nearly giving it all up all together several times. And the latter is no exaggeration. He had plenty of failure to make him want to give up, go back to Florida, and put that arm to work in the strawberry fields.

"He told me he wanted to be here," Melvin says. "We got a lot of things out on the table, and that was important. From the other side [Baltimore], it was not that Kenny was a bad guy. I had heard he was not a leader, he was a follower.

"When we sat down and talked, I saw another Kenny Rogers I had not seen before. Now you see him doing things like a Greg Maddux is doing.

"A lot of people thought Kenny Rogers didn't have no hot stuff, but you can't tell what's inside a guy. The first time in spring training, Oates and Bosman saw him and said, 'We gotta find the money and keep this guy.'

"It wasn't so much what we saw from him as what we heard--though we didn't see 39 scoreless innings. When Kevin Brown was here, he was the No. 1 pitcher."

More than anything else, Rogers has willed himself to mature and learn. If he benefited from the departures of Brown and Palmeiro, says Grieve, it might be because he saw what happened to them could happen to him. That is, he could be gone.

"This [the success and recent award], shows to me, if no one else, that I am a capable pitcher," Rogers says.

That would be part of "the game before the game."
After the game, last Thursday, he stands talking happily with two reporters after the rest of the media horde have wandered off. One suggests the key to his success is the electronic chess game sitting between his and Kevin Gross' locker. (Gross even got a book so he could get better).

"Yeah, that's it," Rogers says. "Maybe I had to get smarter to be a better pitcher. That's part of it."

Then he proudly holds up his new shirt, which he says he will put on in exactly an hour and a half. (Kenny's diggin' his new role).

"There's nothing like being..." says the red lettering across an athletic gray front.

Rogers flips the T-shirt for the punchline on the back: "...the winning pitcher yesterday."

Years back, a reporter asked the singer Kenny Rogers if he had heard of the pitcher Kenny Rogers.  

The singer-turned-chicken-chopper hemmed and hawed a little and said that yes, he thought he'd heard of the pitcher guy.

Last summer, Rogers pitched one of just 15 perfect games since 1880, with two of those before the advent of modern baseball. No-hitters can be flukes; perfect games are not. They are majesty.

The next day, the Branson, Missouri, star sent the American League's high rider a congratulatory telegram.

Now everyone--even Kenny Rogers--knows Kenny Rogers.
And no one in Arlington really wants to think much anymore about Kevin Brown.

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