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A Series of Unusual Events

As if this postseason hasn't been bizarre enough, Kenny Rogers has left an indelible mark on the 102nd Fall Classic with his near-historic performance--and perhaps a dirty little secret to his sudden success

Unlike theAmerican institution that was built by baseball's kings (Ruth, Mantle, Koufax)and dynasties (Murderers' Row, the Swingin' A's, the Big Red Machine), theWorld Series of the wild-card era is the pull of a slot-machine lever, a gameof chance ignorant of form. Regularly populated now with second-place clubs orflavor-of-the-month teams more than dominant regular-season franchises, theSeries is where unpredictability, not greatness, reigns. And with this 102ndedition, a very unexpected, unconventional and at times unholy series, the FallClassic fell even deeper down the rabbit's hole.

Forget about playing for posterity. The Detroit Tigers and the St. LouisCardinals fought over who had the more deserving claim as the official underdogof the World Series. The Tigers were vying to become the most unlikely championof all time, having strung together a record 12 straight losing seasons beforewinning the 2006 American League pennant. The Cardinals were competing for thetitle of worst world champion of all time, as measured by regular-seasonwinning percentage; St. Louis had 83 wins, which ranked them 13th among majorleague teams this year.

It took only twogames--with the wins split between the two teams, of course--to establish thatthis World Series will mock convention and even, if you wanted to know thedirty little truth about Game 2, insult your sense of reason. The CliffsNotesversion goes like this:

Game 1: The firstmatchup of rookie pitchers to open a World Series was won convincingly, 7--2,last Saturday by the least accomplished Game 1 starter in history--25-year-oldSt. Louis righthander Anthony Reyes, he of the flat-brimmed cap, candy-stripedsocks, 5--8 record (fewest wins ever by a Game 1 starter) and 5.06 ERA(second-worst mark). Naturally, now that down is up and up is down in the WorldSeries, Reyes pitched into the ninth inning for the first time in his majorleague career.

Game 2: A matchupof the most itinerant pitchers in World Series history (Cardinals righty JeffWeaver and Tigers lefty Kenny Rogers, who have played for 11 teams combined) iswon convincingly, 3--1, on Sunday by the 41-year-old Rogers, the oldest starterever to win a Series game.

What lingered inthe wake of Rogers's eight shutout innings was equally bizarre--the possibilitythat he might have cheated. Fox television cameras showed Rogers had a large,clearly visible patch of a yellow-brown substance near the base of his leftthumb while pitching the first inning. It was gone by the second inning, thoughthere was some residual discoloration.

After the gameRogers's explanation for what happened was more baffling than one of his famouscurveballs. He called the substance "a big clump of dirt" that hadcollected on his hand while rubbing up a baseball during his pregame warmup inthe bullpen and remained stuck there through an 18-pitch first inning--all, heinsisted, without his being aware of it. When a reporter suggested to Rogersthat it was difficult to believe that a pitcher, especially one who relies soconsiderably on touch, would not notice a big clump of dirt on his pitchinghand for such a prolonged period, Rogers replied, "Do you think I'm agenius out there? I'm not. Once I noticed it, it was off. There are a lot ofways to get dirty hands out there."

The Cardinals hadtheir own explanation. A few of them, including utilityman Scott Spiezio, hadseen the Fox telecast in the clubhouse and quickly relayed word to the dugoutthat Rogers might be using pine tar to improve his grip, a violation of Rule8.02 that warrants an automatic ejection and 10-day suspension for applying aforeign substance to a ball. "Especially on a cold day, it improves yourgrip," said St. Louis pitching coach Dave Duncan after Game 2, which wasplayed in a sub-40° chill. "And anytime you get a better grip, you canincrease the velocity of the ball or the spin."

With Rogers caughtbrown-handed by the camera, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa needed only to askthe umpires to examine Rogers's left hand, a move that could have altered thecourse of the World Series. If the substance had, indeed, been an illegal one,the Tigers, already down 1--0 in the Series, would have lost their hottestpitcher in the first inning of Game 2 with St. Louis's best starters, ChrisCarpenter and Jeff Suppan, scheduled to pitch Games 3 and 4 at home.

La Russa, though,never asked the umpires to inspect Rogers's hand. Why? He wasn't saying."It's not important to talk about," he snapped afterward.

Duncan offered onepossible explanation: "If you want to be a [jerk] about it, you can"ask the umpires to check the pitcher, a suggestion that an accusation ofcheating is outside the protocol of managing, even when cheating is suspected.(On the other hand, in a regular-season game last year, Nationals manager FrankRobinson asked umpires to check the glove of Angels reliever Brendan Donnelly,much to the anger of Los Angeles manager Mike Scioscia. Umpires found pine tar,and Donnelly was ejected and eventually suspended.)

Two Cardinalsplayers, who asked not to be named, offered their own theory for the unbecomingreticence of La Russa, who is renowned for his thoroughness and gamesmanship:He was uncomfortable making such an accusation against a team managed by hisgood friend Jim Leyland. Both players said they were disappointed that La Russadid not pursue the issue more aggressively.

