T.R.’s Memoirs: Kenny Rogers is in the Texas Rangers Hall of Fame. His career was a long, at times messy, drama (Part I)
(The Associated Press/Jim Bryant)
Editor’s note: T.R. Sullivan covered the Texas Rangers over 32 years for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and MLB.com and is sharing his “memoirs” with this newsletter. This is the first of two parts on former Rangers pitcher Kenny Rogers and the events that led up to his assaulting two television cameramen in 2005.
I was in manager Buck Showalter’s office about 3 ½ hours before the Rangers’ June 28, 2005, game against the Angels. We were having a casual conversation when pitcher Kenny Rogers appeared in the door.
He looked at me with a look of pure hate on his face. If looks truly could kill, I would have been carried out in a body bag. No doubt, that would have been enough to put a big smile on Rogers’ face.
“You need to see me, Kenny?” Showalter asked.
Rogers looked at the manager and pointed at me.
“Not while this motherfucker is standing there,” Rogers said.
He disappeared and headed down the hall toward the Rangers’ clubhouse. He was screaming at me as he went.
“T.R., you ever come near me, I’ll kill you!” Rogers yelled.
Then we heard a loud crash of glass from the hallway.
Turns out Rogers had taken out his boiling anger on an oversized glass frame of a Nolan Ryan photo hanging in the hallway.
One day later, Rogers assaulted two television cameramen standing in front of the Rangers’ dugout, a move that earned him a 20-game suspension and $50,000 fine from commissioner Bud Selig. It was later reduced to 13 games by an independent arbitrator.
Rogers was also charged with a Class A assault misdemeanor, which was later reduced to a Class C misdemeanor after he completed an anger management class.
Rogers blames the entire incident on me. He despises me and has never spoken to me again.
Me? I heeded his advice and have never gone near him again.
The loveable good ol’ boy
Prior to all of this, Rogers and I enjoyed an excellent relationship for 16 years. He was easily one of the most accommodating players to the media in the Rangers’ clubhouse.
During one press conference, when Rogers had re-signed with the Rangers as a free agent, he was extolling the virtues of pitching in Texas again when he said – totally unprompted – “T.R. knows more about my career than anybody.”
You see, everybody liked Kenny Rogers. Everybody … teammates, coaches, fans, media.
He was Gomer Pyle right out of Green Acres, a big country boy from a strawberry farm in central Florida with a big smile, a deep Southern accent and an “aw shucks” personality. He could do the country boy act as good as anybody, although it was no act.
Rogers was as country as they come but hardly a bumpkin. Beneath the act, Rogers was quite shrewd and quite intelligent with wisdom accumulated over what turned out to be a remarkable 20-year career.
Really, the only time Rogers was truly unhappy was when it came to money and his contracts. According to Baseball-Reference.com, Rogers earned $82.7 million in base salary over the course of his career, not counting endorsements, performance bonuses or other auxiliary income. Yet, it seemed like he was fighting for every cent, every step of the way.
Of his 20 seasons in the majors, Rogers spent 12 with the Rangers spread out over three different tours. It seemed like after each tour ended, Rogers would never even entertain the possibility of returning to the Rangers.
But he kept coming back, and even in the end there was some talk about rejoining the Rangers for a fourth time. It didn’t happen, but he was inducted into the Rangers Hall of Fame in 2011 and invited back to multiple events including the final game at the Ballpark in Arlington.
Who could possibly stay mad at the country boy from the Florida strawberry farm?
Rogers was drafted by the Rangers in the 37th round of the 2002 draft out of Plant City (Fla.) High. It’s a story that has gone down in major-league scouting history.
Rangers scout Joe Marchese went to see another player at Plant City. Rogers was an outfielder and didn’t even pitch in high school. But he caught Marchese’s attention.
As the story goes, Rogers had a uniform issue and went running to his coach to get it fixed. Marchese was amused by the scene and started paying attention to the poor kid. That’s when he noticed that poor kid had a powerful throwing arm. Marchese tried him out as a pitcher and convinced the Rangers to draft him.
When Rogers showed up to play professional baseball, he was clueless. He had no idea how to field his position or work from a stretch. Rogers had to be taught the basics.
That the guy won five Gold Glove Awards in his career and ended up with one of the best pickoff moves in the game further demonstrates … Kenny Rogers was no country bumpkin.
Rogers did have to spend seven years in the minors learning his craft and overcoming elbow injuries. But the Rangers still loved the arm and loved the “stuff.” He was a surprise addition to the 1989 spring-training roster and made the team as a reliever.
Manager Bobby Valentine used him wisely out of the bullpen, and Rogers had a nice rookie season, posting a 2.93 ERA. Kevin Brown also had a nice rookie season, going 12-9 with a 3.35 ERA in 28 starts.
The root of all evil
During the offseason, the Rangers could not reach an agreement with either Rogers or his close buddy Brown on a contract for 1990. Both were represented by Scott Boras, who was only getting started as an agent and had not yet morphed into the most powerful agent in the game.
