An attendant in the Yankees' clubhouse handed a baseball to pitcher Kenny Rogers last week so that Rogers could autograph it. The ball was already covered with his teammates' signatures. "There's no place for my name," Rogers said. How symbolic. There's no place for him in the New York rotation, either.
Only in the wacky world of the Yankees could a club go after the third-winningest lefthander in baseball the last three years (Rogers had 44 wins with the Rangers), sign him to a four-year, $20 million contract as a free agent and then drop him from the rotation in favor of Dwight Gooden, who had won a total of 15 games in the last three years and didn't pitch at all in 1995 while serving a one-year suspension for drug use. Maybe the running gag on Seinfeld isn't a joke at all; maybe George Costanza does work for the Yankees.
New York says Gooden is in the rotation because he has never been a full-time reliever, as Rogers has, and because the Yankees want to see firsthand how Gooden fares against major league hitters, not Triple A batters in Columbus. "I need to witness [his comeback]," says New York manager Joe Torre.
The Yankees are hoping Gooden discovers some of his old magic, but he didn't have a good spring and was 0-2 with a 9.58 ERA after his first two starts. Over the past 10 years alcohol and cocaine abuse plus assorted injuries have repeatedly taken him away from the game and eroded the skills that made him a major league phenom at 19.
New York's attempt to determine whether Gooden is still a big league pitcher has already done damage to Rogers's delicate pysche. Rogers is a very emotional and sensitive player who hasn't always adjusted easily to change. He comes from tiny Dover, Fla., where he grew up working on his father's berry farm. He was so raw when he was drafted by Texas in 1982 that he didn't even know how to throw from the stretch with runners on base.
But with a strong arm and the development of his curveball and his confidence in the last few years, he turned into one of the top pitchers in the game, and he might have expected to be treated as such when he signed with New York last winter. Instead, he wound up in the bullpen. At week's end he still had not pitched for the Yankees and had traveled to Tampa for extended spring training, just to get some work before his scheduled start on April 23. "I'm trying not to make it a total waste of time," he said before leaving for Tampa. "I'll get to sleep at my parents' house. I'll catch a big bass in the pond, wake up in the morning and go pitch."
The pleasure Rogers takes in small-town life makes people wonder if he's suited for the rigors of playing in New York. He never had to pitch in a critical, pressure-packed game during his time in Texas. When he does get his opportunity to work in New York, what frame of mind will he be in, and how sharp will he be? And will he be looking over his shoulder if he gets lit up in any of his early starts? The Rangers offered him a four-year, $17.5 million contract last winter. Perhaps he should have taken it.
Having put himself on the disabled list on April 7, Phillies catcher-turned-leftfielder Darren Daulton probably won't play again because of the relentless pain in his right knee, which was reconstructed in the off-season (his left knee has been operated on eight times in his 12 seasons with Philadelphia). And Twins centerfielder Kirby Puckett might be out most of this season—or, worse, his career may be over, too—because of blurred vision in his right eye caused by the onset of glaucoma. "The game needs these guys," says Minnesota manager Tom Kelly. "They add substance and credibility. The game takes a step backwards without them, and it can't afford to take a step backwards."
Daulton and Puckett, each in his own way, are two of the game's most respected team leaders, and leadership is a commodity in frighteningly short supply these days. Daulton, 34, inspired the Phils by example, catching nine innings on a regular basis, despite two deteriorating knees. But he wasn't afraid to take a teammate aside and straighten him out when it became necessary. He told Gregg Jefferies last year to think more about the club, rather than how many hits he got. Daulton was also the player who faced the tough Philadelphia media every night while most of his teammates hid. "It's a crushing blow for that team," says Pirates manager Jim Leyland.