All Clemens Needs Is a Place to Park
Saturday, June 9, 2007
NEW YORK, June 8 -- On Friday afternoon, less than 24 hours before Roger Clemens was to take the mound for the New York Yankees for his season debut, his nameplate had been placed over the same back-of-the-clubhouse locker he occupied when he last pitched for the team in 2003. But there was a problem in the players' parking lot.
It seems Clemens's old spot had been assigned of late to pitcher Carl Pavano, and while Pavano is long gone -- on the disabled list for the umpteenth time, still under contract but likely never to be seen around these parts again -- his car was still in the lot, sitting tauntingly in that particular spot, which once again belongs to Clemens.
"Last I heard," said one Yankees veteran, having just parked and entered the stadium, "they were going to tow it if it wasn't gone by [Saturday] morning."
It would not be surprising, in fact, if by Saturday morning there was a red carpet extending from Clemens's parking spot all the way through the players' gate into the stadium, down the dingy staircase to the home clubhouse, and all the way out to the mound -- which Clemens will climb at roughly 1:05 p.m. to face the Pittsburgh Pirates and launch his 24th big league season.
"The fact he is who he is certainly helps the personality of the ballclub," Yankees Manager Joe Torre said Friday. "You should have an emotional advantage over another team. We don't take for granted we're going to win the game, but Roger's presence certainly commands a lot of attention and respect."
Clemens, arguably the greatest pitcher of all-time, has come here, at the age of 44, with seven Cy Young Awards to his name, to help rescue the Yankees' season from all the Carl Pavanos who nearly wrecked it beyond repair. And not a moment too soon.
On the day -- May 6 -- when Clemens announced his own signing on the Yankee Stadium video board, the team was a mere 5 1/2 games out of first place. Since then, all that has happened is Alex Rodriguez became embroiled in a tabloid scandal and a tussle over sportsmanship; Jason Giambi has gotten caught up in another steroids scandal (or rather, the same steroids scandal, again); and Torre and General Manager Brian Cashman have both lived in near-constant fear for their jobs.
And that 5 1/2 -game deficit -- to the hated Boston Red Sox, no less -- has roughly doubled, standing at 10 1/2 games after Friday's action. In fact, it was at 14 1/2 games before the Yankees won six of the last eight games on their just-completed trip.
"What happened to us over the last month," closer Mariano Rivera said, "had nothing to do with Clemens. It was because we didn't play well."
There seemed to be so much promise -- and so much season left -- back when Clemens announced his return. But the season was a month younger then, and so was Clemens. Between signing and debuting, he threw three minor league starts with varying degrees of success, then scratched himself from his original targeted debut, on Monday, because of a "fatigued" groin.
It's no wonder the Yankees, despite preparing to pay Clemens about $17.4 million for less than four months' work (the prorated share of the $28 million contract he signed), have taken pains to keep expectations low; Torre said he expects "five or six innings" from Clemens on Saturday.
"He'll compete," Torre said, "like he always does."
Clemens was unavailable for comment Friday, because he was not expected to be added to the Yankees' active roster until after that night's game and, by rule, is not permitted to join the team until activated. In the Yankees' clubhouse, however, players tempered their enthusiasm over Clemens's return, following his three seasons in Houston, with a dose of realism.
"We still have to play," shortstop Derek Jeter said. "It doesn't matter if Roger Clemens is on the team, or if you bring Babe Ruth back and put him on the team. We can't sit around . . . and expect magic from him."
The last time Clemens pitched at Yankee Stadium, it was Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series, the famous Aaron Boone home run game that vanquished the Red Sox and sent the Yankees to the World Series -- where Clemens bade a rousing farewell to the game upon his exit from Game 4 at Miami's Pro Player Stadium.
"When he walked off that mound in Miami," Torre said, "I thought that was it."
And yet, here we are, nearly four years later, welcoming the Rocket back to the Bronx. Maybe we can't expect magic -- or even seven innings -- from him, but you probably wouldn't want to tell that to Clemens, as he pulls his Hummer into his parking space Saturday morning and walks into Yankee Stadium to go back to work.