On the mound, he talks to himself. He curses an inadequate pitch, exhorting himself to a superior effort. If he is particularly displeased, he remains in his follow-through for a moment, his feet firmly planted, and then executes a tiny leap into the air. He lands on both feet, squat and tensed like a sumo wrestler. He throws up his hands in disgust and turns his back on the batter. Hands on hips, he glares at the center-field flagpole. He shakes his head angrily and, to punish himself, refuses to breathe out. his cheeks swelling with his stifled exhalation. The effort becomes increasingly painful. His features are contorted into a slit-eyed grimace. Finally, before he explodes or faints, Steve Rogers of the Montreal Expos exhales and begins contemplating his next pitch.
This is Rogers in any game, but now he was on his way to his second victory of the young season, a 7-4 win over the Mets (he was to get No. 3 Sunday), and in turn his team was enjoying the best start in its brief existence. "I'm not exactly a stoic pitcher." says the 24-year-old righthander, with perfect truth. "I've always been a very emotional person. In the minor leagues it used to destroy my concentration. I remember the first game I pitched for Peninsula last year. I was more worried about getting some good statistics so the Expos would call me up than I was about winning the game. If I walked a batter, I told myself I had to strike out the next three to maintain a good ratio. Here I am thinking like this and—boom!—the umpire misses a pitch. I start yelling at him, you know, showing him up." Rogers' cheeks puff up and he winces with the pain of embarrassment. He exhales. "Jeez, he was only a young guy like me, trying to move up, too. He got mad and took a couple of strikes away from me, and, man, I had a complete breakdown."
Dave Schneck, now with the Mets, was a witness to Rogers' display that night. With a grin he says, "Steve got so upset he looked like he wanted to just cry right there." "It was the low point of my career," says Rogers. "I realized I had to stop pressing. But still I had to stay within myself, had to be what I naturally was. Everyone told me I'd never reach the majors until I became unemotional on the mound. I don't agree. I just had to learn to channel my emotional energy in the right direction. It's better to have emotions like that and control them than not have them at all. Now if I make a bad pitch I allow myself 15 seconds of anger. Then I call it a day and concentrate on the next pitch."
Rogers is a cowboy-lean, smooth-cheeked young man from Jefferson City, Mo. He has a handsome, almost gaunt, heart-shaped face like that of John Davidson, the singer. Unlike Davidson, however, he never seems to relax. The simplest question receives his most intense thought. His brow knits, he struggles for a breath, exhales, and answers. It is this same intensity, which previously had diffused itself in anger, that Rogers learned to groove into what his pitching coach, Cal McLish, calls "the most super concentration I've ever seen." In July of 1973 that concentration brought Rogers to Montreal, where, according to Manager Gene Mauch, "He pitched the greatest 2½ months of baseball in my experience. He pitched 17 consecutive powerful games."
During that span Rogers pitched shutouts in his second and third major league starts, one a one-hitter against the Phillies, while posting a 10-5 record and an astounding 1.54 ERA over 134 innings. Pitching less than half a season, he led the Expos' staff in shutouts with three and never threw fewer than 5‚Öì innings in any game he started. He received the National League's rookie pitcher of the year award, and now has started 1974 with consecutive victories over the Pirates. Mets and Cardinals.
"I've yet to see him pitch a bad game." says Mauch. "I don't even know if he has a weakness. He has six quality pitches: fastball that sinks and sails, slider, fast and slow curveball, and a straight change-up. He has confidence he can throw all of them over the plate. And unlike most young pitchers. I've never seen him beat himself—walk a few batters in a row, or make an error. He's got it all together right now."
"The best thing that happened to me," says Rogers, "was learning not to go against my nature but to channel it in a proper direction. For instance, I still get nervous before a game. I like the feeling. It's a super high. I can't wait to get out there and saw some guy's bat right out of his hand. But there's a difference with me now. I used to get nervous the minute I woke up on the day of a game. I'd expend all that energy before I ever got to the mound. Now I control it until just a few minutes before the game. There's a fine line between utilizing what you naturally have and letting it use you. On a given day I always go with what I have. If I don't have a good fastball, I don't press it; I go with something else. If that doesn't happen to be good enough, if someone beats me. well, it happens, that's all."