Beyond the Boxscore

Roger Clemens takes advantage of meek minor leaguers: AARP Rocket not Majors-ready, but oh, the joy

Roger Clemens takes advantage of meek minor leaguers: AARP Rocket not Majors-ready, but oh, the joy

Roger Clemens Skeeters
Roger Clemens received cheers all around — as he pointed to where his family was sitting — after leaving the mound for the Sugar Land Skeeters. Photo by Thomas B. Shea/Getty Images
Jim Crane Astros Wives
Jim Crane should let the joy of Roger Clemens' minor league return stand on its own — and not court the Major League publicity. Jim Crane Photo by © Michelle Watson/
News_Sugar Land Skeeters_baseball team_April 2012
The Skeeters deserve credit for not turning the Roger Clemens game into an over-the-top money grab. Courtesy of Sugar Land Skeeters
Roger Clemens crowd
Roger Clemens had people leaning against railings to catch a glimpse of him even before he threw his first official pitch for the Sugar Land Skeeters. Photo by Chris Baldwin
Roger Clemens Skeeters
Jim Crane Astros Wives
News_Sugar Land Skeeters_baseball team_April 2012
Roger Clemens crowd

SUGAR LAND —The opposing team's catcher lingers back for a moment, trying to gauge the right time to ask the great man for an audience. In the end, Luis Rodriguez cannot find one.

So the 38-year-old, career minor leaguer steps right in and interrupts Roger Clemens as the seven-time Cy Young winner long tosses in the outfield, less than 40 minutes till first pitch.

Clemens doesn't appear bothered. The man who once flung a piece of shattered bat at Mike Piazza in his overamped intensity for a World Series game almost seems relieved that someone is breaking the light tension of this night. He not only stops throwing to chat with Rodriquez, he puts his arm around him.

The Bluefish aren't here to challenge a 50-year-old Roger Clemens. They're here to pay homage, almost eager to be overwhelmed.

Soon, the Bridgeport Bluefish player/coach is calling over his son, getting the kid a moment with The Rocket too. The only surprise is that the youngster is wearing his dad's No. 9 rather than the No. 21 of Clemens that everyone else packed into the Sugar Land Skeeters' Constellation Field seems to have on their backs.

At this moment, it becomes clear. You can forget about the Bridgeport Bluefish of the Atlantic League giving Roger Clemens anything close to a true test.

Clemens' minor league foes are mere gawkers, like the rest of the sellout crowd of 7,700 plus. Watching the Bluefish's player/coach seek out an audience with Clemens in the pregame brings up visions of opponents of the original Dream Team lining up to get their pictures taken with Michael, Magic and Larry before meekly getting pummeled in the 1992 Olympics.

The Bluefish aren't here to challenge a 50-year-old Roger Clemens. They're here to pay homage, almost eager to be overwhelmed.

And Clemens obliges. He opens the game with a fastball right down the middle that former Major Leaguer Joey Gathright should know better than to take. He strikes out two of the first three Bluefish and pulls off a 1-2-3 top of the first before his awed foes even seem to notice.

The man still has presence. Fifty or not, Roger Clemens remains the closest thing to a John Wayne character in baseball.

Getting Real

He ends up throwing three and one-third innings of shutout baseball, giving up one single and wringing 37 pitches out of what he called his "spring training" the day before — a slip of the tongue he does not repeat on this Saturday night. It's all great theater — better theater than anyone had any right to legitimately expect.

But it does not mean this AARP Rocket is anywhere close to big league ready.

As awed and grateful as they are to Clemens for this ESPN showcase, the Bridgeport Bluefish aren't exactly blown away by his high eighties fastballs. The highest Clemens reaches on the radar gun is 88 MPH, a speed that even second-year Houston Astros pitcher Jordan Lyles (who happens to have a 5.47 ERA in the bigs) would sneer at.

 By 7:07 p.m., Clemens is throwing his first professional pitch in five years. By 7:53 p.m., the whole show is over. 

And no one has to worry about Clemens' once-signature split finger, which he mostly bounces to the plate on this night.

To his credit, Clemens acknowledges this, talking about how far he is from being Major League ready in his postgame press conference as the drumbeat for something of a September circus-return with the Astros pounds on.

For once, Clemens seems like the only realist in the room. He talks about how the Bluefish batters were "a little passive."

He doesn't even flex for the ESPN cameras only there because he is.

"I thought it went pretty well," Clemens simply tells dugout reporter Bob Holtzman when he walks off the field.

