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Situation gets stickier

Times Staff Writer

On the afternoon between World Series games, Detroit Tigers left-hander Kenny Rogers stood at his locker and explained why his pitching hand was stained with a yellowy-brown substance the night before, and then wasn’t.

He rubs his own bullpen baseballs, he said, with the loose ingredients of “mud, resin, sweat and maybe some spit.” Those balls are not used in the game.

At the same time, St. Louis Cardinals Manager Tony La Russa sat in a meeting room down the hall and explained why he hadn’t challenged it.

“I believe in the beauty of the competition,” he said.

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They’ll get back to playing the World Series tonight at Busch Stadium, the Tigers and Cardinals tied at a game apiece, the series moving to a slightly more interesting place than previously suspected.

But first, on a sunny, sneaky-cold Midwestern day when both teams took batting practice and tended to preparations, there existed the rather raging questions of whether Rogers had cheated to advance his postseason efficiency and whether La Russa had gone soft at a most critical point of the baseball season.

The events, as they were told Monday:

In watching tapes of Rogers’ playoff starts against the New York Yankees and Oakland Athletics, La Russa and his coaches noticed discoloration on Rogers’ pitching hand, similar to the one observed in his start Sunday night in Detroit. La Russa said he believed the smears on the tapes were suspicious, but not so much that he told his players about it in a hitters’ meeting Sunday afternoon. When Rogers took the mound in the first inning with a similar smear, La Russa said he “alerted” the umpires, but did not request they inspect Rogers.

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Rogers said Sunday night that what was on his hand was “a clump of dirt.” He said Monday that it was residue from his mud-resin-sweat-spit recipe. There was speculation that it could be pine tar, a tacky substance used legally by hitters and, to some degree, illegally by pitchers, particularly on dry or cold days.

“I don’t believe it was dirt,” La Russa said. “Didn’t look like dirt.”

Whatever it was, Rogers said he removed the substance after the first inning. He said he was sitting in a small room off the dugout watching the game broadcast when he became aware of the “dirt” on his hand. He wiped it clean, then pitched seven more shutout innings.

“They can say what they want,” Rogers said. “I think the last seven innings were pretty good. I’m sure that’ll be lost in the translation.”

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Asked if he were bothered by the suspicions, he shook his head and said, “Nah. I like it. I don’t mind being underestimated. I know I can pitch. I know I pitched pretty good [Sunday] night I didn’t do anything inappropriate.”

That left La Russa in a quandary. He had visual evidence, he believed, of similar substances on similar places of Rogers’ hand on tape and in person.

He could have asked plate umpire Alfonso Marquez to examine Rogers. Had Marquez found pine tar, Rogers would have been ejected and suspended, as Dodgers reliever Jay Howell was during the 1988 National League Championship Series, and as Angels reliever Brendan Donnelly was during the 2005 season. If not, the game would have proceeded, and La Russa would have been accused of gamesmanship, particularly appalling given his long and close relationship with Tigers Manager Jim Leyland.

Or, he could have discreetly informed the crew of his suspicions.

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Or, he could have not acted.

La Russa chose to have Rogers clean up and pitch.

“I have a decision to make and I decided that I was not going to be part of [something] where I was going to ask the umpire to go to the mound and undress the pitcher,” he said. “Now, what was I going to do? I alerted him. I said, ‘I hope it gets fixed. If it doesn’t get fixed, I’ll take the next step.’

“I don’t have any regrets. And I don’t think after the initial whatever happened, the hand washing or whatever happened, I don’t think we got abused. I think we just got beat.”

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La Russa said he explained it the same way to his players in a standard pre-workout meeting Monday afternoon.

He said he told them that if “anybody felt like I should do different, then I disappointed you. But I went to sleep last night and I looked in the mirror. You’ve got to live with yourself.”

He added, “They didn’t raise their hand and say, ‘Hey, I disagree.’ They just didn’t say anything. But it’s very possible there were guys that disagreed. It’s not the way we want to win.”

No players publicly challenged La Russa.

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“That’s done,” outfielder Preston Wilson said.

There were further elements to La Russa’s decision.

Could his relationship with Leyland have clouded his judgment?

“That was actually asked over the phone this morning by a guy that used to be my friend,” La Russa said with a grin. “If somebody tells me that that’s what I was thinking, it’s really a personal insult, and I would take it personally.”

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And, in a war against foreign substances on the sport’s biggest stage, was it possible more Cardinals -- pitching in the same elements -- dabble in pine tar than Tigers?

Todd Jones, the Tigers closer, admitted he’d used pine tar while pitching three years ago in Colorado, where the air is dry.

Privately, many pitchers say they’ve employed it, primarily to give them a grip on the ball, rather than to alter its flight. The resulting control, they say, is safer for batters, who stand quite close to the pitcher’s target.

“This is not brand new guys, seriously,” Jones said. “Hitters use it. Catchers use it on their shin guards. Infielders have it on their gloves. I think there’s a difference between pine tar and, say, Vaseline.... I’m not talking about scuffing or using Vaseline.”

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La Russa’s decision seemed fine by Jones.

“There’s an unwritten rule that you don’t check if there’s not an advantage” being gained, he said. “You are making a big deal of it, but this has been going on for years.

“In Kenny’s situation, I kind of wish it would have happened, because that would have cleared it all up. I don’t think he’s loading up or stuff like that.”

One NL pitcher, who asked that his name not be used, said that if Rogers had been using pine tar, he wouldn’t have it smeared all over his pitching hand.

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“He’s been around too long to be that dumb,” the pitcher said. “That’s my take on it. Maybe it was a Snickers bar. He was eating a Snickers bar in the dugout.”

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tim.brown@latimes.com


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