An Oct. 23 Sports article incorrectly credited Chicago White Sox hitter Juan Uribe with a two-run double in Game 1 of the World Series. Uribe's double drove in one run. (Published 10/29/2005)
As this World Series began, attention centered on two of the game's most distinguished but currently doddering elder statesmen, Roger Clemens and Jeff Bagwell of the Astros. Would the pair, one man with 341 victories, the other with 449 home runs, help Houston to a world title? Or, at 43 and 37, respectively, and dragged down by injuries and age, would they just be a couple of dreadfully sad October anchors?
How much fuel is left in the Rocket's tank? Or is there any at all? As for Bagwell, after shoulder surgery in May, is he simply finished and only playing as a DH in this Series because Manager Phil Garner wants to reward him with a kind of sentimental career achievement award?
After a spectacular but grueling regular season in which he won his seventh ERA title (1.87), Clemens has been a mediocre pitcher, at best, for nearly six weeks with a 5.40 ERA in September and, at the moment, a 5.67 mark in this postseason. After many months of pitching as well as he ever did in his life, Clemens has been lucky to labor through five or six innings recently.
Before Game 1, Garner said: "This is the first time a Texas team has been to the World Series. I think it is sort of a neat story that Rocket is going to be the guy to take the ball in the first game. Not only does he deserve it, but it's a good story, too." A good story, indeed, if Clemens could become the oldest man ever to start and win a Series game.
But fairy tales tend not to pan out on raw, blustery nights on the South Side of Chicago, especially when a full house of 41,206 fans, denied a White Sox visit to the Series since '59, are in full howl. On this evening, even a passably respectable start was beyond Clemens, who had to be sent to the showers, and probably the massage table, after two painfully ugly innings.
Last October, Clemens had the disappointment of losing Game 7 of the NLCS when Houston was on the verge of its first pennant in franchise history. This time, however, he was crunched for three runs, including a Jermaine Dye homer, an RBI fielder's choice by A.J. Pierzynski and a run-scoring double off the center field fence by Juan Uribe, the White Sox' virtually unknown No. 9 hitter. Nothing that the greatest pitcher of the last 40 years could muster seemed to fool any Sox hitter. The humblest of them took him deep in counts, fouled off his best two-strike efforts or made loud outs. To finish those two innings, Clemens needed an exhausting 54 pitches.
"Roger's left hamstring is slightly strained. He's the proverbial day-to-day. We'll have to see how he is as we go along," Garner said. Clemens's hamstrings have been cited as a major problem for weeks, even though everybody close to the Astros knows that the real issue is simply his 22 seasons, and more than 4,700 innings, of big league pitching. Every part of his body has some ache or pain and, finally, they've all caught up with him.
Even before this start, Clemens acknowledged that he was pitching on fumes. Asked about the severity of his ailments this week, he said: "I don't know that it really matters. I'm getting the ball to go out to get something done, to start in a positive way for my ballclub. I plan on doing it. That's the bottom line. I don't care how my body feels this time of year. If you need more aspirin, if you need more heat, if you need more ice, this is the time you get it and you don't ask questions."
The Astros, of course, have no alternative but to send the great Texan to the mound. If he has to be held together with thumbtacks and gauze to start Game 5, you can bet he'll be out there. However, even in the temperature-controlled confines of Minute Maid Park, can any room -- even a sauna -- get toasty enough to soothe Clemens's pains?
And what about his competitive spirit? Will it ever be quite the same since the death of his 75-year-old mother, Bess, in September? "She was my strength. She's always been my will. She was really my father and my mother," said Clemens this week. "She was always my first phone call."
Since her death, Clemens has been more reflective, at least in public, than in the rest of his tough-guy career combined. The idea of an old, injured and philosophical Clemens, rather than a young, healthy and ornery Rocket, is a comforting thought to hitters. And the White Sox looked comfortable all night.
The Astros, of course, have no choices to make about whether to start Clemens in a Game 5. If he says, "I can go," then he goes. Bagwell, however, is a different and far touchier subject. In the four games played here under AL rules, Houston needs to milk every drop of production out of its designated hitter. The cold-blooded choice for that spot would probably be young Chris Burke, who hit the 18th-inning homer to clinch the Division Series and make a winner of Clemens as a relief pitcher.
However, Bagwell has amassed near-Hall-of-Fame numbers in Houston, including 1,529 RBI. More important at the emotional level, Bagwell has amazed his teammates for the past three years with his ability to play through constant shoulder pain, yet still drive in 98, 100 and 89 runs. This season, the pain finally won. "Capsular release" surgery was required. Few thought Bagwell could return this season, but he did -- though merely as a pinch hitter (3 for 12) and a cheerleader.
Pressure on Garner has been intense to play Bagwell. "For number 5 and number 7, it's been 15 and 18 years," said Craig Biggio, referring to Bagwell and himself. "So we're treasuring it right now. It's been a long time coming."
Bagwell has said he wants to do whatever is best for the team. But he also went to Garner to tell him that he was able to DH, even though his shoulder is still so weak he can't throw a ball. Some doubt Bagwell could hit a homer if you let him toss the ball up and hit it with a fungo bat. But he started Game 1. And, as the baseball gods would have it, he did mange to contribute. Bagwell didn't get a hit. But he got hit -- twice, by pitches.
For many years, when the plate-crowding Bagwell was drilled, all of Houston cringed, fearing their slugger had been hurt. Now when he gets plunked twice in his first Series game, everybody says, "Way to go, Baggy!"
The reason such humble results were welcome was on view in Bagwell's other two plate appearances. In the fourth, he cranked what looked like a long fly to left, yet it never even reached the warning track. Is that all that's left? Worse, in the eighth, the Astros trailed, 4-3, with men at the corners and no outs. Reliever Neal Cotts fanned Morgan Ensberg and Mike Lamb in the two most crucial at-bats of the game. But Bagwell still had a final chance to tie the game against Bobby Jenks. Six straight fastballs later, most of them near 99 mph, Bagwell had fanned and the last Houston threat in a 5-3 loss had died.
"Nobody hits Jenks. It wasn't on Jeff's shoulders," said Garner. "He drove the ball deep to left field. He had some pretty good at-bats." Which sounds like he's going to get some more.
For the rest of this Series, the fate of the Astros and the hopes of the White Sox are tied in part to the aging bodies of Clemens and Bagwell. All of baseball will ask, "How much do they have left?" Though, after this night, some may whisper, "If anything."