The tall, wiry man wearing the Astros uniform and shuffling around the still-rough mound in the Astrodome on an April day in 1965 was 59 years old and he moved with an easy manner that belied his still-spry bones. He was a legend.
The right-hander tugged at his cap with the “H” on it and peered in toward home plate. The stands were empty but that was the only thing that was unusual for the pitcher. He was used to throwing in front of thousands of fans.
Though he was known for his fastball, Satchel Paige, the greatest pitcher who ever lived, threw curveballs that morning. He snapped off one after another, as he had done thousands of times before. They floated in and dropped into an imaginary strike zone as a handful of officials from the Astros ballclub looked on. George Kirksey, a key figure in bringing major league baseball to Houston, had concocted the idea to have Paige toss on the Astrodome mound before the first game at that revolutionary new structure that was dubbed “The Eighth Wonder of the World.” Kirksey wanted to know if a curveball could curve indoors with air conditioning blowing. It could.
In the next few weeks the Astros will have another old pitching legend in uniform, only this time it will probably be in a real major league tilt. Roger Clemens, looking to the world like a kid who can’t keep himself from eating one more cookie, is back for more.
Last week, Clemens threw three-plus innings for somebody called the Sugar Land Skeeters. The once-admired and once-dominant right-hander rifled his way through a lineup of never-wasses and has-beens and strolled away to his private plane. The appearance is more than just a stunt, it’s a tune-up for a comeback with the Astros in September.
It just so happens that the new Astros owner is one of the Rocket’s BFF’s, so it only seems a matter of when – not if – Clemens pitches again in the majors. At 50 years of age, he’d be the oldest pitcher to throw in the big leagues in a very long time.
But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that the former Cy Young Award winner who was acquitted (wink wink) of charges he used steroids is actually still a big league pitcher. The reason Clemens wants to pitch again has nothing to do with showing the world he can still throw 90+ and get batters out, it has to do with his legacy.
This winter, Clemens’ name is slated to be listed on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time. Also on the same sheet of paper will be the names Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa – two players (like Roger) who have the smear of PEDs on them.
Should Clemens be on that ballot, he risks being lumped in with Bonds and Sosa, as well as coming into direct competition with Mike Piazza and Craig Biggio, two worthy Hall of Fame candidates who have never had their names attached to performance enhancing drug use.
In 2014, more firepower will come to the HOF ballot in the names of Frank Thomas, Greg Maddux, and Tom Glavine. Amid all those big names, Clemens – even with his 350+ wins – will get lost in the shuffle and slighted in comparison.
That’s where the comeback in Houston comes in.
If Rocket pitches again this season, the clock again starts ticking for his Hall eligibility. Five more seasons will have to pass after his final pitch before he can be on a ballot. That gives Clemens room to distance himself from others on the ballot and also allows more time to pass for his legend to regain some luster, or for voters to forget some things.
Once again, Clemens is thinking of himself first. His legacy, his glory, his reputation. If he really thought he was in shape to be a big league pitcher, Clemens would actually put in the work. He’s thrown very little for a 50-year old man who hasn’t faced top level competition since the last Bush administration. One scout who saw tape of Clemens pitch last week made note of Roger’s fastest pitch (88 MPH) and said, “I can’t believe they’re making a big deal out of this.”
But when Clemens is involved it’s always a big deal. On Friday he told reporters while he was out on the golf course, “We’ve got something fun planned, but we don’t know if it’s going to be able to happen or not, so we’ll wait and see next week if it all works out.” Lord knows if Clemens is referring to a return to the Astros or maybe a stunt with the Skeeters in a warm-up start. Is Jose Canseco going to hit against him? Maybe they could hand out free syringes to the first 2,500 kids in attendance.
One thing for certain, when Paige threw his pitches in the Astrodome in ’65 he had a more healthy arm than the Rocket. At 59, Satch was still touring the country pitching in dozens of exhibition games every year, often throwing games in two cities in one day. In his off-season, Paige was playing basketball for the Washington Generals, the team that “lost” every game to the Harlem Globetrotters. Paige was an entertainer because that’s what he needed to do for a living. He didn’t have millions of dollars in a bank account and he wasn’t concerned with the Hall of Fame. The first black player (him) wouldn’t be elected to the Hall for another six years. Paige was trying to earn a living when he donned the wool uniform of the Astros on that April day in ’65.
If that was why Clemens was coming back, I’d have no problem with this latest stunt. But that’s not what the Rocket is doing. At 50 he’s worried about what we’ll all be saying about him when he’s 70. Worried about whether he’ll be able to sign autographs as “Hall of Famer Roger Clemens”, worried what sort of reception he’ll get at old-timer’s games (if he’s invited). What he’s doing is transparent and pathetic.
In 1965, Paige was nine years older than Clemens, but he was a much better pitcher. He was a legend – the greatest pitcher to ever throw a baseball. Later that year, Paige made his comeback to the major leagues, signing a one-game contract with Charlie Finley’s Kansas City A’s to pitch a September game. He started the game against the visiting Boston Red Sox in front of a sparse crowd of less than 10,000 at Municipal Stadium in KC. The 59-year old walked from a rocking chair in the bullpen right to the mound. He proceeded to pitch three scoreless innings and faced just one batter over the minimum. He allowed one hit – a double to Carl Yastrzemski. Satchel tipped his cap and left the game, his teammates (most of them less than half his age) shaking their heads in amazement. At 59, Ol’ Satch could still pitch in the big leagues.
That day, Satchel wasn’t pitching to improve his position for a possible Hall of Fame election, he was pitching because he loved the game and he needed to eat.
Clemens will never be the pitcher or the man that Paige was, and I’m guessing he will never join Satchel in the Hall of Fame either. Try as you might, Roger, you can’t sneak your way to respectability.