When Rogersreturned to the dugout after the first inning, he was intercepted by Tigersfirst base coach Andy Van Slyke and third baseman Brandon Inge. After speakingwith the two, Rogers disappeared down the runway steps. He emerged to pitch thesecond inning with the yellow-brown substance gone but for a light stain.

Rogers, when askedwhy he removed the substance, first said, "I didn't know it was there, andthey told me and I took it off, and it wasn't a big deal." It was unclearwhether his use of "they" referred to teammates or umpires. But whenasked if somebody had complained, Rogers said, "No, I just saw it."

The umpires, hewas asked, didn't mention it at all? "No," Rogers replied.

However, La Russadid finally address the issue, meeting with the umpires as Rogers came out topitch the second inning. "I said, 'I hope it gets fixed. If it doesn't getfixed, then I'll take the next step,'" La Russa said a day later. AfterRogers set down the Cardinals in order, home plate umpire Alfonso Marquez didconfer with Rogers. According to umpire supervisor Steve Palermo, speaking forthe crew after the game, "Alfonso Marquez just asked Kenny to remove thatdirt."

After Detroitbatted in the second inning, Palermo huddled with Marquez. For something LaRussa would describe as "not important," the controversy, seen bymillions of viewers, attracted conspicuous attention on the field. "If hedid it and got away with it, good for him," Spiezio said. "Next timewe'll have to pay attention to it."

Rogers's comingwithin four innings of Christy Mathewson's 101-year-old record of 27consecutive scoreless innings in a single postseason may have been the weirdestfeat of these oddball playoffs--this from a guy who had been 0--3 with an 8.71ERA in nine career postseason games before this year. But Reyes's easy win wasthe runner-up. La Russa was so unsure about what the rookie could give him inthe opener that, at dinner on the eve of Game 1, he asked his coaches to submitguesses as to how long Reyes would last. La Russa settled on no more than sixinnings.

Only two daysearlier Reyes was in the bullpen at Shea Stadium in New York trying to fix aflaw in his windup that had tipped his fastball to Mets hitters in Game 4 ofthe National League Championship Series. Reyes had lasted only four innings inthat start. "Shawn Green is as good as it gets with the stuff," Duncansaid, referring to the New York rightfielder's knack for figuring out when apitcher is tipping his pitches. "And it becomes contagious. More and moreguys on the team become aware of it and start looking. We think we've [solvedthe problem]."

Reyes threw 74fastballs among his 93 pitches in World Series Game 1, and, still, the Tigerslooked as if they had no clue what was coming. "We looked like a team thathadn't played for seven days," Leyland said, speaking of his club's longlayoff after winning the ALCS. Reyes allowed one run in the first and one inthe ninth. In between he retired a World Series rookie-record 17 batters in arow. "It's an honor," Reyes said of starting the opener. "I'm justglad they had the confidence to give me the ball. I can't even remember a lotof it. I feel like it went by so fast."

The Cardinalssupported him with home runs by Scott Rolen and Albert Pujols off Detroitrookie Justin Verlander, the latter on a first-pitch fastball with first baseopen and two outs in the third inning--a situation that screamed for Leyland toorder an intentional walk. "I pitched to him, and obviously he burnedus," Leyland said. "I take the bullet there. If somebody gives youcriticism, you accept it, because it's ultimately my decision."

Hitless in 15 atbats in the Cardinals' four-game loss to the Boston Red Sox in the 2004 WorldSeries, Rolen smacked four hits in the first two games against Detroit, allwhile engaging in a cold war with La Russa. Rolen seethed when the managerbenched him for Game 2 of the NLCS without a face-to-face explanation. La Russatold reporters that Rolen was limited by a sore shoulder.

"I decided itwas time to turn the page; new opponent, new series," Rolen said beforeGame 2. "I can be myself again, without all the mental baggage I had todeal with in the NLCS."

A feud between acleanup hitter and his manager ranked well down the list of surprises in aSeries in which the entrants themselves were unexpected. As if proving thethree-tiered postseason is contested under a different set of rules than theestablished order of the regular season, the Tigers, the sixth of the past 10World Series teams to have finished in second place during the regular season,played worse in the final 50 games than any postseason team in history(19--31). The Cardinals were the next worst (22--28). The World Series, frommore evidence than just Rogers's left hand, is not so neat and cleananymore.

More World Series analysis, including game-by-game grades,

Two Cardinals said they were disappointed that La Russa(above) did not pursue the issue of Rogers's hand.


Photograph by John Biever


In Game 2 Rogers had the same filthy stuff--and stained hand, apparently--thathe did in Game 3 of the ALDS (center) and a midsummer win against the A's(left). 




Vs. Oakland A's

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ALDS vs. New York Yankees

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World Series vs. Cardinals

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With regular guys like David Eckstein (top) and Ramon Santiago, the two teamswear the underdog role well.




Hitless in his last World Series, Rolen got hot in the sub-40° chill ofDetroit.