The 'smudge' stays on center stage as series moves south

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

ST. LOUIS -- Tony La Russa kept talking about Kenny Rogers, his words from the interview room booming all around Busch Stadium, courtesy of the PA system. One by one, the Detroit Tigers stopped their workout to listen.

"I don't believe it was dirt," they heard the St. Louis manager say. "Didn't look like dirt."

A lot of baseball fans weren't buying Rogers' explanation, either. So instead of looking to Game 3 of the World Series, the focus Monday stayed squarely on Game 2. Specifically, on what Rogers had at the base of his left thumb -- and whether it was there before.

"We know it's all over the place right now," umpires' supervisor Steve Palermo said.

Some photographs from Rogers' start in the AL championship series against Oakland showed what appeared to be the same kind of smudge on his pitching hand that caught everyone's attention Sunday night.

Prompted by La Russa, the umpires asked Rogers to clean off his left hand before the second inning. He wound up pitching eight shutout innings in a 3-1 victory that evened the World Series at one game each.

Rogers, who's gone from playoff farce to postseason force this October, insisted it was an innocent mistake.

"I rub up the balls between the innings and before the game all of the time," Rogers said Monday. "I rub up the bullpen balls I pitch with with mud, resin, spit. I do it all the time. They rub the ball up, too, with mud before the games.

"The game balls, they're dirty. Usually, when I get done, there's not much on my hand, but I guess a little bit more than normal. I wiped it off and proceeded to pitch seven pretty good innings," he said. "Mud, resin, sweat. It's always there. I try not to go crazy with it, but it's not making my pitches do anything crazy."

Later, it was La Russa's turn to have his say. His off-day news conference was piped over the Busch Stadium public-address system, so his thoughts echoed from every corner of the empty ballpark.

The Tigers had just come onto the field for practice, and they were instantly surrounded by La Russa's voice giving a lengthy analysis.

The first question skipped right past Game 3 -- it's Tuesday night, with reigning NL Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter starting against Nate Robertson.

Instead, it was about Rogers, who has pitched 23 scoreless innings this postseason -- after going 0-3 with an 8.85 ERA in previous postseasons.

La Russa's answer went on for five minutes.

He said he brought the smudge to the umpires' attention, but did not demand they search Rogers. They didn't. La Russa also said the Cardinals were aware Rogers had a similar spot earlier in the postseason.

"I said, 'I don't like this stuff, let's get it fixed.' If it gets fixed let's play the game. It got fixed, in my opinion," he said.

"If he didn't get rid of it, I would have challenged it. But I do think it's a little bit part of the game at times, and don't go crazy," he said.

La Russa also said he talked to the Cardinals before they worked out Monday.

"I briefly explained where I was coming from and I said, 'Anybody felt like I should do different, then I disappointed you.' ... And they didn't raise their hand and say, 'Hey, I disagree,' they just didn't say anything," he said. "But it's very possible there were guys that disagreed. It's not the way we want to win."

La Russa also was adamant that his longtime friendship with Tigers manager Jim Leyland did not affect how he handled the situation.

"It had nothing to do with Leyland," he said.

Palermo said he talked with plate umpire Alfonzo Marquez about how to best settle the flap, advising that a quick word with Rogers would work. That satisfied La Russa.

"Tony did things in a good and professional manner to resolve the issue," Palermo said.

Umpires can inspect a pitcher on their own if they believe something is wrong. A manager can ask an umpire to check, too.

In 2002, the Cleveland Indians suspected Rogers was scuffing balls and asked the plate umpire to search for anything illegal. Nothing was found.

Pitchers occasionally will put substances on their hands to help grip the ball in cold weather. Tigers reliever Todd Jones once wrote a newspaper column admitting he'd used pine tar -- that's illegal -- when he pitched at Colorado.

"I'm saying in my particular case, in situations like that, I have in the past done that," he said Monday. "Guys are not scuffing and guys are not using Vaseline. That's a vast difference than a guy who can't feel anything and is using something to get a grip."

This episode has become perhaps the most-discussed Series smudge since Game 5 in 1969, when Mets manager Gil Hodges brought umpire Lou DiMuro a ball with shoe polish to persuade him that Cleon Jones had been hit by a pitch from Baltimore's Dave McNally.

Asked about the flap, Leyland brushed it aside.

"I'm not going to chew yesterday's breakfast and I'm not going to comment on it," he said.

Baseball's vice president of umpiring, Mike Port, said Randy Marsh's crew took a "pro-active" stance to diffuse the dirty issue. Rogers is scheduled to pitch in Game 6, if the Series returns to Comerica Park.

"Certainly things carry forth and create a certain vigilance," Port said.

Said Palermo: "Obviously, it's going to be a thing that everyone talks about. And we'll be well aware of it if there is a next time."

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