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June 2, 2003

Breaking Balls

Roger Clemens and the Historic No-Decision

by Derek Zumsteg

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I wake up at 10, head downstairs and turn on the Yes Network to watch Roger Clemens, having been denied by the Red Sox (go Sox!), go for what would seem a sure #300 against the patsy Tigers. The last game I watched on Yes, I got to see one of the worst examples of home-network announcing I ever saw, when Alfonso Soriano went to his left to field a grounder, dropped it, spun around looking for the ball, picked it up, and fired for the out. They played it over and over, talking about what a great play it was. Not what a great recovery it was, or a great throw--because Soriano got the out, it was a top-notch play from start to finish. Being a fan doesn't mean you have to cheer everything about your team, and in the same way, being a good announcer doesn't mean that every play deserves lavish praise. Watching Yes broadcasts makes me feel like I've been dipped in Yankee-logo confectioner's sugar.

The crew discusses Jeremy Bonderman, and Tigers GM's Dave Dombrowski's endorsement of Bonderman. When they go to the GMCam, Dombrowski manages to send his finger on some nose recon, then plucks his eyebrows, and spends the rest of his time trying to pick goo out of his eyes.

Nolan Ryan is named as "Roger Clemens' hero." Nolan Ryan's Texan, and I see the connection, but if Roger Clemens and Nolan Ryan had pitched over the same period of time, Nolan Ryan would be a footnote, a guy who picked up a couple of chance no-hitters. If they pitched at the same time, we'd see Clemens held up as one of the all-time greatest pitchers ever instead of listening to people waxing nostalgic about Ryan's greatness, even while he was nowhere near the pitcher Clemens is.

I don't like Clemens--I was disturbed by the Piazza bat-throwing incident and the strange lying about it afterwards. Clemens seems to me a huge competitor, perhaps too much of one. But I've never thought that I needed to like a player personally. Will Clark never wrote me mash letters, and Alex Rodriguez left me for a richer suitor, but I still think the world of them both. Roger Clemens is a fine pitcher, and until I get the chance to sit around and have a couple of beers with him, all I can say is he seems to sometimes turn the aggressiveness dial to 11, and it can hurt him. What I do know is that I despise the Yankees. You could bring back the Black Sox and have Pete Rose manage them, and I would cheer for them if they were playing the Yankees.

Jeter's up first, providing a needed bat in the lineup at the cost of defense. It's not a coincidence that the Yankees staff has started to give up more hits every game since Jeter's return. As Clay Davenport emailed recently:


Assists per game by Yankee shortstops: 
Erick Almonte (232.1 inn)   2.48 
Enrique Wilson (104 inn)    2.34 
Derek Jeter (139 inn)       1.68

Inning's over quickly.

Clemens doesn't even try to wear his illegal glove with the round, white Roger Clemens 300th win patch on it today. I'd have liked to see him try to wear it, because that's the kind of thing likely to incur the wrath of Baseball Gods. Wearing commemorative merchandise for an event that hasn't occurred yet? That's ridiculous. Teams should make more use of the equipment rules: It's the kind of Davey Johnson rule that requires a manager to be willing to annoy opposing teams and bring similar abuse on his own team. But you can be a stickler for jewelry, or the pitchers' glove [1.15(a) says uniform in color including all stitching, lacing, and webbing], you can nail Pedro Martinez for having a frayed uniform [Rule 1.11(a)(2)] and you might be able force players to all wear the same style of uniform (baggy to shoe-tops versus tight, for instance) [1.11(a)(3)].

Clemens strikes out Bobby Higginson with a 93 mph fastball, and it looks like he's cruising. I'm not sure how reliable the Yes Network's radar gun is, but he's cranking it up to 95 already and looks good. Higginson still has a bit of a good player sheen, on account of being the best player on a bad team for a while now, but there are a lot of teams where he'd be the fourth outfielder.

Jason Giambi scores, and I predict--yes, there it is--the announcing crew is talking about how important it is to jump out in front of a team like the Tigers.

Juan Rivera's up with one out and runners on first and third, and here's the insight I get from the Yes crew: As a young hitter, Rivera had a chance to get a runner in from third, but he might be thinking 'I gotta get this run in' instead of 'well, I'll try to get this run in.' Rivera also might be thinking "fastball" or "breaking pitch" and trying to concentrate on the game. Even at the highest level of the game, there's not a lot of thought that goes into hitting while you're in the box, and there's no way Juan Rivera is having some kind of existential dilemma. Rivera grounds into a double play, so maybe he is up there considering the nature of perception or something.

Dmitri Young hits a triple over Hideki Matsui's head, and I never thought I'd get to see Young run out a triple. He knocked his own helmet off between first and second--for aerodynamics, I guess--and bounded to third. I'd like him to steal home right now, except that Clemens isn't the kind of guy to get rattled by seeing such a huge dude lumbering toward home suddenly.

Shane Halter singles, Young scores, and in the second inning it's tied. In Detroit, I imagine there's a color commentator saying: "When the other team scores first, it's important to come right back and get that run to keep the team in the game..."

