Karma, not Mike Piazza, may have been Roger Clemens's catcher in the All-Star Game.
Justice, even baseball comeuppance, arrives in unexpected ways. On Tuesday night, Piazza, who was injured, then insulted by Clemens four years ago, had the best seat in the house to relish perhaps the worst embarrassment of Clemens's career.
Before this 75th Classic, the whole baseball world savored the perversity of Piazza and Clemens being forced by circumstance to be batterymates and make-believe buddies. They harbor one of baseball's best-known feuds, with Piazza the victim and Clemens the bully. Still, few could have imagined the irony, humor and instant lore that their misbegotten collaboration produced.
In the first inning, Piazza crouched behind home plate and put down fingers -- or, who knows, perhaps just one -- to call signals for the same notorious pitcher who hit him in the temple in '00 with a 96-mph fastball, then threw a shattered bat at him from point-blank range in the World Series. Few of Clemens's pitches ever arrived in Piazza's mitt. To Mike's delight?
As a stunned crowd of 41,886 in Clemens's home town watched in shock, Ichiro Suzuki doubled off the right field wall. ("Psst, what's your favorite pitch?") Ivan Rodriguez tripled off the right field wall. ("Here comes a fastball, Pudge.") Manny Ramirez hit a home run to left field on an 0-2 pitch. ("Do you want this one inside or outside?")
After Jason Giambi reached on an error, Derek Jeter singled. With two of Clemens's ex-Yank teammates on base, another ex-Yankee, Alfonso Soriano, hit the next pitch into the left field bleachers for a three-run homer.
While the first beer of the night was still cold, the American League had a 6-0 lead and Clemens was on the way to a defeat.
In the only inning of his life with Piazza as his catcher, Clemens had the worst inning of his entire 320-win career. He allowed a single, double, triple and two home runs: 14 total bases.
Unless he breaks every unwritten rule of the clubhouse, Piazza will never admit that he relished Clemens's embarrassment. But, unless he is ready for instant sainthood, he must have sensed that the gods were squaring accounts.
That is, unless Piazza actually took fate into his own hands and was tipping off Clemens's pitches to the hitters! Admit it, the thought crossed your mind. Or, perhaps, your sense of justice makes you wish that it were true. All will deny it. And they'll almost undoubtedly be telling the truth.
The notion even crossed Joe Torre's mind. "Yeah, Mike told us what was coming," joked the AL manager.
Perhaps that million-to-one conspiracy theory even entered Clemens's psyche as well. With Ramirez at bat and an 0-2 count, Clemens shook off Piazza's signs twice, backed off the mound, then shook off another sign before finally agreeing to throw what the Mets catcher had called. Ramirez hit it out of the park. On an 0-2 pitch. Like he knew what was coming, as they say.
On the mound, the usually intense Clemens had a wry smile on his face. The same odd expression greeted Soriano's homer.
Clemens looked out of sync and out of sorts from his very first off-target pitch.
"I can guarantee you it was the most unusual pregame ritual of his career," said Clemens's close friend, Curt Schilling. Both were singing on stage with country singer Clay Walker late Monday night, a far cry from Clemens's Spartan routine. "We were out kind of late," said Schilling.
On the other hand, maybe Clemens was just unsettled that, for the first time in his career, he had a catcher who wouldn't give him a sign for a knockdown pitch.
Before the game, Piazza joined Clemens in playing down any tension between the two, although Piazza said they "probably wouldn't get together for a round of golf. . . .
"Before the game, we'll have to get together to address a little strategy. I don't know. We'll see what happens. I think [the controversy] is funny. Well, anything to make the game more exciting."
After the game, an NL official asked Piazza if he and Clemens had any trouble with the signals. "No," said Piazza. "Everything I put down, they hit."
Every aspect of Clemens's 35-pitch nightmare was overburdened by story lines. Not just Piazza catching. Not just the hometown crowd's gasps. Not just those three ex-Yankees teammates trotting across home plate in line. Perhaps the biggest blow was the two-run homer by Ramirez -- a Red Sox, the first team that Clemens left to become a free agent -- that ensured that Clemens's night would be a disaster. Perhaps that Ramirez home run marked the only moment in baseball history when every Red Sox fan and every Yankees fan cheered for the same event.
Remember, it was Manny who thought Clemens was throwing at his head in Game 3 of the AL Championship Series last October. Ramirez started toward the mound. The dugouts emptied. During the melee, then-coach Don Zimmer made a beeline for Pedro Martinez and the rest is slapstick Bosox-Yankees history.
Even the bottom of the first inning had its Piazza-Clemens twist. With two men on and two out, trailing 6-1, the NL might still have struck back quickly. Who came up in the clutch? Piazza. What did he do? Got ahead 3-1, then struck out. Et tu, Rog?
When the Rocket came out of his flirtation with retirement, he counted on more glory, but paybacks can lurk in the weeds, too. He could hardly have imagined this one. For the past season and a half, baseball has fallen all over itself to honor Clemens, who is on the very short list of pitchers who might truly claim to be the best ever. Every accolade has been deserved. The impression that Clemens has, over the course of his career, become a gradually changed and much improved fellow is valid.
"If you didn't get to know Roger, you might think of him as a mechanical man who doesn't have a heart," said Torre. "But there's a lot of little boy in Clemens. That's charming to me. He blends in with his teammates. He cares about people. He doesn't look like he'd be sensitive [to others], but he is."
Clemens has seemed to make a conscious effort to change both his image and his behavior since that rash moment when he hurled the spear-like remnants of Piazza's bat at him. But baseball is full of folks with long memories who, no doubt, enjoyed this night.
As a final twist, the game was stopped after the fourth inning so that Commissioner Bud Selig could present an Historic Achievement Award to "the great Roger Clemens." Surrounded by family and still in uniform, Clemens came on the field to speak to the crowd. "I put our guys in a hole," he said, "but we're going to win the game."
Actually, they didn't. All things considered, it just wouldn't have been good karma.