Roger Clemens, comebacks, and baseball historyby Mike Clark
September 14, 2012
I do not know Roger Clemens, although he has been in my town.
I live about 30 miles from the home of the Greeneville Astros Appalachian League team, nestled in the mountains. His son, Koby Clemens, played for the G-stros and Roger would come to watch him play. A friend who had seen Roger at a game remarked at how unfriendly he had been when my friend approached. Clemens was talking on his cellphone at the time, and my friend found it rude of Clemens to refuse to sign an autograph—or even be willing to communicate with him—while he was talking on the phone.
His take? Clemens is an egocentric jerk who thinks he's better than others.
So, it is much to my amusement that, while reading the big league papers and blogs, I find who so many people seem to have a unique ability to read Clemens' mind and thoughts these days. The 50-year-old right-hander, who has been seen in Atlantic League ballparks throwing 80+ mph fastballs after a five-year layoff, is, in consensus, planning a Hall of Fame plaque-saving return to the major leagues either this year or next (apparently, Clemens' mind is cloudy on this). He's doing this for his ego, clearly. No other reason, say these astute observers.
My first thought is that Clemens is most assuredly pitching at the age of 50 for his ego. This is a man who was generally considered one of the best pitchers of his era—maybe the best. He didn't reach that pinnacle by being humble or shy.
But purely driven by making his chances of getting into Cooperstown a little easier? Seriously?
In the history of baseball, few players have managed to make a complete comeback to The Show after a five-year layoff for retirement. The closest comparisons I can think of quickly are Minnie Minoso, Satchel Paige and Jim Bouton.
Minoso, of course, was famously activated by Bill Veeck to be the only man to play in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Minoso was a beloved figure in Chicago, and his reactivations for a couple of at-bats were certainly stunts, not serious attempts at a comeback. Paige's return was also a stunt, though some have speculated that Paige expected to pitch more than he did. Bouton's return as a knuckleballer could also be considered a stunt, except Bouton worked hard in multiple minor leagues to earn the shot from Ted Turner's Braves; Bouton was 11-8 with three shutouts and a 2.82 ERA for the Braves' Savannah team in the Southern League.
All of these attempts came in eras in which players were considered less in-shape than today's athletes—training was considerably different. Today's athlete can live in an environment of his own choosing to train year-round, has access and resources for personal trainers and has top-of-the-line equipment. Simply put, Clemens in 2012 is far more capable of doing the hard work he needs to get back into playing shape than Paige in 1965.
Most of the flak for Clemens' daring to return to the game he played on such a high level stems from two things: his considerable ego (see above) and his alleged involvement with Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs). Note the word alleged. As it stands today, in a court of law, the allegations by trainer Brian McNamee have been judged false. It doesn't matter what anyone thinks; in a legal sense, there is no proof strong enough to suggest otherwise.
Yes, the wonderful thing about America is that anyone can think anything they like, and say most everything they choose to say. So, if baseball's elite tastemakers consider Clemens guilty, then they can write of their suspicions. But writing it does not make it true. I can write all I want about the Publisher's Clearing House check I feel certain is in my mailbox (I know it's there, I can feel it!) and still, it will likely not be there waiting for me to cash. Find the smoking needle and make it stick; otherwise, you're just one or two steps removed from UFOs in Roswell.
In another time, writers would be marveling at the sheer audacity of Clemens and his attempt to defy the odds. Age 50, five years out of baseball, and this man—in two games—is up to 80+ on his fastball for the Sugar Land Skeeters of the Atlantic League, where the hitters have been compared to Triple-A level types. I find that simply remarkable.
So now, I'm curious what Clemens might do with a full complement of spring training. Would he be able to make the cut? We saw Jamie Moyer do so this past spring, after a one-year injury recovery time out, and Moyer has never been confused with Roger Clemens. Not to be derogatory toward Moyer at all; even he surely knows he's never been as overwhelming a force as Clemens has been.
Much has been written about how Clemens would overshadow his young teammates, create a circus in spring training, cause problems, etc. Many have snickered that Clemens could teach these younger players only how to use PEDs. Really?
Ignore the fact that the circus would actually be caused by some of the same reporters predicting its arrival. Clemens would—by his presence—speak to the very heart of what younger athletes need to learn. Dedication to the sport, shutting off the distractions and doing the hard work required to pitch in the big leagues. They will learn by watching a driven professional attempting what everyone considered impossible (and a joke). Anyone think Clemens is putting in the effort just to pitch middle innings and be an extra arm in the 'pen?
As a fan of baseball history, I'm rooting for Clemens, and his ego. I'm rooting for the Astros' Jim Crane to sign him and invite him to 2013 spring training. I want to see this man attempt what no one has done before. Call me naive, but as a baseball fan I don't care if it's a "stunt." Owners do what owners do. The sanctity of the sport, the purity of the game, went out the window long before Casey Stengel held court for the original New York Mets, before Eddie Gaedel earned a walk, and before Rube Waddell started chasing fire trucks. Baseball is part of the entertainment universe. A potential Clemens return makes the game interesting. Inter-league games that count in individual league standings are far more damaging to the sport than Rajah striding to the mound for Houston.
Today's game is far more complex than it was in my youth, which was more complex than in my dad's youth, and so on. That means the ability to play at such a high level is also more complex. For me, every negative ever written about Clemens, every speculation about his or the Astros' motives, every unsubstantiated rumor or allegation about steroid use or lying under oath, doesn't really matter.
Never before, to my knowledge, has a 50-year-old attempted a serious return to the highest level of baseball after five seasons of retirement. That's a story that will resonate long after Brian McNamee becomes "some guy."
You want to know what probably gets Clemens' ego stroked? To be the first to do something no one else has done.
And I'm rooting for him to do it. Pass the popcorn and pop the top on a brewski. Let's watch some history being made.