Notes: Rogers steps back to enjoy game
Sleeth has strong first outing; Thames learns ropes at first
WINTER HAVEN, Fla. -- Kenny Rogers' first Spring Training outing was over after two innings. His day wasn't over until the bottom of the eighth.
He ran the outfield like a distance runner, then he signed ... and signed ... and signed, for about a full hour. He signed everything from baseballs to ticket stubs, gloves, even a child's arm. Some kids came back with items after he had signed others. He signed until he seemingly ran out of fans to sign for along the left-field corner at Chain of Lakes Park. By the end, one man came to the fence not for an autograph, but to thank him for spending so much time for them.
Spring Training is not Rogers' favorite time of year. At 42 years old, his body hurts more days than not trying to get into game shape. Yet on this day, with the sun shining down and Rogers' first outing complete, it seemed pretty good for him. It's certainly still fun, especially coming off what he considers his most enjoyable year in the Majors.
"I'm content in a lot of ways," Rogers said. "I'm never content as a player. I'm never satisfied to where I feel like there's no more room for improvement. But socializing and taking it all in, it's nice to be able to do that now. I didn't do it when I was younger. I was too messed up in the head. I was a young kid. My knowledge was limited in all aspects. I couldn't comprehend just looking around and taking things in. Now, I try to enjoy it a lot more, without a doubt. I'm lucky enough to be around to enjoy it."
It's a stark contrast to the image of Rogers being put on television at the end of last season -- really, the image of his left hand and a smudge on it. He says he feels like he has a bull's-eye on his back, but it wasn't evident on Sunday.
On the field, Rogers gave up two runs, one earned, on three hits in two innings, but he wasn't throwing everything. The pitches he was throwing, he felt he was throwing well, which was his focus.
"I'm not really worried about getting people out as much as making good pitches," Rogers said. "I don't use all of my pitches early. I try to get one pitch fine, then move on to the next one, and so on and so on. I'm not even close to bringing out everything I throw, which is a struggle.
For his first outing, he felt he was a little overhyped -- ironic, considering his postseason mastery came on a month-long emotional high. That works in the playoffs, but he can't pitch that way in the regular season. It would be too draining over the course of more than 30 starts.
This early in camp, just about every start can be draining.
"Physically, it's more demanding," Rogers said of Spring Training, "but I try to let my body catch up to my mind as far as what I want to do. I'm not even close, but that's why Spring Training's here."
The first few weeks, he says, are the toughest for him -- tougher than when he was younger and didn't need the time. Now he needs all of it. Entering his 19th Major League season, he needs to challenge his body in order to prepare. When he's not ready to do that, when it's no longer fun for him, that's when he'll retire.
"You don't like it," he explains, "but you enjoy it. I enjoy the demands. It's not too long, because I need all of it, but it's nice when the season starts, because it starts to taper off."
It's not just demands on the arm, but on just about everything.
"I wish I could point to a spot that didn't feel bad," he said, "because that list would be really short. All the aches and pains [listed] would be really long, so it would be a waste of time."
On this day, his writing hand probably could've been on the list. When he had signed for just about everyone possible, one kid came over with another request.
"Can you win the World Series for us?" the kid asked.
"I hope so, bud," he said with a smile. "I hope for myself."
Big outing for Sleeth: Kyle Sleeth returned from Tommy John elbow surgery to pitch in Minor League games last year, but Sunday's outing was another step. His two scoreless innings of relief included three strikeouts and all four of his pitches, especially his curveball.
"That was awesome," Sleeth admitted afterwards. "The first one in big-league camp, that felt good. Felt comfortable."
Sleeth's innings depended on how long Rogers had gone. Had Rogers pitched three innings, Sleeth likely would've had one. It couldn't have turned out much better for him, and Leyland didn't want to test it with a third inning.
"Especially a guy like that, I want him to walk away [from that outing] feeling really good about himself today," Leyland said.
Thames again at first: Marcus Thames still appears to be learning to field at first base, but he seems to be getting used to handling throws. His second error in as many days came on a ground ball Sunday, and he had a miscommunication with Rogers that left both of them fielding a bunt attempt with neither covering the bag. But Thames' glovework also included a strong effort to stay on the bag in the fourth when handling a wide throw from shortstop Ramon Santiago.
On the other side, Omar Infante's first start in center field this spring included a pair of catches, one of them a basket catch charging in on a fly ball.
Shelton update: Chris Shelton, still dealing with an abdominal strain that has kept him out of spring games so far, took batting practice with the team on Sunday at Joker Marchant Stadium before the travel squad left for Winter Haven. There's no timetable on when he can play, but he said he's feeling better with each day.
Coming up: Most of the Tigers' regulars, including former Yankee Gary Sheffield, will make the trip to Tampa on Monday for a nationally-televised game on ESPN against the Bronx Bombers at Legends Field. Justin Verlander, who pitched an inning of relief on Thursday, will make his first spring start. Zach Miner, Andrew Miller, Preston Larrison, Joel Zumaya and Fernando Rodney are scheduled to follow. Kei Igawa is scheduled to start for New York. Game time is 1:15 p.m. ET.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.