Brown and Rogers had their contracts renewed automatically by the club. That was the Rangers’ right with players who had less than three years of service time and were not eligible for arbitration. Brown was more vocally upset about it than Rogers, who kept his discontent to himself.
That wasn’t the case the following year. Once again Brown and Rogers were unable to reach an agreement with the club and had their contracts automatically renewed early in spring training.
Rogers and Brown responded by staging a one-day walkout from camp to protest what they perceived as unfair treatment by the Rangers.
“This was the only course we had,” Rogers said. “We just can’t let them do what they did and think it’s right.”
Rogers salary was set at $287,500. Giants reliever Jeff Brantley, who similar numbers and service time as Rogers, agreed to a $425,000 contract.
“I didn’t expect to get paid as much as Brantley because I know the Giants pay their players well,” Rogers said. “But how much money do I have to give up to play for the Rangers?”
Rogers was eligible for arbitration in each of the next three offseasons. In 1992 and 1993, he went to a hearing and lost both times. Rogers and Boras avoided a third hearing in February 1994 by agreeing to a one-year contract at the last minute.
Rogers did so coming off a breakthrough season that changed his career. After a couple of failed attempts in 1990-91 and another full season as a reliever in 1992, Rogers emerged as a front-line starter in 1993, winning 15 games over 31 starts.
He was also expected to be a free agent after the 1994 season and was looking for a four-year deal. The Rangers offered three, and the two sides were at an impasse.
Then the players went out on strike in August and didn’t come back. The season was canceled and so was the World Series for the first time in history. Rogers was still confident he would be a free agent once the strike was settled.
He kept pointing out that every work stoppage settlement always included the players getting service time lost during the dispute. That didn’t happen when the strike was finally settled in April 1995.
Rogers was still 50 days short of the minimum six years of service time needed to become a free agent. Instead, he was arbitration-eligible for a fourth time.
But the danger wasn’t in going to another hearing. The danger was the Rangers non-tendering him and making him a free agent.
The Rangers had already decided not to sign Brown as a free agent, letting him walk away without even a token offer. Instead, the Rangers traded for right-hander John Burkett from the Giants, thinking he and Rogers would be their top two starters.
But, once the strike was settled, the Rangers decided they couldn’t afford both Rogers and Burkett. Rogers was quicker on the draw and agreed to a one-year deal worth $3.7 million. He would be a free agent at the end of the season but was still the sentimental favorite in Arlington.
Rogers had won 11 games in the strike-shortened 1994 season and had thrown a perfect game against the Angels.
“I would still like to know that I’m staying in Texas until the end of my career, but we may take care of that later,” Rogers said. “I’ve been a Ranger almost half my life. When reality set in, and when I realized I might not put on a uniform as a Ranger, I wanted to get something done.”
The Rangers non-tendered Burkett, making him a free agent. He ended up signing with the Marlins, but his agent, Tommy Tanzer, was still furious with the Rangers. When I reached him by phone, he went off on a tirade that may have set a major-league record for most f-bombs in one interview.
“I’ll never send them another player, ever,” Tanzer said between f-bombs. “That organization has no class. They are as low as it gets.”
That was in April 1995. In October 1996, the Rangers reached postseason for the first time in club history and faced the Yankees in the Division Series.
Burkett was pitching for the Rangers. Rogers was pitching for the Yankees.
New York, New York
You see, Rogers had another excellent season for the Rangers, winning 17 games with a 3.38 ERA. He was also selected to the American League All-Star team and pitched an inning during the National League’s 3-1 win at the Ballpark in Arlington.
When it was over, Rogers and Boras went looking for a five-year deal. The Rangers didn’t think he could get five years and instead offered four years at $17.7 million. Rogers turned it down and, just before New Year’s Day, agreed to a four-year, $19.95 million with the Yankees. The deal also included an option for the coveted fifth year.
Rogers took a shot at the Rangers during his introductory comments to the New York media.
“I wanted to play for a winner, a team that took steps to be a winner,” Rogers said. “I didn’t feel I could get to postseason with the Rangers.”
New York was not a good fit for Rogers. After signing a big contract, Rogers showed up to spring training having to win a spot in a rotation against competition from David Cone, Andy Pettitte, Jimmy Key, Dwight Gooden, Ramiro Mendoza and others.
Then, he got hit in the left shoulder while pitching batting practice early in spring training and tried to tough it out rather than admitting he was hurt. The Yankees almost sent him to the bullpen, but had to keep him in the rotation because other pitchers were having more serious issues. Rogers went 12-8 but with a 4.68 ERA in 30 starts.
He ended up being the Yankees’ fourth starter in postseason, but got bombed in three straight starts. Somehow the Yankees won all three, including in the Division Series against the Rangers at the Ballpark in Arlington.
