Glory days haven't passed Rogers by just yet

Originally Published: October 27, 2006
By Wright Thompson | ESPN.com

LITHIA, Fla. -- Billy Corbett's 1982 Plant City High School yearbook hadn't been opened in a while, probably not since his son was born. Now, Carson is 12, sitting in a Tampa-area sandwich and chicken wing place, watching dad turn to the baseball team's spread.

Corbett laughs out loud at the hair hanging down on the players' foreheads.

"That's me," he says. "Pitiful looking."

Kenny Rogers
courtesy Billy CorbettDoes this face look familiar? It might if you went to high school in the early '80s.
Next, he looks for the most famous member of the '82 Plant City Raiders: Kenny Rogers.

You know Rogers as the Detroit Tiger whose 23 scoreless innings were the highlight of the Tigers' postseason.

Corbett knows him as the Raiders' right fielder.

"That's Kenny right there," he says, laughing. "It looks like him. He's just got a lot of hair."

Twenty-four years ago, Corbett, Rogers and 21 other young men were teammates. It seems like twice that long. High school things, like playing baseball, that's just stuff you reminisce about over beers. "Glory Days" and all.

Only Kenny's still living the dream, and over the past few weeks, as the Tigers tried and ultimately failed to win the World Series, the guys who played ball at Plant City back then have been remembering the past. Seeing 41-year-old Rogers on the mound is a reminder of all those things they talked about doing but never did.

That, and parachute pants.

The world was changing in 1982. Thelonious Monk died. Lil' Wayne was born. Violent Femmes were formed. Blondie broke up.

Ozzy bit the head off a bat.

Yeah, times were changing.

Kenny Rogers
Elise Amendola/AP PhotoKenny Rogers has had a few image problems, but he's still living his glory days.
"That was the wingtips and [hair] parted down the middle and REO Speedwagon going on in the background," cracks Mike Sodders, the star pitcher on Rogers' high school team who made it as far as AAA. "What were we thinking back then?"

Sitting with his son, Corbett flips pages. There is a note from his wife, written in two different colored pens. Carson tries to sneak a peak at what Mom might have said when she was just a high school sweetheart. He listens as the funny stories come pouring out.

That's the best part of high school. The stories. Anything can take you back.

Say, for example, pine tar. (You didn't think we were gonna write about Kenny Rogers without at least one reference to pine tar, did you?)

"I heard about that," Corbett says. "It looked like clay to me."

Not that he cares. When Corbett was a pitcher -- Rogers, by the way, never took the mound for Plant City -- he liked to doctor up the ball a bit, too.

"I would want to get the baseball," Corbett says, "and around the seams of it, take a dime and push down on both sides of the seams. That way when I gripped the ball, I felt like I had more thread."

Kenny Rogers
courtesy Billy CorbettThis is the way Billy Corbett, one of Rogers' teammates at Plant City, played the game in 1982.
Or the Starlite Drive-In. That was the place to go after games. Eat a little food. Sneak some booze. Try to get to second base.

"That was the first place I ever drank beer," Corbett says. "I drank a six-pack of Budweiser by myself. Oh, man. I was hurtin' all over. I don't know if Kenny was there or not. I don't remember."

There was the arcade, walking distance from the ballpark.

"The Raider Room," Sodders says. "Those were the only two spots to be. The Raider Room and the Starlite Drive-In. Every Wednesday night, they had 50 cents to get in. They'd be guys hiding in the trunk."

Billy Corbett
Wright Thompson/ESPN.comAnd this is Billy Corbett today.
He pauses, thinking about how long ago that was and all the things that have happened since then, all the twists and turns. The Starlite is a strip mall now. The Raider Room is a McDonalds. And Kenny Rogers just pitched in the World Series.

"It is absolutely unbelievable that he is still playing," Sodders says.

Not every walk down memory lane is a pleasant one. Remembering high school also can be sad.

Once, everyone had potential. Everyone had dreams. After high school, those dreams started dying. Life began separating the winners from the losers.

