For the first time in 16 years, the Yankees and Mets squared off under the Florida sun. Considering all of the interleague games, not to mention the 2000 World Series, played between the two teams since that meeting on March 30, 1996, not too many people probably remember the events that transpired that day. Just don’t count Kenny Rogers among them.
Two days before the New Year in 1995, the Yankees made a big free agent splash by signing Rogers, who had gone 17-7 for the Rangers during the previous season, to a four-year deal worth almost $20 million. At the time, Rogers was expected to be slotted right behind David Cone in the Yankees’ rotation, but then Spring Training happened.
Just like the Yankees did this season, in 1996, the team was faced with a plethora of rotation options. Behind Cone and the newly acquired Rogers, the Yankees also had a promising young pitcher named Andy Pettitte as well as three veterans trying to make a comeback from either injury (Jimmy Key and Melido Perez) or suspension (Dwight Gooden). For most of the spring, it was assumed that one of the pitchers from that trio would be the odd man out, but when Joe Torre made his final decision before the game against the Mets on March 30, Rogers had to be wondering if his calendar had skipped two days.
Rogers’ problems started earlier in the spring when he was hit by a line drive while throwing batting practice. Then, the left hander tried to pitch though shoulder stiffness in his first two outings before finally alerting the organization about his discomfort. Later in the spring, as Rogers continued to struggle, the new Yankees’ manager talked about his left hander trying to do too much to justify his contract, but the pitcher vehemently denied the implication. Needless to say, Torre and Rogers, who would clash over communication issues on several occasions, didn’t exactly get off on the right foot.
I’m always trying to impress; I don’t think that is a problem. I always carry a certain amount of weight on my shoulders. I put a lot on myself because I expect a lot from myself. Right now I’m just trying to do more than my body is capable of doing.” - Kenny Rogers, quoted by the Daily News, March 12, 1996
With Key and Perez ahead of schedule and pitching well, Gooden’s spot in the rotation seemed to be in jeopardy, especially after the former Mets’ All Star was battered around by the Pirates on March 28. In that game, the once dominant righty surrendered 8 runs and 14 hits in only five innings, which raised his March ERA to 8.88 in 31 innings. With his one last chance to impress the manager squandered, Gooden’s comeback seemed to be over before it started.
Kenny Rogers was slated to pitch against the Mets on March 30. Despite having a spring ERA of 8.40, which was almost as high as Gooden’s, the veteran lefty probably assumed his exhibition performance was a mere formality. Before taking the mound that day, however, he learned otherwise. Instead of slotting behind Cone in the rotation, Torre had decided to use Rogers as a long man in the bullpen. “”I told him it’s not a punishment,” Torre explained to the New York Times. “I’m just trying to put the pieces together.”
Rogers was able to gather enough composure to shutout the Mets over five innings, but after the game he expressed understandable bewilderment. “Probably what’s most frustrating is that I had no idea this was coming,” Rogers told reporters. “There’s a lot of disappointment here.”
Rogers’ demotion to the bullpen wasn’t an April Fools joke. In fact, by April 1, the left hander was back in the rotation. After Melido Perez struggled in a minor league game on March 31, the Yankees sent him to Dr. Stuart Hershon, whose examination revealed a serious elbow injury. Perez’ career was over and Rogers was the fifth starter.
Despite being elevated back to the rotation, the Yankees still planned to use Rogers in the bullpen for the first two weeks of the season. Once again, this decision didn’t sit well with the lefty, whose knee jerk reaction was to request a release. However, cooler heads prevailed (not to mention deeper pockets), and Rogers instead asked the Yankees to leave him behind in Florida for extended spring training.
It still is bizarre. I can only deal with what they tell me and what I can control by myself. Me being ready when they tell me is something I can control. I need to throw.” – Kenny Rogers, quoted by The New York Times, April 11, 1996
Kenny Rogers finally made his Yankees’ debut on April 21, when he held the Twins to no runs and one hit in 5 1/3 innings. Rogers had an up and down season with the Yankees thereafter, but his awful performance in the postseason (11 runs in seven innings over three starts) is what really sealed his fate with the team and its fans. Eventually, however, the lefty would redeem himself. Following another disappointing season in 1997, the Yankees shipped him to the Oakland Athletics for Scott Brosius, which, albeit indirectly, finally allowed Rogers to make a significant contribution to the team.