Yankees manager Joe Torre knew Rogers was in trouble even before he took the mound that day. In his book, Chasing the Dream, with writer Tom Verducci, Torre related a conversation with pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre after Rogers was done warming up.
“The fans were killing him out there,” Stottlemyre said. “They were taunting him and screaming at obscenities at him.”
“What did Kenny do,” Torre asked.
“He motioned to one of the fans and said, ‘That’s my neighbor up there.” Stottlemyre said.
Said Torre in his book, “I didn’t like the sound of that. Kenny was trying to make light of the situation instead of being mentally tough and blocking it out.”
Rogers was bad in 1997, going 6-7 with a 5.65 ERA in 22 starts and nine relief appearances. The Yankees tried to trade him to the Padres during the season for outfielder Greg Vaughn, but the deal fell through when Vaughn flunked the physical. The Yankees reached postseason, and Rogers was left off the roster.
That winter, Rogers was traded to Oakland for third baseman Scott Brosius. The Yankees made the trade happen by agreeing to pay $5 million of Rogers’ salary over the final two years of the contract.
Rogers wanted to prove he could pitch in New York, but getting left off the postseason roster was a bad sign.
“That showed his time was up,” Yankees general manager Bob Watson said.
Rogers was 16-8 for the Athletics in 1998 with a 3.17 ERA and a 1.18 WHIP that were the lowest of his career as a starter. The Athletics were 74-88 as a team, but jumped to 87-75 in 1999 as general manager Billy Beane started putting together the championship teams that would be made famous by Moneyball.
Rogers wanted no part of it. He was in the last year of his contract and openly said he wanted to be back on the East Coast close to his family. Beane fumed and finally had enough. Rogers was traded to the Mets on July 23 reuniting him with former Rangers manager Bobby Valentine.
Once again, it was a messy parting.
“This club has played its butt off,” Beane was quoted in the San Francisco Examiner. “We felt we had 24 guys going in one direction and at no point did we feel Kenny was a part of that.”
Said Rogers, “They knew exactly what I wanted, and if he wants to blame me, that’s fine. I was never disengaged from what went on with the team.”
With Valentine as the manager, the Mets were in a tight pennant race with the Braves in the NL East. Rogers made 12 starts, and the Mets won 10 of them. The Braves won the division, but the Mets won the wild card by beating the Reds in a one-game playoff.
Rogers did not pitch well in postseason, losing both of his starts, first to the D-backs in the Division Series and the Braves in the NL Championship Series. But Mets fans will remember most Rogers walking in the winning run in the 11th inning of the deciding Game 6.
The Mets made little effort to re-sign Rogers, and he left as a free agent.
And went back to Texas.
You can go home again
The Rangers had won two division titles in 1998-99 and Aaron Sele was a big part of that, winning a combined 37 games over those two seasons. But when it appeared the Rangers would not be able to re-sign him, general manager Doug Melvin signed Rogers for three years and $22.5 million. Close friend Rafael Palmeiro played a big part in that by lobbying owner Tom Hicks to get Rogers.
“Raffy told me a year ago we needed to keep an eye out for Kenny Rogers,” Hicks said.
“Everybody knows what my priorities were, that my family came first,” Rogers said.
The Rangers finished last all three seasons, although Rogers was hardly at fault. His 2001 season was cut short by shoulder surgery but for the most part pitched like he always had as a starter, winning 13 games in both 2000 and 2002.
When the contract expired, the Rangers let Rogers walk again. They offered a two-year, $10 million extension, and Rogers turned it down. He had made $7.5 million in 2002 and wanted a three-year deal.
“It wasn’t enough,” Rogers said. “I just don’t think I fit into their plans.”
Rogers had trouble finding a job. He didn’t sign until March 13, when he agreed to a one-year, $2 million deal with the Twins. He got that deal only when the Twins lost pitcher Eric Milton for several months because of knee surgery.
“I know I signed for less,” Rogers said. “But I couldn’t sign with Texas at a pay cut, not after all I had done for them and after having a quality year like that.”
The reality is the Rangers wanted Rogers to turn down the reduced offer and walk away. He was 38 years old after all. One club official said the Rangers were “thrilled” when Rogers turned them down.
Once again, it seemed like the Rangers and Rogers were through.
Not hardly. Rogers won 13 games for the Twins as a starter, but wasn’t in their postseason rotation. He worked out of the bullpen in the Twins’ four-game loss to the Yankees in the ALDS.
Rogers was a free agent again and he re-signed with the Rangers. This time he agreed to a two-year, $6 million contract and all was right with the world.
“We’re here to celebrate the return of a Texas Rangers hero,” Hicks said at the introductory press conference.
“If there is one place I always wanted to do well, it was here,” Rogers said. “It’s an extreme joy for me to come back to play here.”
Rogers and the Rangers finally seemed destined to live happily ever after together.
What could possibly go wrong?
Up next: What did go wrong. Part II examines what led to Rogers assaulting two cameramen in one of the most infamous incidents in club history.