Saturday, October 22, 2005

Throwback column: May 18, 2003

I'll have a new nine innings column up Monday afternoon. In the meantime, here's a Roger Clemens . . . well, hatchet job that I pecked out during my Concord Monitor days; I think the column that has some relevance to tonight's events. I had all but forgotten about this piece, but it slipped into my consciousness while watching the Rocket get rocked in Game 1 of the World Series, then predictably suggest that his shoddy performance was due to a hamstring injury. My attitude toward Clemens has softened since I wrote this - I used to think of him as a duplicitous doofus, while now I just think of him as doofus - but it is rather pathetic that every big-game failure and every confrontation he has dodged at his own convenience can always be blamed on something other than his own lacking performance. I appreciate his rare ability, and all that he did for the Red Sox, but I have a hard time calling him the greatest pitcher ever until he learns to be accountable. Considering he's 43 years old, something tells me the day will never come. - CF

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May 18, 2003: The question is taunting and familiar: "WHERE . . . IS . . . ROJ-AH?" The answer is, too: He's taking the easy way out, somewhere far from here.

"Historic Fenway Park," as the new owners like to market it, should have played host this week to another magical, memorable moment.

On the same mound upon which he built his Hall of Fame resume, against the franchise for whom he won 192 games, dressed in the uniform of Boston's eternal enemy, Roger Clemens could have gone for his 300th career victory. At historic Fenway Park.

It would have been a beautiful confluence of mystery and history, of symmetry and coincidence. It would have been a guaranteed Instant Classic no matter what the outcome.

Everyone who treasures baseball tradition wanted to see it happen. Everyone, that is, except for the one man who could have made it happen.


Roger the Dodger strikes again.

Big shock there. It became clear, as the hype and anticipation swelled, that Clemens had no interest in achieving the milestone at his old stomping grounds.

First, he oh-so-casually mentioned to some reporters that he'd heard "a rumor" that if he won No. 299 against Texas this past Thursday, his next start would be pushed back a day. That way, he could go for No. 300 at Yankee Stadium instead of at Fenway.

A rumor? Real clever, Rog. Doesn't he know that every single rumor on the planet begins with the New York media? Yet they had heard nothing of it. Neither had Yankees Manager Joe Torre. Eyebrows - not to mention suspicions - were raised.

Then, it was reported that Ma Nature might come to his aid. Rain was in the forecast for Thursday night. Reports that Clemens was spotted doing a rain dance on the Yankee Stadium mound remain unconfirmed.

Ultimately, he took the easiest escape route. He pitched against Texas, but he did not win. After five innings and a 5-3 deficit, Torre gave him the hook. And got him off the hook.

The Yankees lost. Boston lost. Baseball lost. Clemens got a no-decision and the scenario he wanted. Now he can go for No. 299 - somewhat of a lesser feat than 300, from what I understand - on Wednesday at Fenway. If he wins, he can go for 300 on Memorial Day at home against the Red Sox.

It's the same opponent, but the Clemens-vs.-Boston battle doesn't quite have the same luster away from Yawkey Way. It won't feature the same confidence-melting pressure that comes with a hostile crowd and a bitter rival. Which is the point, of course.

I am not claiming Clemens is happy he failed to beat Texas and dodged the Boston spectacle. I am simply pointing out that such a curious twist fits his profile.

It's always something with him. He never misses a chance to stumble into the middle of some unnecessary drama, some self-inflicted subplot that puts an asterisk next to his accomplishments.

Clemens has two World Series rings . . .

. . . but the debate rages as to whether he asked out of Game 6 in '86. And there is no debate that he had to finagle a trade to the World Champion Yankees in order to finally call himself a champion.

He has won 298 games . . .

. . . yet has won just nine of 22 postseason starts and probably won't be able to beat Dave Stewart at a game of pinochle 50 years from now.

He is a master intimidator, a maestro of chin music . . .

. . . who fears facing the music himself. Just ask Mike Piazza. Three seasons ago, he drilled the Mets' star catcher in the head during a regular-season game. When the Yankees faced Piazza's Mets in the World Series later that fall, Clemens hurled a broken bat at Piazza, claiming he thought it was the ball. Meanwhile, Torre rigged the rotation so Clemens wouldn't pitch at Shea, and thus, have to dig in against the revenge-minded Mets pitchers.

He had a chance to stick it to his former team in the 1999 playoffs . . .

. . . but gave up five runs in two innings of a 13-1 loss, departing in the third inning with a supposed injury. The delightful turn of events brought the "WHERE IS ROJ-AH?" chant from the Fenway Faithful, along with this whiny lament from Clemens's wife, Debbie: "Why do they have to be so cruel (to Roger)? What did he ever do to them?"

If Mrs. Rocket isn't self-aware enough to understand, then her husband - whose nickname, you might have figured, is not short for Rocket Scientist - probably isn't, either. In fact, a lot of folks probably don't understand why we despise him so.

Fans in, say, Cleveland, might shake their heads when they hear us rail against the Rocket. Typical whiny New Englanders, they say. Gotta dwell on the past. Can't they just forgive and forget?

Well, no. Not yet. Because Clemens won't allow it. He keeps feeding us more reasons to loathe him.

Fools are always welcome to play for our Red Sox - hey, toss me a ball, Trot - just as long as they don't play us for fools. Clemens, in all of his clumsy disingenuousness, has tried to do just that.

For years, he claimed he would never leave Boston.

Then, he claimed he would leave Boston only to go home to Texas.

Then, he signed with Toronto, which even he had to know was some distance from the Lone Star State.

Then, he claimed he chose the Blue Jays not for the $32 million they slapped on the table, but because his wife loved the shopping. (Toronto is the Milan of Ontario, apparently.)

Then, once in Toronto, he got his bloated torso back into shape, fireballed his way to two Cy Youngs, and forced a trade to the Evil Empire, where he's pranced around in pinstripes ever since.

At least he is where he always belonged. Clemens is arrogant, talented, rich, less than honest, self-absorbed and for the most part, overwhelmingly successful. A born Yankee, really.

Forgive and forget? Sure we will, as soon as he admits the Red Sox meant as much to him as he did to us.

We've given him the chance to do so before.

Remember when he first came to Boston as a visitor? July 12, 1997. Final score: Toronto 3, Boston 1. Clemens, looking just plain wrong in a gaudy Blue Jays uniform, whiffed 16. He rose to the occasion. Sox fans rose to their feet in tribute.

In the aftermath, Clemens claimed it was just another game, even though everyone in the ballpark caught him shooting hate-daggers toward Dan Duquette's luxury box. The stubborn oaf still couldn't admit he cared.

Five years later, he still can't. And so we'll never know how this potentially classic chapter would have played out. Perhaps he would have whiffed 16 again to earn that 300th victory on his old turf. Or perhaps the Red Sox offense would have pummeled him into the showers by the third inning, leaving him stalled on 299 and derided with the old familiar taunt.

But before the We'll-tell-the-grandkids-about-this moment could arrive, Clemens let us down, one more time for all the old times.

Roger the Dodger got us again.