Roger and Me
Less than meets the eye in Clemens’ comeback spectacle
In his famous soliloquy, Macbeth described life as “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” While I’m not a particular friend of Bill S., it seems there is often something from Shakespeare to describe events in this human comedy.
Those words came to mind as I sat eight rows behind the visitor’s dugout to watch a 50-year-old man pitch a baseball game, which I guess makes me the idiot telling this tale. The aging athlete was not facing batters at a church picnic, however. He was Roger Clemens, arguably the greatest pitcher of his generation, back on the mound in a minor league game trying to prove something with the Sugar Land Skeeters although it is not exactly clear what.
After spending the previous week wondering aloud why tickets were in such demand that they were being offered on eBay for $3,000 for the return of the man they call Rocket, there I sat watching this improbable comeback, which was also being telecast to a national audience on ESPN Classic. Clemens, the fireballing right-hander, had notched 354 wins and 4,672 strikeouts in a career that spanned 23 years with the Boston Red Sox, Toronto Blue Jays, New York Yankees and Houston Astros. During that time, he picked up a record seven Cy Young Awards, two World Series championship rings and more than $160 million in cash.
The five years since he last pitched professionally in his second stint with the Yankees had not been kind to Clemens. His credentials should have guaranteed his status as a first-ballot Hall of Famer but the shadow of the steroid scandal could block his path to Cooperstown, a fate likely shared by home run kings Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds, their all-time numbers permanently tainted. To add insult to injury, Clemens had testified before the House of Representatives in Washington that he had never used performance-enhancing drugs. For his trouble, he was indicted for perjury and put on trial twice before being acquitted earlier his summer thanks in part to the herculean efforts of Houston attorney Rusty Hardin.
That star-crossed prelude added up to maximum attention being paid to a game that didn’t count for much of anything at all, but it came during the lull before college football and the NFL began to play for real. A mere 25 miles down the road, the Houston Astros were playing out the string as the worst team in baseball for the second straight disastrous season. Some of the best Astros players of recent vintage were having good years in 2012, but they were all wearing the uniforms of other teams as management had conducted a personnel fire sale before and after the team changed hands.
This lackluster performance had opened the door for the Sugar Land Skeeters, currently finishing their first season in something called the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball. Not exactly a normal minor league whose teams are affiliated with major league clubs, the Atlantic League consists of seven teams clustered in the northeastern U.S. including the Long Island Ducks and the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs. Most of the squads contain at least a couple of former major league players. This night, the Bridgeport Bluefish were in from Connecticut.
On a pleasant, cool August evening, a capacity crowd packed the trim new ballpark that features a trampoline, swimming pool and carousel beyond the outfield fence. The Skeeters have proved to be adroit marketers, offering a family-friendly product at popular prices, albeit without any real competition from the sorry mess the recent Astros teams have proved to be. As such, they have sold out the 7,800 seat Constellation Field for 50 of 52 games in their inaugural season. In October, bearded rockers ZZ Top will play a concert there.
We arrived in Sugar Land earlier that afternoon to visit my brother Patrick who had moved to town two weeks earlier. He offered to drive us past the ballpark where the spectacle was taking place, pointing out the plethora of television trucks reminiscent of the Camp O.J. that had sprung up outside a Los Angeles courthouse years earlier after another former athletic great found himself back in the news. When a scalper waved four tickets in our direction, I demurred but Patrick managed to secure the ducats for their face value of $8 each.
Good thing we didn’t have to pay $3,000 for our seats. Clemens strolled to the mound and struck out the first two batters he faced, then turned in a workmanlike performance. His fastball peaked at a respectable 89 mph, with Rocket throwing 37 pitches over 3 1/3 scoreless innings before being lifted for a relief pitcher with one out in the fourth inning.
And suddenly he was gone, the historic comeback appearance lasting less than an hour. The Skeeters held on for a 1-0 win. Clemens took off to play in a golf tournament while rumors of a possible outing with the lowly Astros swirled. As for Roger and me, this was likely our last hurrah – but it was fun while it lasted.
James Shannon can be reached at (409) 832-1400, ext. 249, or by e-mail at james [at] beaumontbusinessjournal [dot] com.