This is a far cry from the Clemens I covered in New York during his first stint with the Yankees. Clemens always seemed on edge and almost defensive in pinstripes, ready for a verbal fight whether anyone was challenging him or not. This 50-year-old humility works well with The Rocket.

There is no doubt he still loves the game with a force greater than any fastball speed. Sure, it takes a certain kind of ego to decide you're going to come back to professional baseball at age 50. The same type of ego that drove Michael Jordan to unretire when many who remembered his greatness begged him to stay away.

But when a super ego brings this much joy — and there's no way to overstate the joy Clemens gives Sugar Land this night — what is there to moan about?

"I couldn't believe it when I heard he was pitching," Diane Ferro says, standing to watch Clemens as many will do in a ballpark where standing-room-only tickets are part of the norm. "I've been a Rocket fan for years and years and years."

All throughout the ballpark, people act like they've won some type of Roger Clemens' lottery. They'll be telling their friends they were there, sharing the memory like . . . well, like kids on a sugar high.

"We were already planning to be here for this game," Sugar Land resident Steve Hypes says. "We share season tickets with another couple. And this was our turn. But it's a lot more exciting that he's here.

"I was offered as much as $400 for our tickets."

Hypes pauses when I ask if he considered selling.

"Nah," he shoots back. "It's more exciting to come."

You almost wish that Astros owner Jim Crane and Clemens' advisors would just step back and let this joy stand for itself. Why does it have to be made about getting back to the big leagues? Is pushing his Hall of Fame voting window back five years, to further distance himself from the steroids specter, really worth the negative publicity it's sure to trigger?

Not to mention, the real chance that Clemens could get shelled facing Major League hitters.

Saturday night seems like a pretty perfect way to end it — big enough, but not too big, effective and full of joy.

Skeeters Shine Too

The Skeeters' front office deserve credit for stopping Clemens' comeback from being overly commercialized. There are few overt money grabs. Parking is still free in the B Lot, a short walk over a bridge from the stadium, on Clemens Night like it is on any other night.

 It does not mean this AARP Rocket is anywhere close to big league ready. 

Even the 1,500 Clemens Skeeter No. 21 jersey T-shirts that the club rush ordered are priced at a reasonable $15, the same as any other Skeeters player's jersey T-shirt. There are the $15 shirts of Iggy Suarez, a .211 hitter in the Atlantic League, right next to the $15 shirts of a legend who has struck out 4,672 in the big leagues.

The Skeeters' promotion of Clemens comes across as almost quaint. The public address announcer crows, "In the words of ZZ Top, it's going to be live and nationwide." Moments later, he reminds everyone that kids will have the chance to run the bases — "the same bases shown on national TV" — after the game.

There are no freaked out security guards or ushers either — something that's sure to make it to Minute Maid Park if Clemens gets there. Instead, the Skeeters' home employs the same laid-back approach it uses on most summer nights.

Clemens makes his first appearance on the field at 6:32 p.m. By 6:41 p.m., he's warming up in the bullpen after his Dream Team-like encounter. People crowd around the railing to get a look at The Rocket decked out in a thankful somewhat subdued Skeeters jersey (Clemens never has been opposed to wearing a weird uniform as shown during his run with the Toronto Blue Jays) and gray spikes with bright yellow bottoms.

The top of his 50-year-old hair is frosted blonde. Just because you're 50, doesn't mean you cannot be a big kid.

Someone shouts out, "It's like being in a zoo!"

A woman who identifies herself as Roger Clemens' sister asks if she can "pop in and take a couple of pictures" of Clemens warming up. The polite Sugar Land fans part to let her get to the front.

By 7:07, Clemens is throwing his first professional pitch in five years. By 7:53 p.m., the whole show is over, with The Rocket turning to point to his family in the stands and then the Bluefish dugout before walking off to a standing ovation.

In truth, every seat isn't taken for his appearance. The lawn and standing-room areas are packed, but there are empty green seats in the stands from no shows. And high-priced splurges on tickets are rare. Three friends of mine got in for $24 each on StubHub, which is almost triple the $9 face value of those SRO ducats, but still several long fly balls from anything close to outrageous.

No one's getting rich selling Clemens Skeeters tickets.

For now, it's mostly about the joy. Whether you're a grizzled minor leaguer — and most of the guys in this independent league, baseball's last chance stop, are pretty grizzled — rediscovering what it's like to be awed. Or a fan standing for every pitch. Or a 50-year-old still showing command.

Too bad it can't last. Too bad the joy won't be allowed to stand on its own for much longer.

"I'd go back even if he's not pitching," one first-time Constellation Field visitor says as she leaves the stadium when Clemens leaves the mound. "I'd want a seat, though."