Roger Clemens, comebacks, and baseball history

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.

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Comments

  1. mando3b said...

    Living here in New England, we know the dark side of Clemens’s ego. I’m not talking about suspicions of PED use or signing with the “Evil Empire” in the Bronx—his behavior had degenerated to the bad side of obnoxious long before all that. How many Greatest Pitchers in Baseball History get themselves thrown out of a play-off game in the early innings? [Vs. the A’s, ca. 1989~90.] (There’s suspicion that that and a number of other incidents, actually, were a result of “‘roid rage”, but we don’t need to go into those allegations here.) Then there’s the lovely line “I don’t give a rat’s ass about the Hall of Fame . . . ” For me, there are few people in baseball more loathsome, at least since George Steinbrenner died. So, I can’t say I won’t watch History Being Made, if it comes to that, but if I do I’ll definitely be hoping he gets his lunch handed to him.

  2. David R said...

    Jim Palmer’s 1991 comeback seems more similar to Clemens than Paige/Minoso.  While Palmer was younger than Clemens is now, there was a gap of six seasons (and a HOF induction).

  3. Mike Clark said...

    @David. Thanks, I knew I’d forget one or two. Would love to hear about any others folks may remember or discover, too.
    @mando3b. We root for varied reasons! I think his ‘rat’ quote, though, actually does symbolize his return is for something other than resetting his HOF clock, though I’m as in the dark as anyone else. I don’t even know what goes through my own mind half the time.

  4. Dan Rosenbaum said...

    You write: “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.”  Actually, the jury simply ruled that Clemens was not guilty of perjury beyond a reasonable doubt.  That doesn’t mean they thought McNamee’s allegations were false, just that they were insufficient to support a conviction.

  5. Paul G. said...

    Dave Stieb had a comeback in 1998.  He had missed the prior 4 seasons and had only 4 starts in 1993 before retiring because of a bad back.  This was not a stunt as he ended up throwing 50 innings over 19 games and performing decently before retiring for good.

    On the other end of the spectrum, Pedro Borbon, Sr. tried a comeback in 1995, 15 years after his last major league action.  It was part of the replacement player plan.  He got cut in spring training.

  6. george s said...

    Dan Rosenbaom wrote: ” the jury simply ruled that Clemens was not guilty of perjury beyond a reasonable doubt.  That doesn’t mean they thought McNamee’s allegations were false, just that they were insufficient to support a conviction”

    The federal government spent a ton to investigate every nook and cranny, and could not turn up a single person on the face of the earth other than Brian McNamee who had (allegedly) seen Roger Clemens do PEDs.

    And McNamee is a guy with a George Costanza-like relationship to the truth – he could not even tell the truth about supposedly being nagged by his wife (http://espn.go.com/mlb/story/_/id/8016546/brian-mcnamee-wife-denies-nagging-roger-clemens).

  7. gdc said...

    St. Louis Browns announcer Dizzy Dean also took to the mound after retirement and if he hadn’t hurt himself probably was decent enough (4 scoreless innings) to get another chance to pack the stands.  The most impressive thing was that he got a hit in his only at-bat to give him a 452 OPS+ for 1947.

    I don’t think refusal to sign autographs makes someone an egotistical a-hole.  Reveling in the attention in the middle of a game or restaurant long after your playing days might be more egotistical.

  8. Steve I said...

    I’m indifferent to a Clemens comeback, but I would like to point out that the clock moves in only one direction.  It doesn’t matter what kind of training regimen you follow, you are not the same at 50 as you are at 35.

    It is entirely possible though, that Clemens at 50 would be better than a 23 year old rookie.

    I read an interview with Clemens that said he was inspired by Nolan Ryan, back when Clemens was a young jerk (his jerk factor has apparently not been circumscribed by age).  It’s possible he wants to prove something to Ryan even now, since Ryan played 27 seasons and lasted until age 46.

  9. Anon said...

    I’m not 100% sure of this but I believe Jose Rijo is the only player ever to pitch AFTER receiving a HOF vote – he came back after 5 years off to pitch another couple seasons.

  10. John C said...

    I thought of Dizzy Dean myself. Dean had retired several years earlier when he never fully recovered from an arm injury, and was a broadcaster for the St. Louis Browns in 1947. During one of their games, he got exasperated and said on-air that he could pitch better than nine of the 10 Browns’ pitchers (Ellis Kinder was the only decent pitcher they had). Some of their wives complained to the owner, who then offered Dean, then 37, a chance to prove it.

    Dean took him up on it, pitched great for four innings, but had to leave the game one inning after he strained his hamstring getting a single. Then he went back into the booth, said he’d proved his point, but he was done playing for good.

    Clemens probably does want to stop his HOF clock, but I think he also would like to show people that he can still pitch in the majors even at 50. And he probably can.

  11. rubesandbabes said...

    The Roswell 1947 UFO incident is a cool mystery, and really not the best example of the lunatic fringe. The lunatic fringe in this case are the Ryan Braun “Free at Last” fans.

    The show me the proof standard for PED use in MLB is not correct, and mainly a dodge by people with the agenda to pretend PED use isn’t happening to the degree it is for whatever reasons.

    And yes, Rocket is seriously trying to avoid the HOF ballot for the next few years. At some point Bonds and A-Rod will go in, and that will be Rocket’s time, too.

    Paige was much older in 1965, 59 years old, or thereabouts.

    Roger Clemens definitely used PEDs – easy to see when looking at his career, fading out in Boston, then adding MPH to his fastball. It looks like two different careers on the back of his baseball card.

    Clemens is also pretty famously unclutch, never really a big game winner – finishing off the Mets(?) in the series was his biggest single game win. The big-game resume is very light for a guy with so many wins.

    ps. Dave Stewart, Summer of 88.

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