As La Russa talks, the smudge mark thickens
ST. LOUIS -- Here's a little advice we'd like to pass along to all future World Series participants, in the wake of Kenny Rogers' dirt-clumping mishap Sunday:
If you're ever thinking about getting in the middle of a massive October controversy -- and hey, who isn't? -- try not to do it the night before a travel day.
And they hate it when that happens.
Cardinals manager Tony La Russa was still adjusting his seat at the podium for his off-day press conference Monday when The Question came roaring right at him:
A day later, was he ready to comment on Kenny Rogers yet?
A bemused look came over La Russa's face. We'd call it the old that-didn't-take-long look.
"First question?" La Russa said with a grin, pausing before adding, "I lost the bet."
But if La Russa bet that The Question was coming any later than two questions in, he should be banned from Vegas for life. Because a day later, Dirtgate was destined to spring right back to life, whether the participants wanted it to or not, due to the dreaded, regularly scheduled lack-of-an-actual-game media crisis.
As it turned out, however, this story took on a whole new life Monday. Thanks mostly to La Russa.
Sunday night, in the heat of the moment, he'd dodged all the questions about what he thought was on Rogers' hand, what he said to the umpires and why he didn't demand that Rogers be checked for, well, who knows what: Clumps of dirt? Pine tar? Weapons of mass destruction?
But by Monday afternoon, La Russa said he'd "had a chance to think about it." And he was ready to explain (cue the trumpets) his side of this saga.
He is one of those guys, he philosophized, who happens to "believe in the purity of the competition." So because of that belief -- which we wish everybody in the entire sporting universe shared, by the way -- he can't help but "detest any kind of BS that gets in the way of the competition."
So obviously, he sure didn't want any BS to get in the way of a World Series game. Who would?
But then there he was in the first inning Sunday, and several of his players came sprinting down the tunnel from their spot in front of the clubhouse flat screen to inform him that the Fox TV cameras were zeroing in on a big brown splotch on Rogers' pitching hand.
Alan Schwarz and Gene Wojciechowski continue to examine Kenny Rogers' sticky situation with special guest umpires' supervisor Steve Palermo and look ahead to Game 3 of the World Series.
• To listen, click here.
Uh-oh. BS alert.
"Now," La Russa said, "I have a decision to make, and I decided that I was not going to be part of the BS where I was going to ask the umpire to go to the mound and undress the pitcher. Now, what was I going to do? I alerted him. I said, 'I hope it gets fixed. If it doesn't get fixed, then I'll take the next step.'"
Now, though, we'll never know what The Next Step might be. (Raising the pine-tar alert level to red, maybe?) That's because, in La Russa's opinion, Rogers did in fact fix it, "and we still couldn't hit him."
The manager said he was sure there were all kinds of people out there grumbling about how he should have had Rogers inspected. But after thinking and talking about this all night and all morning, he concluded: "I don't have any regrets."
He addressed it how he wanted to address it. Rogers washed off the alleged gunkness. And after that, La Russa said, "I don't think we got abused. I think we just got beat."
Had he just left his account of these events at that, Dirtgate Day 2 wouldn't have been much of a headline-grabber. But fortunately for us insatiable media madmen, the questioning continued. And several answers that followed raised many an eyebrow, if not an entire eyelid itself.
For instance, at one point La Russa was asked a question about whether he thought Rogers' self-gloppage had crossed a line and become a "violation of the competition."
While answering that one, he just happened to mention that while he didn't spot this particular splotch on Rogers' hand, "I did watch video of the other postseason games, so I had an idea of what it looked like."
That prompted several follow-up questions, during which La Russa admitted that he'd seen on his tapes exactly what ESPN had shown the night before -- that Rogers has been slopping up his hand with something throughout the whole postseason.
That could lead you to all sorts of new conspiracy theories. But we'll make those optional, for now.
Then came an even more pointed question, about the truthfulness of Rogers' alibi Sunday.
The question: "After seeing the video, do you believe that it was dirt that Kenny had on his hand, or was it something else?"
Finally, he answered: "I don't believe it was dirt. Didn't look like dirt."
And with that 10-word answer, it was safe to add him to the millions and billions and trillions of Americans who clearly are having major trouble believing Rogers' dubious account of what was going on out there Sunday.
Those millions and billions and trillions, therefore, will be delighted to hear that Rogers repeated that dubious account again Monday: He likes to rub up the baseballs with "dirt and resin and (new substance alert here) spit" so he can feel the ball, he said. And obviously, a bunch of "mud" must have accidentally stuck to his hand.
"I explained myself last night," Rogers said. "Anyone who wants to continue it -- it's their agenda, not mine."
And you know what? That's true, in fact. The last thing Kenny Rogers needs right now is his own how-was-I-supposed-to-notice-that-clump-of-dirt-on-my-hand agenda. So the how-couldn't-he-notice-it agenda was all ours -- with some help from our friends in the Cardinals' clubhouse, that is.
Catcher Gary Bennett wasn't doing any accusing of Rogers or anybody else Monday. But he confirmed exclusively to ESPN.com that he has, in the past, gotten dirty. And when that dirt has shown up on various body parts, he has pretty much always noticed it right away, he said.
"Especially on your hands," Bennett said. "You usually know. After a slide or a play at the plate, maybe you'll get some dirt on your forearm and you won't know it. But usually, in my experience, I've known when I had dirt on my hand."
Ah-ha. So that again raises the chance that maybe it wasn't dirt on Rogers' hand. But this being America, Rogers retains the right to plead innocent -- because there are still lots and lots of potentially legal substances that could have been on his hand.
"You know, he has a terrible habit," Tigers coach Andy Van Slyke reported, "of eating Tootsie Rolls. And he happened to sit next to a heater."
Right. That was probably it. And there are undoubtedly other possibilities, too. Like, well, chocolate cake. Tigers closer Todd Jones tossed that one out there Sunday night.
"No," Van Slyke said, in instant denial mode. "You can't bring cake on the bench. You've got to eat something with a wrapper on it."
All right. How about soup? That's about the same color as Rogers' hand.
"Nope," Van Slyke said. "No utensils allowed on the bench. But if we were playing in Japan, it might have been wasabi."
OK, so if this were the Japan tour, we might be on to something. But since this is the World Series, that's out.
So was there any chance, us media madmen persisted, that it might have been pine tar? And Van Slyke was just about the perfect person to ask, too, since he was seen in the dugout in what appeared to be a long, between-innings chat with Rogers after the first inning Sunday.
But in truth, "I wasn't involved in the conversation," Van Slyke quipped. "Just, when I shook Kenny's hand, it took me 30 seconds to get unstuck."
From the tenor of this discussion, you're probably catching on that it didn't take long yesterday for Dirtgate to transform itself into the kind of topic that nearly every baseball subject in history has ever morphed into -- i.e., raging talk-show controversy on one hand, an irresistible clubhouse-comedy opportunity on the other hand.
It was a healthy sign that the sport will undoubtedly survive Dirtgate. Not to mention a sign that this World Series will undoubtedly survive Dirtgate.
Even Kenny Rogers and his 0.00 October ERA have a chance to survive Dirtgate, especially if he pitches eight more shutout innings in Game 6 with the eyes of the national TV cameras, Tony La Russa and us insatiable media madmen watching his every hand gyration.
But whether anybody will ever feel good about shaking Rogers' hand again? Sorry, that's something none of us can vouch for.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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