By Michael Wilbon
Saturday, July 23, 2005
Who knew one of Roger Clemens's favorite places in the world was Washington, D.C.? Who knew one of the Great Gods of Baseball felt honored to pitch here, that he would attract generals and admirals. His day began with his first trip to the U.S. Capitol and ended with his first start in the nation's capital. More than 38,000 people were wise enough to come out and see the greatest pitcher of his time throw six shutout innings at RFK Stadium last night, and only afterward did a few of us learn Clemens was as ecstatic to see them as to be seen.
"It's a free ticket to see Washington," he said of his trip. "Today, I was in the Capitol building. . . . I had never been in there. I was able to meet some interesting people [on Capitol Hill]." Clemens was beaming now, sounding like the head of the chamber of commerce. He had only moments before stopped talking with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Richard Myers. "I'm taken aback," Clemens said, "by his presence. That's why I marched him through the clubhouse to meet my teammates."
Turned out Clemens never waited for baseball to come back to D.C. to get himself over here. President George Bush, both of them, would call Texas's favorite son when he'd travel to Baltimore and invite him to the White House. "When they invite you to the White House, how can you turn it down?" he said afterward. Clemens didn't. He'd come to the White House often enough that he'd become friends with members of the Secret Service, with soldiers. He once went to the Bureau of Engraving "to see them print money," he recalled. Trips to Washington, Clemens said, "puts things into perspective."
Probably no player in baseball history has performed so well so late into his career as Clemens is performing now. On his way out of RFK last night, Clemens joked that "my eyesight and memory are the first things to go," but there's not the slightest bit of evidence that he's losing anything at present. He's 42 and the stingiest pitcher in baseball, allowing fewer runs after 20 starts than he ever has. It had to be discouraging for the Nationals to give up two runs in the first inning (on Morgan Ensberg's 26th homer of the season, a two-run shot) when the guy on the hill has an earned run average of 1.40, which if Clemens keeps it up would be the lowest since 1968. Actually, his overall ERA is downright sloppy compared to his 0.34 ERA in road games this season. It doesn't make any sense, really, that a man who is 42 has allowed only two earned runs in 59 innings away from home. That's nine road starts and two earned runs. That's Koufax and Gibson stuff, Big Train and Lefty Grove. It's fantasy baseball. Pure fantasy.
Clemens had started 19 games before last night, and in those 19 starts he allowed two earned runs only twice. In 11 of those 19 starts he allowed four hits or fewer. Last night in six innings, Clemens allowed the Nationals only three hits. He threw 102 pitches, 70 for strikes. He struck out 10, walked three, hit a batter, and allowed only one runner as far as second base. The Astros are finally scoring some runs, finally winning enough games to seriously challenge for the wild-card spot in the National League. It's more than the Braves the Nationals are trying to fend off from here on in. And when you're as offensively challenged as the Astros are (not that last night was any evidence) you need at least one close-to-perfect pitcher, and Clemens is so close to perfect it's scary. With even modest run support, Clemens could be 17-2 instead of 8-4. There are teammates who swear he should be undefeated right now, a perfect 20-0. Remember, the Astros have been shut out in four of Clemens's starts. He was the starter in three 1-0 extra inning shutouts. The only other major leaguer in history to start three straight games that were nil-nil after nine innings came in the dead ball era, 1910, and the hard-luck pitcher, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, was Brooklyn's Doc Scanlan.
You'd be hard-pressed to think of any old geezer in any sport who is better at 42 than he was in his presumed physical prime. Forget the NBA. Michael Jordan was clearly better at 23 than he was at 33. At 40 he wasn't close to what he was at 35. Jerry Rice, at 40, caught 92 passes for 1,211 yards and seven touchdowns, which was unspeakably brilliant but still nowhere close to his dominant years in the early and mid-1990s when Rice was in his late 20s and early 30s. Jack Nicklaus won the Masters at 46, but nobody in his right mind would argue that Nicklaus was as capable then as he was between 1962 and 1978.
Last year Clemens won his seventh Cy Young award, which nobody has done, at 41, which nobody has ever done. He was 4-0 with a 2.57 ERA in September. He's doing things in his 40s he never did in his 20s or 30s. For instance, since 2001, Clemens has the highest winning percentage among starters with 50 decisions (.756), ahead of Pedro Martinuez, Johan Santana, Curt Schilling and teammate Roy Oswalt. And it makes you wonder something that on the face of it sounds, well, insane: Can Clemens win 400 games?
Seriously, he's got 336 career victories. Can he win 64 more? Probably, he'll lose interest before he loses his stuff. If he won eight more games this year and matched last year's win total of 16, it would leave him 56 from 400. But why would you rule out anything with Clemens, as fit as he is, as ornery as he is every fifth day with the ball in his hand, as hard as he works, as precise and as passionate as he is about his craft?
Somebody wondered whether Clemens had any interest in trying to record a shutout. "My shutouts," he said, "are over, probably. . . . We were going back and forth about the seventh inning . . . I was gonna run back out there . . . and they said, 'That's enough' . . . I'm pitching against guys half my age, for the most part." And guys with half his talent, half his resourcefulness, and a much smaller fraction of his success or impact on the game.