DETROIT – To forget the past, Kenny Rogers had to stare at it, the kind of long, hard, uncomfortable stare that makes a man squeamish. Every bit of it he would have to recount, too, from his failures in the postseason to the time he shoved the cameraman to those two miserable years with the New York Yankees. And he would do it because he knew that, eventually, he would understand every moment helped prepare him for this.
All of what leeches to Kenny Rogers also makes him who he is, and on Friday night at Comerica Park, he was a marvel. He took that stare and transferred it toward home plate, where the Yankees, of all teams, stood, and Rogers never blinked, not for any of his brilliant performance in a 6-0 victory that gave the Detroit Tigers a 2-1 lead in the American League Division Series and a chance to finish off New York on Saturday afternoon.
"I wanted this game," Rogers said, "as much as any game I've ever wanted in my life."
So Rogers, flaws and all, poured himself off the mound like he never has in his 41 years or his 18 seasons in the majors. His left arm slung the ball instead of finessing it, and the Yankees, a lineup of All-Stars one through nine, stood transfixed. To see Rogers throwing 90, 91, 92 mph – it had been years since he had done that, maybe all the way back to 1999, when he cemented his reputation in New York by walking in the winning run that sent the Atlanta Braves to the World Series and the Mets home for the winter.
For one night, Kenny Rogers, choker, was Kenny Rogers, conqueror.
"Maybe from failing so much," Rogers said. "I'm not afraid to fail. I think I've proven that by going out there and failing enough. I'm still here for a reason, and that's because I like the challenge. I know I'm 40-something and don't have a whole lot of talent left anyway, but I do believe in myself when I get out there and believe I can make pitches.
"Whether anyone else believed I can go out there and beat these guys – to tell you the truth, I knew if I wasn't determined and matching any kind of intensity that was put back to me, I would've been in the same boat I always have been. I was passive, maybe a little too cautious. Today I tried not to be that."
Over the course of the 3-hour, 5-minute game, with 43,440 amped for the first postseason baseball here since 1987, Rogers oozed aggression, sweated it, became it. He caught Jason Giambi looking at a fastball, sent Bernie Williams fishing for a changeup in the dirt, taking his index and middle fingers to his cap between pitches for traction, sure, but also like he was saluting himself.
"Kenny Rogers knows and knew everything that surrounded him with his time with the Yankees, and the Yankees had great numbers against him," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "And I think for this one night – I think he got it all together, and he was probably as determined as you'll ever see anybody pitch a ballgame."
In the eighth inning, Rogers looked to be tiring. He walked Derek Jeter, and Leyland came to the mound and gazed at his pitcher, who was cognizant that the dart-throwing Joel Zumaya was waiting in the bullpen. As kindly as he could – and considering the adrenaline, it wasn't too kind – Rogers told Leyland to head back to the dugout. And the manager, knowing better than to question his veteran, obliged.
If Rogers was going to vanquish his fears, he would do so right there, with Bobby Abreu at the plate. Catcher Pudge Rodriguez – Rogers' teammate in Texas the last time he beat the Yankees, which was Aug. 17, 1993 – squatted and set a target, one he knew to keep stationary.
"He was just throwing the ball right where I wanted it, all day long," Rodriguez said. "I didn't move for nothing. He threw the ball right at my glove."
Abreu stepped out after a first-pitch strike, then made a feeble swing at Rogers' 77-mph curveball to go 0-2. Rogers squeezed his eyes to see Rodriguez's sign: a fastball outside, the pitch Rogers wanted to throw, the one he'd been painting all night. The scoreboard radar gun read 91 mph, and Abreu didn't bother taking the bat off his shoulder. Rogers was done, 7 2/3 innings, five hits, eight strikeouts and, really, no runs.
"I know people probably never thought I can do that," Rogers said. "Maybe I doubted myself, too, at times. I get nervous before every game. If you want to say scared a little bit, yeah, I do. But as soon as I stop being nervous, or not excited about being here, I'm gone."
No time soon do the Tigers want to see him leave. If they advance tomorrow, or in Sunday's potential Game 5 at Yankee Stadium, they'll need him for the ALCS against Oakland – his grit and his experience and his mettle that helped hold the Yankees hitless in 18 at-bats with runners on base Friday.
"I wanted this win for us as a team, for myself, my family, everything," Rogers said. "I wanted to do well and leave nothing out there.
"And this is one of the wins I'm never going to forget, for sure."
Just in case, Rogers flashed a grin at his 12-year-old daughter, Jessica, before his postgame press conference. It already had been a trying week, with a local fan who had banged on Rogers' car accusing the pitcher of grabbing him by the collar. Rogers denied it, and the fan, who filed a police report, backed off the accusation and said he wanted only an apology.
Rogers said he would not apologize. Not for that, not for the past – not for anything. This was his night, and though he said he would remember it, he asked Jessica, wearing a digital camera around her neck, to capture it for posterity.
"Take a picture," he mouthed.
She took a few, and the images that came through were of a proud man who had stared at his fears, his failures, his mistakes – and beaten them.