Music in Comerica Park: organ version of "Centerfold" (by J. Geils Band) which was one of my favorite songs (na na, na-na-na-na) for a while back (na na na, na-na-na na na) when I was still developing taste (along with the Kinks' "Destroyer," which has stood up better). It's a cute little hook, but the song's about seeing a girl the singer had previously seen naked, only this time as the fold-out of a pornographic magazine. I wouldn't have picked that as a catchy bit for a family crowd. At least they're not doing that annoying "Day-O" challenge-response crowd awareness polling system.

Jorge Posada gets on with a slow infield hit, and Bonderman fields the ball, almost throws--and Bonderman holds onto the ball midway into his motion, and he either swears in frustration or he's pulled something. He looks fine on the mound, but it can't be easy to try and not throw a ball mid-way through throwing it.

Derek Jeter hits a two-run home run, which is why you play him over Enrique Wilson. Just cranked it. Alfonso Soriano drives a single through the right side of the infield. Between the two of them and Bernie Williams, Soriano and Jeter provide the clearest choice in the majors between defense up the middle and offense. Together they're the worst defensive unit, and one of the most productive offensively.

In discussing Giambi's batting average, Torre's quoted as saying that he doesn't care about the batting average, he cares about "the other two numbers." OBP and SLG? Nope, HR and RBI. Well, at least one of those represents power...sort of.

The Yes announcers are obsessed with novelty age statistics today. By the end of the game every Tiger will be compared to Clemens: age of player in Clemens' rookie year, Clemens seasons at player's debut, age of player when Clemens turned 30, 40...we get it already, they're young and Clemens is old.

Speed scores: After stealing second easily, Soriano advances to third and thought about home on a wild pitch and then scores on another wild pitch. While Brandon Inge gave up on the second, I can't see Dmitri Young, for instance, advancing consistently on balls that get past the catcher. Speed takes Away: Posada's caught stealing at second. Yankees are up 4-1, and since the Tigers can only manage to score 3.2 runs a game, it would seem that I haven't been assigned this game for naught.

Ball comes up on Soriano, who doesn't get a hold of it, ball drops, he misses a bare-handed grab for it, then kicks it...and the announcer actually uses the phrase "boots it.' On the replay they then talk about what a tough hop it was, but also mention Soriano should have made the play. From behind, Soriano's awkward play looks like he's being controlled like a marionette, all stiff joints and limbs flying about.

Raul Mondesi's at-bat is described as key because he's hitting .300 and it looks nice on the scoreboard when you come up to the plate. Later in the season, I'd like to see Mondesi not pay attention in a crucial game against, say, the Red Sox, stranding the bases full, and afterwards say "well, my average was .310, so I didn't see this as a key at-bat." I'm sure that'd go over well with the New York media.

The Yes crew has just had a long discussion about whether it's good to throw young players into the major leagues or not, and the conclusion was: "If you throw five of these guys out there and one of them turns out, I think that's worth the risk." Ummm...yeah, it's worth it for the Yankees, since it means their opponent will have destroyed five arms.

("Centerfold" again. Maybe in Anaheim they could get away with this, but even then, it would imply team members or organization personnel in the pages of Playgirl, if that thing's still around...) Clemens gets three easy outs.

I think 20-25% of the Yes Network's ad inventory is pro-Yankee ads. I would be willing to bet that the Yankees don't pay Yes for that promotion… but now that I think about it, the revenue-hiding way to do that would be for the Yankees to pay the Yes Network a ton of money for those ads, making the not-sharing-revenue Yes Network much more profitable at the expense of the revenue-sharing Yankees. The whole Yes Network thing is part of a larger attempt to make the Yes Network synonymous with the Yankee brand, so that they can move some share of Yankee merchandise sales (shared) to Yes Merchandise sales (not shared) (and how about those ads--what kind of a woman buys sweatpants with "YES" across the butt? And depending on where she lives, can you introduce her to Kahrl or Wilkins?). It's a tall order, though: Given the chance, do you think the Yankee fan is going to choose...

  • Direct association with storied franchise with more championships than can be easily counted and great historical figures

  • Once-removed association with franchise and direct relationship with acrimonious negotiations that left much of metro New York area unable to watch said franchise on TV for over a year and change

Mastui scores on a Posada hit, so the Yankees lead 5-1. Robin Ventura doubles, Soriano scores, throw home flies past home and Posada scores, I hear some boos. It's now 7-1, and as much as I'd like to see a bad team surprise in these kind of circumstances, I don't see it happening. Flipping to the home team to avoid that fricking Saab ad that's on twice a break, it's 7-1 in Minnesota, where Kenny Rogers has been chased out of the game. But with Freddy Garcia pitching for the M's you can imagine the Twins tacking eight or nine runs on his back pretty easily.

