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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

12 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links


Assuming Clemens finds a MLB taker, and he throws a few innings before injuries, sub-grade performance, or lack of interest ensues, would this reset the clock on his appearance on his inaugural HOF ballot?

That alone would be incentive for him to try.

Sep 25, 2012 05:10 AM
rating: 0

Clemens will be on the ballot this year. He has not pitched in the major leagues since 2007 and the ballot is set in the off season.

The bylaws posted on the baseball hall of fame site do not state what happens when a player who is on the ballot goes back into active service. I'm not sure they ever really considered the possibility from a "writing down the rules" perspective.

All of that said, I think assuming Clemens would attempt to return to the majors to affect his hall of fame ballot status is largely a creation of the media and conspiracy theory minded fans. Through his actions and statements over the years, he has definitely marched to his own beat...and not anyone else...media or fans.

As someone who is closer to 50 than 30, I want to see him try IF he wants to put in the time. And I think that has been the one true thing about Roger Clemens over the years - if he's going to try something, he will put in the time. I can respect that regardless of anything else that has happened in his career.

Sep 25, 2012 06:13 AM
rating: 1

Wow, time flies. And I guess this makes me a conspiracy-theory minded fan, because this is the first thing that popped in my head a while back when his potential comeback was first announced.

I think it's entirely believable that he intends to mount a comeback because he feels he left too early. Still has something to prove. Has the fire in his belly. Etc.

I also think that there's an obvious secondary bonus that resetting his eligibility by 5 years would make any negative perceptions held by voters even smaller in the rear-view mirror.

I too am closer to 50 than 30, and would love to see him do it, just to know if he can.

Sep 25, 2012 11:13 AM
rating: 0

I feel the same way. I want to see him go out there and try if he's got something left. He'd probably be the last man on a roster and would be cut faster then Jamie Moyer, but a few innings a week out of the bullpen could still be exciting to watch.

Sep 25, 2012 06:37 AM
rating: 2

I totally want to see it. I always regretted that Randy Johnson had no interest in becoming a LOOGY at the end of his career -- seemed like he should have been able to do that forever....

Sep 25, 2012 06:56 AM
rating: 2

If Clemens is doing this as a lark, fine. But if he's serious about pitching again in the majors, I find that rather sad. With all his money, connections, and opportunities, he should be looking forward, not back; finding new challenges and meaning, instead of re-living the old.

Sep 25, 2012 12:23 PM
rating: -3
BP staff member Matt Kory
BP staff

I don't think there's anything wrong or pathetic or sad about wanting to keep pitching. We all act like athletes who have trained their whole lives to do what they do are supposed to just stop at a certain point. I don't think that's realistic. If it were me I'd try to pitch as long as I possibly could. Most guys have to stop. The game dictates that to them. Clemens has yet to have that happen.

Sep 25, 2012 15:32 PM

Geez, Matt, it's not like he spent 20 years in the minors to make it to The Show for half a season. The man lived every dream a pitcher could live - and many times over.

Guys like you and me and Jamie Moyer who want to deny Truth and hold on as long as possible? That I can understand. I can't understand Roger Clemens doing it. YMMV.

Sep 26, 2012 13:36 PM
rating: 0

"I had a friend was a big baseball player
back in high school
He could throw that speedball by you
Make you look like a fool boy
Saw him the other night at this roadside bar
I was walking in, he was walking out
We went back inside sat down had a few drinks
but all he kept talking about was

I think you know the rest. As to the question about resetting his eligibility, unless I am very much mistaken, Jose Rijo re-started his clock after he was found wanting on his first pass through the ballot.

Sep 25, 2012 19:59 PM
rating: 1
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You guys want to see him come back???
There is something pathetic and sad about a person
who place such demands upon his wife that she feels she
needs to do steroids to keep up with his expectations.
There is no way we will ever know whether the PEDs enabled
Clemons to be so successful into his forties---although I
know which side I'm landing on in that guessing game. But
enough is enough. The notion that Houston considered signing
him this year was sick.
Me, personally, I was glad when the county fair did away with the freak show.

Sep 25, 2012 12:24 PM
rating: -4
Shaun P.

This comment has nothing to do with the subject matter of the article, which I found quite thought-provoking.

It has to do with two lines: "His JAWS score is RAAWWR!!!" and "As you are likely aware, I am not Jason Parks. Undoubtedly this is your loss.", which still have me laughing, many minutes after I was done reading the article and its comments.

BP really needs to start tracking all the awesome one-liners Matt and Sam Miller intersperse in their respective articles, and figure out who has more overall, more per article, etc. Oh, and come up with some catchy acronym for it, which I tried and failed to do just now. I love serious baseball analysis, and I love funny writing. That BP offers both - and always has - is one of the reasons I keep re-subscribing.

Sep 25, 2012 14:48 PM
rating: 1
BP staff member Matt Kory
BP staff

Thank you, Shaun. That's a very nice thing for you to write. Even being mentioned in the same sentence as Sam is a huge compliment.

Sep 25, 2012 15:26 PM
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