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September 25, 2012

Out of Left Field

Rooting for Roger

by Matthew Kory

Last season I played adult league baseball. I played decently well, got some hits, played a solid second base and pitched acceptably on occasion, but when I think back on the experience I’m struck by one thing: the pain. Playing two games a weekend meant spending the rest of the week in some level of discomfort. Whether it was throwing 20 pitches out of the bullpen and not being able to raise my arm above my shoulder for several days, or the general soreness that comes from throwing one’s body to the ground as a baseball rolls past, or the many welts from taking a fastball to the kidney, fielding a ground ball with your nipples (don’t try this at home, kids), or getting run over at second base, baseball is a painful endeavor. We -- well I -- don’t tend to think of it that way. Most of the time the players are standing around, or jogging from one spot to the next. But if my ridiculously minimal experience is any indicator, pain is a constant part of playing professional baseball.

That’s one reason why I want to see Roger Clemens pitch next season. In case you missed it, Clemens told the Houston Chronicle he wasn’t ruling out pitching in the majors next season. Which, for a normal person, is like saying, I’m not ruling out going to the moon in the next nine minutes. Sure, you’re not ruling it out, but it’s not going to happen either.

But Clemens isn’t a normal person. For one, he was a major league pitcher. That alone makes him abnormal. But even in the scope of professional baseball, and even in the scope of Hall of Fame-level professional baseball, Clemens’ career is atypical.

I’d call Clemens polarizing if I thought anyone liked the guy. Actually, I will use that term because I found someone who likes Clemens: me. I’m not a fan of, among other things, steroid use, throwing shards of wood at All-Star catchers, or going from the Red Sox to the Yankees, even if by way of Canada. But if you can set that and all the other extraneous stuff aside -- and I acknowledge it’s a lot of stuff -- when it comes to baseball, there are few better guys to watch pitch than Clemens.

One of the aspects that define an inner-circle Hall of Famer is a slow descent from a high peak. Clemens was one of the best pitchers in the game when most pitchers were barely hanging on. He won a Cy Young award at age 34, another at 35, another at 38, and yet another at 41. (He came in third at age 42.) The common perception about Clemens in 2007, his final season, is he finally showed his age. And maybe he did. Clemens had a 4.18 ERA in 99 innings for the Yankees that year, and dealt with some injuries. Here, in part, is what Baseball Prospectus 2008 said about him:

The team was hoping for more age-defying excellence, and, in a sense, got it; overall, Clemens was a better-than-average starting pitcher, something of a miracle for a 44-year-old. Still, the old magic was gone. He struggled with a variety of injuries-groin and hamstring pulls and, most troublingly, a balky ligament in his pitching elbow. His heater lost still more zip, bringing his strikeouts down accordingly, and when his location and splitter weren't sharp, he had no plan-B.*

So there are questions, but then there would be for any 50-year-old attempting to pitch in the majors. I’m guessing a major-league team could devise a schedule that would give Clemens sufficient time to rest between appearances. Maybe you change his role a bit and have him pitch in scheduled relief. If he can still get hitters out, there are plenty of ways he could be utilized. Baseball teams always need pitching, even if it comes in two- or three-inning increments every seventh day.

* In fairness, losing the abilities both to locate and to throw a swing-and-miss pitch will doom most pitchers.

It’s impossible to oversell the age component. It’s one of the reasons I opened this piece with that bit of autobiography. I’m 36, and playing baseball twice a week wastes my body. I can’t imagine what it’ll be like when I’m 50. Here’s a list of things a normal 50-year-old man might do:

1. Play fantasy baseball
2. Not play actual baseball
3. Complains about his sciatica

Before he pitched for the independent league Sugarland Skeeters, the event that prompted this and many other articles, Clemens spoke with CNN’s Piers Morgan. Morgan, sounding like he was interviewing a NASA bureaucrat, asked Clemens, “Is the Rocket firing on all cylinders?” Clemens took that invitation to talk about himself in the third person and ran with it. “The Rocket is almost firing on all cylinders. I’m not going to stay on the launching pad. I will definitely take flight and, uh, we’ll see what happens.”

What did happen according to the Skeeters website was Clemens threw eight scoreless innings, allowing three hits and striking out three batters. That sounds fine and good but I’d have to be Jason Parks to give you any more insight on whether or not those eight innings indicate anything about what Clemens might or might not have left in the tank. As you are likely aware, I am not Jason Parks. Undoubtedly this is your loss.

To be clear, when he was talking about whether or not to pitch next season, Clemens didn’t say, “Look out, ol’ Rog is on the come-back trail!” It was more like, “I’ll never say never.” In fact, here’s the exact quote from the Chronicle:

I might be going again here [Kissimmee, FL, where the Astros hold Spring Training] in February or something like that,” Clemens said Saturday. “I’ll be throwing. I don’t think it’s going to be competitive, but you guys know with me, I’m never going to shut the door on anything. Who knows what might happen.

When thinking through this, I find myself falling back on this bit of truism: as a baseball fan, I always want the best players on the field. Clemens is one of the best pitchers of all time. He’s a Hall of Famer whether the voters say so or not. His JAWS score is RAAWWR!!! We know Clemens was a great pitcher at 30, and we know he was a great pitcher at 40. I’d love to see if he’s still a great pitcher at 50.

In 1990 Jim Palmer was elected to the Hall of Fame. He was 44-years-old at the time. The following Spring Training he attempted a comeback with the Orioles. He threw two innings, giving up five hits and two runs. That was convincing enough and Palmer promptly re-retired. Maybe at 50 Clemens has finally reached that point where, like Palmer, the game has passed him by.

Age gets us all in the end. For some, it just takes a whole lot longer. At some point Roger Clemens won’t be able to get major league hitters out anymore. That point in time may have already come, but I’m not sure. I’d like to find out. I hope Clemens feels the same way.

Matthew Kory is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Matthew's other articles. You can contact Matthew by clicking here

Related Content:  Roger Clemens,  Jim Palmer

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