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Rogers steps in for Brown as Texas ace


ARLINGTON, Texas -- When asked, Kenny Rogers will always spend a second pondering the Kevin Brown question. Like a defense witness being grilled by the prosecutor, he cocks his head and pauses, as if in search of just the right answer.

Be aware this is a big-time friendship that goes beyond baseball. Families are also involved. Brown, Rogers and Rafael Palmeiro enjoyed spending time together both on and off the field when all three played for the Texas Rangers.

But it's his friendship with Brown that Rogers now has to defend. And he always does.

"I don't think I'm a better pitcher, or that I'm having this current success, because Kevin is no longer around," said Rogers. "I wish he were still here. We'd be a better team."

OK, count Kenny as a minority of exactly one on that last point. But then again, it's also easy to become carried away and psychoanalyze this subject from here to Baltimore, where Palmeiro and Brown now play.

There has been, however, a long standing clubhouse undercurrent in Arlington that Brown, with his dark moods and negative vibes, was "bad" for Rogers.

Beyond that, what we do know is last season's perfect game doesn't make one a good pitcher. And that the dominant consistency of Rogers over the past five weeks suggests, to this point, he is baseball's best pitcher.

This is a long, long way from that strawberry patch in Plant City, Fla., where a Rangers' scout spotted Rogers 13 years ago playing outfield in high school.

And also many, many miles from a few short years ago when Rogers had a checkered career here as a reliever, with the critics saying he didn't have the mental toughness ever to be a starter.

Funny, huh, that being a staff ace is as much about mental toughness as it is a pitcher's "stuff." And Brown didn't fail miserably here in that role because he lacked stuff.

Over the years, Rogers was always considered a Tonto in Texas while Brown played the Lone Ranger. But at the moment, Rogers is doing the things Brown couldn't in the staff ace role.

Reminded about something the Angels' Chili Davis said several weeks ago, Rogers chuckled. "I saw it. He said, 'Nothing against Kenny, but this guy didn't used to have a clue. Somebody taught him how to pitch.'

"Actually, I took that as a compliment. I probably didn't have a clue."

What Rogers also doesn't have is a contract beyond this year, something Rangers officials should be scrambling to rectify, even though Rogers says he doesn't want to negotiate during the season.

It was a contractual snag that drove Palmeiro kicking and screaming to Baltimore two winters ago. And although there was much more -- like team chemistry -- involved with Brown's departure, money was still an issue.

But despite his continued anger with Rangers' ownership, it was Palmeiro who was telling Rogers last winter he should remain in Texas.

And it was Palmeiro constantly selling Rogers on the managerial merits of Johnny Oates, who was hired here after being fired by the Orioles.

In spring training, both Palmeiro and Brown visited one day with Rogers outside the Rangers' clubhouse in Port Charlotte. "We are poisoning his mind," Palmeiro jokingly told a Dallas writer.

At one time, of course, that would have been considered a good possibility.

"In the maturing process, you are influenced by a lot of things, some positive, some negative," said Rogers. "Here it is, 13 years later, and I'm 30 years old, so maybe it took me longer to learn the difference. But I've tried to be a good student. I've tried to learn, and although I'm taking nothing for granted, I hope it's all paying off now."

Dick Bosman, the pitching coach, watched Rogers from the Orioles' dugout the past three seasons.

"Maybe I did hear some negatives about mental makeup and that sort of thing," he said, "but I'm a believer that unless you know the guy, take the negatives with a grain of salt.

"I can't speak to the past, but what we have right now is a pitcher who wants the load [staff ace] put on his shoulders. I also keep telling Johnny [Oates] I've never seen a left-hander with better stuff, and the way Kenny has been going lately, I don't know if I've seen a right-hander either."

No matter who left town, Rogers has arrived. Now the Rangers must make sure he's here to stay.

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