Seasoned Rogers still going strong

Seasoned Rogers still going strong

LAKELAND, Fla. -- Kenny Rogers doesn't need reminders about how long he's been around. The reminders are all around him anyway.

To begin the first formal workout of his 26th Spring Training camp, the 43-year-old Rogers was in the same fielding group with 19-year-old Rick Porcello, taking ground balls at the same spot in the infield for pitchers' fielding practice. Supposedly it was sheer coincidence, not somebody's old-man joke. While steroids dominated the headlines earlier this week, all Rogers got was his daily dose of over-the-counter medicine for his aching joints.

But the biggest reminder comes after camp is done for the day. Asked what his least favorite part of Spring Training is after all these years, he doesn't hesitate.

"About 30 minutes after the workout, when everything stiffens up," Rogers said. "There's not a part on your body that's not wishing it could've stayed in bed."

It wasn't that many years ago that Rogers fit the image of Spring Training, working out hard in the morning before hitting the golf course or the lake in the afternoon. Now, all he can do most days is hit the couch.

"Once I get down on that couch in the afternoon, it's hard to get up," he said. "I don't sit up or stand up. I roll off of it and then I push myself up off the ground. I found that was the easier way to do it.

"I still play golf with these guys once in a while, but a lot of times I go home and take a nap. That's a fact. I need that nap."

If Spring Training drains him, the regular season boosts him back up. There's a reason he brings himself back out here every February, and it's not the idea of punishment. He can still pitch, and he loves to pitch.

On a Tigers staff where youth generates excitement, from soon-to-be 25-year-old Justin Verlander to already 25-year-old Jeremy Bonderman to 26-year-old Dontrelle Willis, Rogers is the unquestioned leader. He's a source of wisdom and advice for many of his younger teammates, and he's a standard-setter for the rest of the team when it comes to the details.

"Kenny's like me," said Ivan Rodriguez, Rogers' catcher for 10 years. "He loves the game. He loves to compete. And when you have that, you want to play the game. The older he gets, the smarter he gets."

Nowhere is that arguably more evident than in Spring Training, where Rogers' PFP sessions have been a spectator sport. He dives to his left or his right for ground balls, and his reflexes on balls hit right at him defy his age.

He says it's his favorite part of Spring Training. Seriously.

"I love PFP still," he said. "Why? I don't know."

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In a word, he's fearless.

"A lot of pitchers, truthfully, are afraid of the ball," manager Jim Leyland admitted.

Leyland doesn't want to single out his veteran lefty too much at the expense of others. Still, he compliments Rogers for doing what he knows he has to do in order to keep an edge.

"Kenny knows exactly how he goes about his business," Leyland said. "He knows how to prepare himself."

That doesn't mean he attacks every drill in camp like PFP. Rogers has learned over the years what he needs to do to prepare, and he has adjusted. He doesn't fire away at full strength in bullpen sessions because it's not productive for him, too much wear and tear for not enough gain.

"I figure [26] of these, I'm afforded the luxury of going a little slower," Rogers said.

To him, that's not an age thing. That's something everyone can do. He can't work out as hard as his younger teammates, and he can't hit the weights anymore like they do. But he can work smarter.

"It's the same thing for the young guys," Rogers said. "I tell all of them, 'You don't have to win a job.' They've already shown what they're capable of doing. They need to go slower and build that base that they're going to have to work off of during the season."

His base is far more than most 40-somethings are building at this stage in their lives. It seems crazy for someone like Rogers, but he keeps coming back to it. He gets the itch every November to start working out and get ready for the next season. He tells himself to give it a go for one more year, and then he'll be done.

"I think that every year for the last 10 years," Rogers said.

He wasn't even thinking that far ahead when last season ended. Though Rogers told those who asked that he wanted time to decide whether he wanted to pitch again, he was privately leaning against it. The way last season ended, he took as a sign. A year after Rogers tied for the team lead with 17 wins and started for the American League in the All-Star Game, shoulder surgery to repair two arteries in his shoulder and late-season elbow trouble limited him to 11 starts. His 63 innings marked the lowest total of his 19-year big league career.

"I really thought I was going to stay home," Rogers said Sunday. "The last couple starts, I knew -- or I felt like I knew -- they were very probably going to be the last. But I got home, had a really good offseason with my wife and family, things went really good and it just worked out that they didn't mind. I think she knew that I was getting the itch."

What helped was an MRI exam soon after season's end that showed no structural damage in Rogers' sore left elbow. Once he was reassured that he could pitch, it came down to the question of whether he wanted to do it all again -- the sore days, the naps on the couch, the time away from home, the travel, the highs of victories and lows of defeats. Average out his time in Spring Training to just over six weeks a year, and he has spent the equivalent of three years of his life in camp.

One more time. Then he can ask himself the same thing next year.

"Every year I think that way," Rogers said, "and I've told my wife so, and so she doesn't listen to me anymore when I tell her. Every time I do, I'm back the next season, so I'm just taking whatever I get."

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