Clemens's Future Is Questionable

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 5, 2007

NEW YORK, Sept. 4 -- For Roger Clemens's whole John Wayne thing to work, he needs to go out on his own terms. The Duke never surrendered to the bad guys, and the Rocket has never let sore legs, diminishing stamina or the general manager's grim assessment of his ability push him toward the door. But then again, John Wayne died onscreen seven times, and Clemens's baseball career may be hanging on by an elbow ligament of questionable structural integrity.

Will Clemens, 45 years old and indisputably the greatest pitcher of his generation, ever pitch again? It seems likely. He left the New York Yankees on Tuesday to return to his Houston home for a second opinion on his sore elbow and a cortisone shot that should reduce the swelling and, thus, mask the pain.

For now, the Yankees, who lead Seattle by two games in the American League wild-card race after Tuesday night's 12-3 win over the Mariners, are saying only that Clemens is expected to miss one start, with exiled-to-the-bullpen veteran Mike Mussina taking his turn in a perilously thin rotation.

"We're thinking one start," Manager Joe Torre said matter-of-factly. "Roger is a unique individual. I don't worry about him."

But for major league pitchers, these injuries generally lead to only one inevitable result, and there was a sense at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday that the only things standing between Clemens and a date with a surgeon were his advanced age, the lateness in the Yankees' season and Clemens's John Wayne ethos -- which can best be described as give him the ball and stay out of the darn way.

"Even if it takes multiple [shots], I'm willing to deal with that," Clemens said. "I'm not running out on these guys now. Until I can't do it any more, I'm going to continue to push forward."

"We came back here to win a championship," said Yankees lefty Andy Pettitte, who, like best buddy Clemens, left the Houston Astros to return to the Bronx this season. "He's 45. I'm 35, and I can tell you I'm not worried about next year."

Officially, the Yankees on Tuesday called Clemens's condition "inflammation" of the elbow -- baseball code for "We know what the injury is, but don't want to reveal it" -- as confirmed by an MRI exam taken on Monday, after Clemens left his start after the fourth inning of an eventual 7-1 loss.

Only problem was, Clemens himself blew the Yankees' cover before that diagnosis was released, telegraphing the more serious nature of the injury by saying, "I know what [the MRI exam] says. . . . [The doctor is] going to tell you it's something a little lesser."

At Clemens's age, it makes little sense to go under the knife for a surgical procedure that could, if all goes well, have him back on a mound by Opening Day 2009 -- unless, of course, the injury would otherwise hamper his golf swing. Pettitte, whose own career-long battle with elbow injuries has made him Clemens's go-to guy for advice, fully expects Clemens to pitch in another week or so.

"I never missed a start," Pettitte said of his own experiences with cortisone shots in the elbow. "I could get a shot, and a couple of days later pitch. . . . I think he's going to be fine. But everybody's body is different, and Roger has never had elbow problems before."

True enough. Clemens's last arm trouble of any significance was in 1985, when he had surgery on his shoulder, and he has never had a cortisone shot in his arm. But he has had frequent leg problems, including a troublesome groin, and in fact, he suspects his current elbow problem resulted from a pair of painful blisters on his right foot that may have caused him to alter his delivery.

Asked if the injury would be treated differently if he were younger, Clemens said: "Yeah, probably. It'd be a different situation."

Clemens's career is often compared to that of Nolan Ryan, a fellow Texan and the only pitcher in history with more strikeouts (5,714) than Clemens (4,668). Ryan pitched until he was 46 years old, when he was done in by -- you guessed it -- an elbow ligament injury.

"There's going to be an end sometime," Pettitte said, "and I'm sure there's a chance this could be it."

Clemens has had plenty of opportunities to walk off into the sunset, John Wayne-style, in the last few years -- and in fact, he did exactly that, to dramatic effect during the 2003 World Series, after having announced his intention to retire weeks before. But he changed his mind and came back in 2004, winning an unprecedented seventh Cy Young Award, and every year since. This year, after his annual flirtation with retirement, Clemens signed with the Yankees for a prorated portion of $28 million.

Clemens didn't come back to bow out in September with a 6-6 record and 4.45 ERA, and his team in a pennant race. John Wayne didn't abandon the fort when it was under attack. He stayed and fought to the end, even if it meant going down in a hail of gunfire.

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