My defining Roger Clemens moment came not in Yankee Stadium last year but in 1995, in the country’s oldest ballpark, Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Alabama, during the making of Ron Shelton’s brilliant and still little-seen ‘Cobb.’ In the only recorded confrontation between Cy Young and Academy Award winners, Clemens, his white wool Philadelphia A’s uniform gray from sweat, was faking the windmill windup of the old A’s pitcher Ed Walsh to Tommy Lee Jones’s Ty Cobb. Happily following the script, Clemens and Jones exchanged pleasantries regarding big Irish pitchers’ sexual preferences and Georgia crackers’ fondness for sheep. And then Clemens did a bit of improvisation: an 85-mile-per-hour fastball not overly far from the $6 million-a-picture star’s unprotected head. The crowd and crew were momentarily hushed. “What happens,” said Robert Wuhl (playing sportswriter Al Stump) “if one of those pitches goes a few inches up and in?” “In that case,” mumbled Shelton, making quick reference to the only on-field fatality in Major League history, “we are shooting The Ray Chapman Story.”
I never got around to asking Roger Clemens if he had slipped a bit on the pitch or if he was simply doing his job by being in character. My guess is that any and every time Clemens has zipped a pitch near or into a hitter he has regarded it as simply doing his job, in the time-honored tradition of baseball bullies from Walsh to Lefty Grove, Sal Maglie, Early Wynn, Don Drysdale, and Bob Gibson, to mention just a few of the most famous. Never mind that in fact there are other pitchers around more likely to plunk you—try one of Bobby Valentine’s, as the Mets have led the league in hit batters over the last four years. It’s Clemens, in the midst of the most dominant hitters’ age in baseball history, who carries the banner for pitchers’ rights, and the truth is that whether he was aiming at Mike Piazza or not—and more than likely he was just trying to singe his chin whiskers a bit and the ball got away—he savors that rep. Polite and soft-spoken in person to the point of deference to an interviewer’s opinion, Roger Clemens, on the mound, is a total asshole. Understand, I mean that in the best possible sense, as in “professional”—a total professional who would, in the words of Bob Uecker’s sportscaster in Major League, “knock down his own kid in a father-son game.” Well, Roger Clemens can only sigh and shrug when presented with questions about his own unpopularity in the suburbs of the nation like Boston and Queens; there are, after all, compensations.
Like World Series rings, and finally being recognized by the fans as the most valuable member of the most storied team in American sports. Frankly, it has been too long in coming. Roger Clemens is an asshole, and Yankee fans are assholes; why did it take them so long to get together?
When he came here, Clemens was perceived as a carpetbagger, a mercenary who came to New York to finally gain recognition as a winner. The perception, of course, was completely accurate. And why shouldn’t he come to New York for those reasons? Isn’t that why everyone comes to New York? Why else would anyone come to New York?
What should have been instantly recognized is that Clemens was the rare mercenary carpetbagging asshole who had something to offer New York in the exchange—in fact, the first one since Reggie Jackson who had as much to offer New York as New York had to offer him. If fans didn’t understand this three years ago, they certainly ought to dig it now. As the Yankees head into two post-season matchups with two stronger teams (the Oakland A’s and Seattle Mariners), the Yankees’ only Ruth-Gehrig-DiMaggio-Mantle-Jackson-type equalizer is a man whom they were booing just a year and a half ago.
Which is a new wrinkle for the Yankees, because baseball is supposed to be 75 percent pitching, right? And the Yankees are the winningest team in baseball history, right? So why haven’t the Yankees ever had the best pitcher in baseball? (Well, they did, actually, and they turned him into an outfielder, but let that pass.) All those pennants, all those World Series, and how many times did the Yankees have the best pitcher? Ron Guidry, for one season. Whitey Ford was great, but nobody ever called him the greatest. Waite Hoyt was very good for eight or nine seasons. Ah, but Roger Clemens. How to sum him up? Let’s try this: When David Wells came to the Yankees, he wanted to wear Babe Ruth’s No. 3. If Clemens had asked for No. 3, they should have given it to him.
If you really don’t understand that when you see Clemens you are seeing the greatest starting pitcher in baseball history, then shut up and listen for the next two minutes. There is a lot of glib nonsense thrown out there by fashion writers posing as baseball analysts that we live in an era of bad pitching—this, despite the influx of talent from black, Latin, and now Asian sources. The opposite is true: Today’s pitchers are far more talented and better conditioned than those of 60 or 70 years ago. They look worse because the lineup of every modern Major League team has a player who can hit a home run, as opposed to Babe Ruth’s time, when even the best teams had a batting order of one or two heavy hitters and seven dwarves. The greatest pitcher of the first half of the 20th century was another of the game’s great assholes, Lefty Grove. He pitched in the majors for 17 seasons and posted a 300-141 record, for a .680 won-lost percentage, the highest in the Hall of Fame of all pitchers with more than 240 wins. In the most conspicuous proof of his dominance, Grove led the league in ERA nine times in 17 years, more than anyone before him. But Clemens is second, having led six times, and while Grove had to compete against perhaps 31 other starters to win an ERA title, Clemens, because of expansion and five-man rotations, has had to compete with at least 60 to win each of his. And Clemens’s won-lost, which was .647 after 17 seasons (and which currently stands at .660), was accomplished with far less support. In fact, the difference between Clemens’s win percentage and those of his teams is .126 points, the greatest gap for any starter in baseball history.
ERA? Grove’s was 3.06 for 17 seasons; Clemens’s was 3.06 after 17 seasons, with both pitching to about the same level of hitters. (The highest league ERA during Grove’s career was 5.04 in 1936, the second-highest 4.79 in 1938. American League ERAs have been over 4.80 four times in the past eight seasons.) Dominance? A dead heat. Grove’s ERA was lower than the league’s 14 times in 17 seasons; Clemens’s was lower 15 times in his first 17 seasons. Control? Grove walked 1187 batters in 17 seasons; Clemens walked 1186 in 17. Amazing.
The differences between their career stats seem to be the differences in the times in which they played. In 17 years Grove started 54 fewer games than Clemens, but relieved in 150 more. Grove allowed 781 more hits, but batting averages are lower today; Clemens struck out more than 1300 more batters, but strikeouts are more common today. Clemens, who led the league in complete games three times, had 115 before this season; Grove, who led the league in complete games three times, had 298 in his career. The difference is not, as old-timers insist, that modern pitchers can’t go nine innings anymore, but that they have to work much harder to get a complete game. In a game increasingly dominated by walks and strikeouts, the modern pitcher has thrown as many pitches by the seventh inning as pitchers in Grove’s time did in nine. Today’s pitchers get far more no-decisions; hence Clemens leads all current pitchers but, after 17 seasons, trailed Grove in victories, 260 to 300 (actually, 280 to 300 as I write this). My guess is that if he had played in Grove’s era, he’d have 310 or 320 by now.
My guess is also that if he leads just one more Yankee surge—and this one against the toughest post-season foes the Yankees of this era have faced—then all the early ambivalence will be forgotten. They may even give him a plaque out in center field. He’s an asshole, but he’s your—well, our—asshole.