- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 24, 2006

ST. LOUIS — Kenny Rogers stood in front of his locker at Busch Stadium yesterday afternoon for more than 30 minutes, surrounded by reporters who kept asking the same question over and over: Did he have an illegal substance on his pitching hand during the first inning of Game 2 of the World Series on Sunday night?

The real question, though, might have been this: Even if Rogers did have pine tar (or something else) on his palm early in the Detroit Tigers’ 3-1 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals, did it really make a difference?

The answer to that question varied yesterday, depending on who was being asked. What was clear is that Rogers wouldn’t have been the first major league pitcher to try to get an edge by rubbing a little pine tar on the ball.

In fact, it’s kind of an unwritten-yet-accepted practice throughout the sport.

“It is not really a big issue,” Rogers said. “I’m sure most people around baseball who have knowledge [know] it is not a big issue. I’m not really worried about it, you could say.”

That didn’t prevent “Smudge-gate” from dominating conversation at yesterday’s workout. Hardly anyone wanted to talk about this series (which is tied 1-1), the starting pitchers for Game 3 tonight (Detroit’s Nate Robertson and St. Louis’ Chris Carpenter) or the fact that Tigers left fielder Craig Monroe has nine hits, three homers and six RBI in his last five postseason games.

No, the center of attention again was Rogers, the 41-year-old left-hander who extended his postseason scoreless-inning streak to 23 on Sunday with eight more shutout innings against the Cardinals, yet has seen his pitching brilliance overshadowed by charges of cheating.

Television cameras spotted a large, brownish spot toward the base of Rogers’ left thumb during the first inning at Comerica Park. Several people watching in the Cardinals’ clubhouse noticed it and brought it to Tony La Russa’s attention, prompting the manager to ask the umpiring crew to have Rogers clean off his hand.

Rogers did speak with plate umpire Alfonso Marquez following the second inning, but he insists he spotted what he called “a clump of dirt” after the first and cleaned it on his own.

Because the umpiring crew determined the smudge was not pine tar (illegal for a pitcher to use) and that Rogers wasn’t intentionally trying to doctor the ball, he wasn’t subject to an automatic ejection and suspension.

“It was never, never assumed that he did that [intentionally],” Major League Baseball umpires supervisor Steve Palermo said. “There is absolutely no detection that Kenny Rogers put anything on the ball by any of the umpires.”

The story might have ended right there … until photos started surfacing all over the Internet yesterday showing Rogers’ pitching hand in his previous two postseason starts with nearly identical, brown smudges on his palm.

“I rub my own baseballs before I go out to pitch in the bullpens, and it’s not something that is new to me,” Rogers said. “I’m not going to stop doing it. My routine has never changed. Nobody likes to throw a brand-new baseball. I like the dirt on it. I like the mud on it, spit, resin, whatever’s on top of it. I use all that stuff to get the ball to where you can feel it.”

The Cardinals didn’t seem to have an overt problem with that yesterday, with La Russa and players alike refusing to blame Rogers’ potential doctoring for their lack of offense against him.

“Even if you do cork a bat or scuff a ball or use pine tar or Vaseline or gel or spit, you’ve still got to make pitches. You’ve still got to hit the ball,” said St. Louis backup catcher Gary Bennett, the former Washington Nationals player who admitted he has caught pitchers who tried to mess with the ball. “Sometimes if you spit on a ball, it’ll do things. Sometimes it won’t. One out of five might sink a little more. But the bottom line is you still have to go out there and make pitches.”

Which Rogers did well after the mysterious substance was removed from his hand. From the second through the eighth innings, he allowed one hit.

Still, there has been criticism directed at La Russa for not making a formal request to have Rogers inspected during the game. That’s the only way a player can be ejected; umpires cannot do it on their own.

“I’m sure there are fans of ours and maybe teammates or people in the organization that said you should have gone to the mound,” La Russa said. “And I did not. … I don’t have any regrets for the way I handled it [Sunday] night. … I don’t think after the hand-washing or whatever happened, I don’t think we got abused. I think we just got beat.”

La Russa denied suggestions that he didn’t make a big deal out of the situation because of his longstanding friendship with Tigers manager Jim Leyland. Rather, there were whispers around the ballpark yesterday that La Russa didn’t have Rogers inspected for fear that Leyland might turn around and have umpires “undress” St. Louis’ pitchers.

Leyland wouldn’t address the subject at all, saying: “I’m not going to chew yesterday’s breakfast.”

But one of Leyland’s own players, closer Todd Jones, didn’t hesitate to admit to reporters that he used pine tar in the past on baseballs. Jones said he did it in 2002 and 2003 while pitching for the Rockies because the thin, dry air in Colorado made it difficult to grip the ball.

“This is not brand-new, guys,” Jones said. “Seriously, hitters use it. Catchers use it on their shin guards. Infielders have it on their gloves. It’s an accepted thing. There’s a difference between pine tar and Vaseline. Pine tar is helping you grip a ball.”

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