Rogers a diamond in the rough

Rogers a diamond in the rough

DETROIT -- Every once in a while, when a pitcher comes to Kenny Rogers for a tip or advice, he has to smile inside.

He's a 41-year-old pitcher with almost a quarter century in professional baseball. He was an 18-game winner the year he turned 40, and he was the American League's first 10-game winner this year. He's a full-fledged member of the group of ageless, crafty pitchers that includes Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and Jamie Moyer.

He's the kind of pitcher most any young hurler would love to tap for advice. Yet in his mind, he's the last person who could've been in this spot. His smile inside traces back to his first day in instructional ball, a kid trying to be a pitcher.

"I think back to that day," he said. "There wasn't one soul that would ask me a question about pitching. No chance."

If not for a pair of former coaches, one of whom is now a Tigers scout, he probably wouldn't be pitching now. As Dick Egan put it, "This is one of those stories you make a movie about."

Like most kids, Rogers played during the summer, but when spring came around, he was working on the family berry farm. Once he reached his senior year in high school, he wanted to play, and his father gave his blessing. His brothers would help in the fields.

He was a starter for Plant City High School, but he didn't make a single pitch. Instead, he was an everyday position player. He was playing right field on the day he was discovered. Plant City had a game against Tampa's Robinson High School, which had a highly-touted hitter named Stanley Boderick.

"I'll never forget his name," Rogers said, "because he's the reason I'm here."

By Rogers' estimate, at least 15 scouts came to see Boderick. The reason one actually took his eyes off of him, Rogers believes, was that Rogers' coach introduced him.

"My glove broke when I met the scout that day, he was watching Boderick," Rogers said. "My glove happened to break, so I had to get it fixed by the coach, and my coach was talking to the scout. That was when I met him and said hi."

The closest Rogers came to making a pitch that day, he said, were two throws from right field, one of them nabbing a runner. Soon after, the scout located his phone number and called to ask to see him pitch.

Boderick went in the first round with the 27th overall pick to the Cubs in the amateur draft that June. He never played in the Majors. Rogers went in the 39th round to the Rangers.

Getting noticed should've been the toughest part. For Rogers, leaving the farm and entering the farm system was the start of another challenge, and it hit him in the Gulf Coast League that summer.

Rogers threw hard. He didn't know the techniques of pitching, and he was still 17 years old. Once he arrived in camp, he was grouped with pitchers, several of them college arms, and coaches wanted to see them pitch. So they lined them up and had them throw.

"These guys are throwing breaking balls, changeups, curveballs, sliders -- I didn't know what a slider was," Rogers said. "I didn't have a pitch. I just grabbed a ball, I didn't even care how I grabbed it, and I threw it. I didn't know where it was going to go, didn't have an idea where I wanted to throw it. I didn't know anything else but grab it and throw it."

Rogers pitched three innings that summer, then repeated the same level the next year. That's around the time he met Egan, then a coach in the Minors, and eventual Rangers pitching coach Tom House.

By then, Egan saw a kid with pitches, but no idea how to use them. He couldn't hold his own in pitching drills, but as Egan put it, he could run like a gazelle.

"Everything was a new day for him," Egan said. "It was kind of fun, because when you're an instructor it's fun to watch progress. He's by far the best athlete I ever coached.

"From where I was sitting, it was easy to see how good he was, but he really didn't figure out how good he was for a while. He has an intellect, as far as pitching right now, but at that time he was nothing but an athlete who survived with athleticism and determination. It was never easy for him, until he got to be older."

Part of the learning process was physical. Rogers was still raw enough as a pitcher that he had few bad habits to break. Still, his lessons included pitching out of the stretch and warming up in the bullpen.

The rest was mental.

"I can't overstate the importance they [Egan and House] had on my career," Rogers said. "[I] can't do it. But mainly for the confidence and the faith they put in me early on. I mean, they even saw talent when I didn't really see it or know what I was going to be capable of doing."

Once Rogers understood it, he was going to work tirelessly on it. Rogers' athleticism impressed them, but his enthusiasm won them over.

"Kenny didn't know how to pitch," Egan said. "But because he had the changeup and the curveball and because he was left-handed and the great athlete, he was just really fun. You could see it happening. It just took a long time."

It took seven seasons, including three stops at Double-A Tulsa. Once he made the Rangers in 1989, though, he never went back. It helped that Egan and House were there, too.

The trust Rogers formed with them remains long after Texas. Though Rogers had a knack for learning from nearly everyone he met, nobody has been able to duplicate what he has learned from Egan and House, who have always been a phone call away.

"He and I have been doing this long distance for years," Egan said. "Not that other pitching coaches haven't helped him, but we have this relationship where it seems like he understands even over the phone what I'm talking about, where some other guys, even in person, can't get through to him. He just seems to understand.

"When Kenny calls or when somebody else calls, it makes me feel like I'm in uniform again."

It was Egan who helped get Rogers into a Tigers uniform last winter when he became a free agent. He knew Comerica Park was one of Rogers' favorite places, and he'd been trying to convince the Tigers to pursue him. With the club looking for a veteran pitcher who could win, the decision was really up to Rogers.

"It really was easy to convince him to come over," Egan said. "I really believed it would be a good fit."

He couldn't have imagined it would go as well as it has so far, of course. But given where Rogers stood nearly a quarter century ago, in right field, Rogers is long since beyond anything he could've dreamed.

"Unbelievable," he says with a smile. "I wasn't the one controlling all those things. No matter how much I tried to screw it up, it still worked out."

Jason Beck is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.