Back to the Yankees game, Eugene Kingsale, of all people, hits a two-run home run and it's 7-3. Ball hit to Jeter, clang, ball into left field, Sanchez to third, throw from Rivera to third off, Sanchez scores, 7-4. Let's try this again: The anemic Tigers offense will never score that runner from second. (quick flip to the M's Twins-7-3...I know this is coincidence, but I'm still concerned). Clemens fields a comebacker and then runs straight at Santiago and chases him back to second, makes one throw to Jeter, who gets the tag. Man, that was a good heads-up run-down, Clemens was calm, the Yankees were all in position, one throw, one out. I do admire the Yankees for that--they have for years seemed extremely well-coached. They back up plays, they don't seem to make dumb mistakes on the basepaths.

There's a woman behind home plate who has a beer in one hand that is as large as her head. I want that beer, but here in the Emerald City it's before noon, and I haven't worked out today, so there'll be no drinking in Haus Zumsteg. Plus, uh, I'm on assignment here.

Wild pitch, Posada doesn't get up to block it or put a glove on it. Catching rising fastballs running up into the upper 90s, that's not easy. Jeter drops a ball, fumbles, throw to first is off the base, runner's safe, run scores, 7-5. Next play grounder to Soriano, Soriano's throw is off to Todd Zeile's right, and it's 7-6. It's working, I can't believe this. At this point, I wonder if the Tigers wouldn't be better off to try just bunting the ball to short or second and letting the defense score for them. Halter waves at a ball and Clemens is out of the inning.

So far the tally for damage done by the defense reads:

  • two hits, one homer, four runs (counting Soriano's run after getting on base via error) versus

  • two runners allowed, two runs scored where the inning might have been over if they'd made the play

Holy mackerel, the Yes dudes said the Yankees played unacceptable baseball last inning. Steinbrenner's probably composing his telegram now (to minimize costs, there will only be one telegram: "YOU ARE ALL FIRED STOP." Zeile hits a home run, and it's more likely Clemens is going to hang around and sop up a victory, having thrown only around 100 pitches.

But he doesn't! I look up the number for the New York Police Department, I need to call the Missing Persons desk and let them know that Sterling Hitchcock's been sighted in Detroit. His family should be relieved, I understand they've been very concerned about poor Sterling. It's weird that Torre, given a two-run lead and a chance to preserve the lead to get Clemens his 300th win, reached way back on the depth chart to pull Hitchcock out. But he wants the lefty, aptly, to face Santiago-Higginson-Young. The NYPD is not amused by my phone call.

The Detroit public address announcer sounds like he's excited and a little surprised at each batter's name. "Now batting, number 23...Dmitri Young?!" People keep running down the aisle on the left-hand side of the screen, sometimes with cell phones at their ears, sometimes not, waving frantically at the camera, and in that moment I imagine a centerfield sharpshooter putting a bullet through the wavers' knees, their faces flashing from stupid glee to a grimace of pain as they tumble below the short wall, out of view. Paramedics could haul them out between batters.

Hitchcock, after putting two on and getting only one out, is pulled. If I were Hitchcock, I don't think I'd go straight to the visiting clubhouse, where Clemens is probably honing a hunting knife and muttering to himself. And as we come back from the commercial break, Hitchcock's still in the dugout, where he'll probably remain all night. Pena pinch-hits and Santiago scores, we're at 8-7. In the clubhouse, a whetstone is getting the whipping of a lifetime, and Hitchcock offers sunflower seeds to the guys next to him on the bench while laughing nervously. Antonio Osuna walks the bases loaded and gives up a fly ball to tie the game, and Clemens won't get his 300th win today.

The win is a dumb stat: It's like the abandoned game-winning RBI for pitchers. It's a counting stat that doesn't count individual accomplishment. The fuss over the number 300 seems even more loopy. We have 10 fingers, and 10 seems much more important than nine. One hundred is a milestone, 99 isn't. Zeros behind a number make the number in front suddenly significant.

Really, though, we choose what's significant to us, and 300 wins is no more or less silly than being a lifelong fan of a sport where we mark off bases so many feet away from each other, with all kinds of arbitrary measurements and rules. Milestones are important, they're mental barriers are well as accomplishments. Each minute taken off the mile, for instance, seemed like it slowed runners who approached it until someone would smash the record and the whole field could move past it. Few pitchers have won 300 games, and today Roger Clemens did not become one of them.

But this is baseball, and what happens after we've gotten the milestone out of the way is awesome: 10 more innings of shutout baseball, including two great innings of work by Mariano Rivera and five and two-thirds innings of yeoman's pitching by David Wells who went out and didn't walk anyone, letting the Tigers get themselves out. That's a full start for a guy coming back from injury. On the other side, we got to see knuckleballer Steve Sparks throw almost eight innings in relief, only to lose the game when his team couldn't score the second run in the bottom of the seventeenth. Roger Clemens is going to have to find tickets for his family to attend his next start, projected to be against the Cubs (may we recommend the Cubs' illegal self-scalping service, Wrigley Field Premium?). But after five hours of baseball, Clemens' failure to win his 300th today wasn't the most interesting thing that happened in this game.

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