What's up with Roger?     (10/24/00)

Roger Clemens is a great pitcher.  If he's not the best in the latter half of the 20th century, certainly one of the top 3 or 4.  He's won over 250 games.  He's topped 200 Ks in a season 10 times.  But because his Red Sox teams never won the World Series, and neither of his Blue Jays teams made the postseason, he was viewed as somehow a lesser player by his critics, of which there were and still are many, although most of those are due to his abrasive personality.

Last year he orchestrated a trade to the Yankees so he could get his championship and perhaps silence his critics.  However, he had a less that stellar season and was viewed as being past his prime and merely tagging along for the ride.  He wasn't terrible in the postseason, but definitely not vintage Clemens either until the clincher, Game 4 of the World Series, when the Yankees completed their sweep of the Braves.  In that game, he shut the Braves down, although he didn't much look like the guy who had twice struck out 20 batters in a game.

This year, he started out somewhat slowly and the calls for his retirement grew.  His season bottomed out in June, a month in which he had an ERA of over 9 and was regularly being pummeled.  In one particular game against the Mets, he was savaged for 8 runs in just 5 innings.  Four of those runs came off a Mike Piazza grand slam.  That hit raised Mike Piazza's lifetime batting average against Clemens to .571.

A month later, he faced the Mets again.  This time, though, he pitched much better.  But that's not what will be remembered.  What will be remembered is that Roger Clemens beaned Mike Piazza with a fastball with his first pitch in his first at bat.  Had this game taken place 30 years ago, when batting helmets weren't mandatory, Mike Piazza might have been killed.  Piazza missed the All Star game with a concussion as it was.  Still, had he reacted just a fraction of a second later, the ball would have crushed his eye socket, possibly ending the career of the greatest hitting catcher ever.  Clemens insisted the ball had just slipped.

Fast forward to the American League Championship Series, where Clemens faced another great hitter who had enjoyed success against him.  Alex Rodriguez had hit .333 of Clemens in nearly 40 career at bats.  His first pitch to Rodriguez in that Series was a fastball inside, face-high, almost identical to the one that nailed Piazza.  Rodriguez, a much younger and more athletic player, backed out of the way.  Clemens followed that up with another pitch to almost the exact same location.  Must've slipped again.

So were they just "slips"?  Absolutely not.  Roger Clemens is the only man in history to win 5 Cy Young awards.  There's a reason for that.  He has remarkable control for a guy who throws with the velocity he does.  In 10 of his 17 seasons he's walked fewer that 70 batters.  And while he has thrown 92 wild pitches in his career, that's hardly an indictment for wildness.  Nolan Ryan threw 277.  Steve Carlton threw 183.  The great Walter Johnson threw 155.  Clemens total barely gets him into the top 100 all time.  Orel Hershiser and Rick Sutcliffe each compiled more throws to the backstop in shorter careers than Clemens and they were considered to have very good control.  No, those pitches definitely didn't slip.

Obviously, these were not the first times a pitcher ever threw at a batter's head.  Nor was the Piazza incident the first time a batter was hit in the head.  Don Zimmer, Tony Conigliaro, Paul Blair and Dickie Thon were all victims in famous beaning incidents.  The Yankees' Carl Mays hit Indian's shortstop Ray Chapman in the head with a fastball in 1920, killing him.  Chapman didn't die right there on the field.  He was revived long enough to be helped out of the batter's box, but on the way to the centerfield clubhouse, he collapsed and never again regained consciousness.  He died the following day.

Many people have never heard of Carl Mays, which is sad, because Carl Mays was a very good pitcher, one of the better pitchers of his generation.  Mays won 20 games in five of his fifteen seasons, and won at least 18 games seven times. He led the league in complete games and shutouts twice each.  He even led the league in saves a couple of times.  He finished his career with an ERA of 2.92, and while a good portion of his career came in the deadball era, 10 of his 15 years in the majors were liveball years.  Mays was widely regarded as a surly fellow, but is that the reason why he's not in the Hall of Fame?  Probably not.  One pitch.  One pitch that "slipped" is why.

Clemens' aggressive style follows in the footsteps of Bob Gibson and Don Drysdale.  And while that kind of intimidation worked on lesser hitters, it was rarely successful against the hitters of Piazza's or Rodriguez' caliber.  Can you name the pitcher Hank Aaron hit more homers against than anyone?  Don Drysdale.  In a conversation they had with Peter Gammons at their induction to the Hall of Fame, both George Brett and Robin Ventura admitted that they went to the plate scared of failure.  Throwing at their head didn't change that.  They were more scared of failure.  Threatening them only made them focus.

Which brings me to today, and Clemens' bat throwing incident.  In his first at bat against Clemens since the beaning, Piazza's bat shattered and a portion of it went moundward.  Another portion went toward the first base side and the ball dribbled foul.  However, with 3 things traveling in different directions, Piazza simply took no chances and started to run to first.  The bat head bounced to Clemens who fielded it to protect himself.  Then, rather than hold on to it or merely hand it to the ballboy who always comes out to clean such things up, he winged it in Piazza's direction.  Yankee manager Joe Torre can tap dance all he wants, saying that is was merely coincidence that the Clemens bat throw and Piazza were in the same place, or that he'd like to think that it wasn't intentional, or that Clemens is more professional than that.  Clemens' recent history with Piazza and his extremely competitive nature tells another story.

My point?  Barring a Carl Mays-type incident, Clemens is a first ballot Hall of Famer.  However, Carl Mays doesn't seem so far fetched given the recent events.  Is Clemens losing control of his competitive fire?  Is that spirit becoming a demon?  I suppose only he knows for sure.  But cheap intimidation tactics are not what got Clemens to his current place in history.  I hope simply that his pursuit of one more bauble amidst a treasury of accomplishments does not become so desperate that he risks his legacy with such nonsense.  Perhaps not his professional legacy, but maybe a more important one.  Will it be OK when one of Clemens' myriad young admirers beans one of his own sons in the spirit of trying to win a game?  Will he be satisfied with "it just slipped"?