Kenny Rogers was 17, weighed 135 pounds and had one year of high school baseball experience playing rightfield when the Texas Rangers took him in the 39th round of the 1982 June draft—as a pitcher. He reported to the Rangers' rookie-league team in Sarasota, Fla., and on his first day, scout Sid Hudson asked him to throw from the stretch. "I didn't know how," Rogers says now.
Twelve years later Rogers faced 27 California Angel hitters in a game and didn't once have to go to the stretch. On July 28 the son of a berry farmer from tiny Dover, Fla., became only the 12th pitcher in this century to throw a perfect game, a 4-0 gem at The Ballpark in Arlington. Mister Rogers, who now carries 205 pounds on his 6'1" frame, is the first lefthander to pitch a perfecto in the American League.
"No one—not just baseball players, I mean carpenters, lawyers, no one—has come further in his craft than Kenny," says Tiger general manager Joe Klein, a former Ranger farm director. "From where we found him, it's amazing."
Rogers laughs when he thinks back to his early baseball days. "It's unbelievable that I even got to the big leagues," he says "My life would make a great movie. It ha; everything, mostly luck."
His good fortune began in 1981 when Ranger scout Joe Marchese saw Roger; make a strong throw while playing short stop in a recreation league before his senior year at Plant City (Fla.) High. Mar chese made a note about Rogers's arm strength, and during spring training in '82 he talked Klein into leaving a Ranger workout to watch Rogers throw before a high school game. Fifteen scouts were or hand, but only Klein and Marchese were there to sec Rogers, who was warming up in rightfield. "His first throw went over the third baseman's head, and so did the second one," Klein says. "His third throw went over the backstop. His fourth hit the backstop. Joe said to me, 'We should sign him in the 50th round as a pitcher.' We didn't even stay for the game."
The Rangers took him in the 39th round, but, says Klein, "it could have been the 59th, it didn't matter. No one else knew who he was." How could they? Rogers hadn't played sports his first two yean in high school because he was helping his father in the berry fields. "It was hare work—that's why I signed, to get away from it," says Rogers. "I didn't know anything about pitching. I had no idea how to throw a curveball. Warming up next to me my first day in Sarasota was Jose Guzman [now with the Cubs]. He was throwing curves, sliders. I thought, I'm in big trouble now."
Rogers was so raw that Ranger general manager Tom Grieve, then the Sarasota manager, used him for only three innings during the three-month rookie-league season. "I believe the only reason he didn't release me the first couple of years was that I brought the coaches strawberries from my father's farm," says Rogers. In 1984, after three years in the low minors—and having made no significant progress—Rogers asked to be released.
He came back for another try in '85, however, and by then Tom House and Dick Egan, two former lefthanded pitchers, had joined the Ranger organization as instructors. With their tutoring, says Rogers, "I went from a nobody to a prospect in a month."
He still had a lot to learn, though. "The book on him everywhere was 'dumb and durable,' " says House, describing the scouting report on Rogers when House arrived in 1985. While he was with Class A Salem in '86, Rogers got so angry about being taken out of a game that he punched out a window in the clubhouse, badly cutting his left hand.
But Rogers was also stubbornly determined, and in 1989 he made it to the Rangers. He watched the first big league game he ever saw from a seat in the bullpen. "I'd never even seen a major league stadium," he says. He appeared in 73 games as a reliever that season and had a 2.93 ERA. He won 10 games each of the next two years—mostly out of the bullpen—and in 1992 led the American League in appearances, with 81.
Then last season he asked new manager Kevin Kennedy to make him a starter, and Kennedy gave him a shot. Rogers struggled at first and had a 5-6 record on July 8, when he beat the Toronto Blue Jays 6-1 with a complete game, striking out 10. He went 10-4 the rest of the way and this season was 11-6 at week's end. His 22 wins since July 1, 1993, are more than all but four pitchers in the majors have won in that span.
His sudden improvement is due mostly to the development of his curveball and his confidence. Rogers says he threw "maybe 30 curveballs" in his first three years in the majors, but with the help of pitching coach Claude Osteen, he has developed a sharp-breaking curve to go with his 92-mph fastball and an above-average changeup he taught himself. "I've learned how to pitch to hitters now," he says. "For my first 10 years I had no idea what I was doing out there."
In his gem against the Angels, Rogers struck out eight and went to a three-ball count only six times. Only one ball was hit hard against him, a liner to left by Chili Davis in the eighth inning. The Angels didn't come close to a hit until the ninth when Rex Hudler led off by hitting a slicing fly ball to right center. Centerfielder Rusty Greer got a tremendous jump and caught the flare with a face-first dive. Rogers then completed the first perfect game since Dennis Martinez threw one for the Montreal Expos exactly three years earlier. After the game Rogers wandered through the dugout looking bewildered until his wife, Becky, found him. They hugged, kissed and slow-danced.
Rogers didn't sleep that night. The next morning he appeared on Good Morning America. That afternoon he rushed out of the equipment manager's office at The Ballpark to ask teammates, "Which should I go on, Letterman or Leno?" Letterman got the nod, and Rogers flew to New York to tape the show on Monday.
"If Joe Marchese hadn't been there one day by accident and seen me make one throw from shortstop," Rogers says, shaking his head, "I'd be back in Dover working on a berry truck." Instead, his hat and a ball from his perfect game are being flown to Cooperstown. "Can you believe it?" he says.
It's a stretch.