This week, at separate times, Corbett and former Plant City baseball coach Charles Perdomo are looking at the old yearbook photos. Some guys, they still see. Others have vanished. They both scroll their fingers over the names. For every Kenny Rogers, there are a dozen kids who, well, let them tell it.

"He's never really amounted to anything," Corbett says of one. "He kinda drifted around a lot."

"This kid went through a bunch of problems with drugs," Perdomo says of another.

"He's divorced and gone through the ringer," Corbett says.

"This kid here was a one-eyed knuckle-baller," Perdomo says.

"He's in the Air Force now," Corbett says, rattling them off quickly now.

Kenny Rogers
courtesy Billy CorbettRogers was dressed to thrill for his high school yearbook photo.
"This guy was a really nice guy. I think he went to college and graduated. I haven't seen him since then."

"This guy's a preacher."

"He runs a welding shop."

"He's in drugs and stuff."

"He teaches school."

Perdomo stares at the photo of a catcher, a kid named Mark. He shakes his head. Mark was the hardest-working kid on the team. Had a real man's job after practice, 40 hours a week. One day, he came to the coach. He was quitting. He'd gotten his girlfriend pregnant.

"I never saw him again," Perdomo says. "He was a good kid."

Both look at the smiling mug of Rodney Ehrhard. He was the best player on the team, by a country mile. Everyone thought he'd be a superstar. During college, playing at the University of Tampa, he hit more home runs one year than teammate Tino Martinez. Yes, that Tino Martinez. The Yankees signed Ehrhard and moved him to catcher. He stalled out at Double-A and was cut.

"I had a job the next day with the Red Sox," Ehrhard says now, "but I decided to hang it up and have regretted it ever since."

He says those words through his cell phone, driving back to the Tampa area from a business trip. He videotapes legal depositions. It's a good job, but it's not pitching in the World Series. Yeah, they'll pass you by.

A few photos over from Rogers, there is a picture of a man-child named Allen. Their lives turned on the same day, just in different directions. With the stands full of scouts, Rogers gunned down Stan Boderick, a future first-round draft pick, at home. The next day, one of those scouts was there for Rogers; a year later, he was a pro pitcher.

Perdomo says that in the same game Rogers showed off his gun, Allen ignored a bunt sign and swung away. They'd had lots of problems already, and this was it. Perdomo yanked him from the lineup and had a post-game run-in with the kid's father. Not much later, Allen was kicked off the team.

"He outplayed Kenny Rogers," Allen's mom says now. "Allen kinda got a bum deal with the coach because the coach didn't like him."

No matter the reason: two lives, two directions.

Charles Perdomo
Wright Thompson/ESPN.comRogers gave his old coach, Charles Perdomo, reason to be proud.
Kenny Rogers will make $8 million this year.

Allen?

He's driving a truck.

"Unfortunately," the mother says, "that's what he's having to do."

Maybe that's why people who knew him way back when were so excited for Rogers this past week, even though the Tigers lost. Because he could have been a truck driver, which is a perfectly honorable profession but won't buy you an Italian sports car. He probably wasn't going to college. Baseball was just something to do as a senior after working so hard on his parents' strawberry farm. He only played at Plant City that one year.

On Saturdays, when Rogers would work in the fields, Perdomo says he would make the bus wait until Kenny got finished. Life wasn't easy in Dover, Fla., where the Rogers family lived.

"There were rough kids over there in that area," Corbett says. "Fight for their own and fend for themselves. It's amazing he turned out as good as he did."

But he did turn out -- camera-shoving and pine tar aside. Of the 23 folks on that 1982 Plant City baseball team, Rogers is definitely the biggest success story.

This week, he reminded them of a different team. For some of them, a better time. It's good to remember the past. Sitting on the bleachers Thursday morning before his 60-and-over softball game, Perdomo and a teammate talk about Rogers.

"Oh," the old coach gushes, "he's good, isn't he?"

Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at wrightespn@gmail.com.

Wright Thompson | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
Wright Thompson (@wrightthompson) is a senior writer for ESPN.com and The Magazine. He has been featured in seven editions of Best American Sports Writing and lives in Oxford, Mississippi.

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