Pro Baseball: Even at 50, Clemens had command
By Kristie Reiken
SUGAR LAND, Texas — Roger Clemens raved about all the fun he had pitching at age 50 and putting smiles on the faces of Sugar Land baseball fans.
Still, it wasn’t enough to set his mind on a major league comeback — at least not yet.
“No,” Clemens said. “I’ve had success before at that level and other things. Again, it’s a great deal of work and I’m not thinking that at this point.”
Pitching for the first time in five years, Clemens tossed 3 1-3 scoreless innings Saturday night for the Sugar Land Skeeters of the independent Atlantic League.
Scouts from the Houston Astros and Kansas City Royals were on hand to see Clemens’ comeback — for however long it lasts and wherever it leads.
“I think it will fuel that speculation,” Royals pro scout Ron Toenjes said after watching the performance. “I just don’t know what will happen. I don’t think anyone does.”
Clemens received a standing ovation when he left the game. He stopped to tip his cap to the overflow crowd of 7,724 before heading into the dugout to begin recuperating and see how his body responds to his big night.
Sugar Land manager Gary Gaetti, a two-time All-Star third baseman with the Minnesota Twins, said he was impressed by Clemens’ outing after such a long layoff. He admitted before the game he was a bit concerned about how things would go because of Clemens’ age and time off.
“He did a great job,” Gaetti said. “He really did.”
Tal Smith, a longtime Astros executive and currently a special adviser to the Skeeters, said Clemens had great command and that he believes he could pitch in the majors again.
The Rocket agreed to join the Skeeters on Monday after throwing a simulated game for team officials. He was still feeling the effects from that workout Saturday, and said he would have pushed back this start if he didn’t have other commitments coming up in the next few days.
“I probably overextended myself a little bit,” Clemens said, later adding that he’ll be spending a lot of time icing his aging body in the upcoming days. “I wanted to see where I was at. Anytime you do these, they’re fun but you don’t want to go out and embarrass yourself or embarrass the club.”
He didn’t rule out the possibility of making another start for the Skeeters, and said he’d discuss it with Gaetti in the next few days.
“We’ll visit and if we can do something special down the road, we’ll do it again for some of the people that couldn’t get here,” Clemens said. “I’m definitely open to it if they want to do it. It was a great deal of fun for me now that it’s over and I stayed healthy.”
Clemens certainly was happy to be back on a diamond instead of in a courtroom. In June, the seven-time Cy Young Award winner was acquitted of charges he lied to Congress when he denied using performance-enhancing drugs.
Clemens, who last pitched for the New York Yankees in 2007, worked a 1-2-3 first inning and fanned two. His fastball was clocked at 88 mph, and he mixed in curves and splitters. He finished with four groundouts and four flyouts.
Toenjes liked what he saw.
“The thing that I was impressed with is you have a 50-year-old man out there throwing 87-88 (mph) most of the night, and he’s got a real good splitter,” he said. “His command wasn’t as good as it could have been, but that it was a good, hard splitter, which is what you wanted to see.”
Wearing the No. 21 that he sported during his rise to fame with Boston nearly three decades ago, Clemens got a big cheer when he took the mound.
After whiffing Gathright, Clemens retired Luis Figueroa on a grounder and struck out Prentice Redman to end the inning. The sellout crowd, with many fans wearing Skeeters T-shirts with Clemens’ name on them, gave him another loud ovation.
Gathright thought Clemens would be more erratic.
“He didn’t lose any command. Everything was pretty good for somebody that age,” Gathright said.
Clemens didn’t allow a hit until James Simmons’ single with two outs in the second. He retired the next batter to end the eight-pitch inning.
Clemens has a bit of a belly that scores of 50-year-olds have, but he was effective enough against many hitters who were almost half his age.
He is set to appear on the Hall of Fame ballot going out to voters late this year. If he plays in a major league game this season, his consideration for Cooperstown would be pushed back five years.
Clemens, who wore gray cleats with bright yellow accents, needed 13 pitches to get through a perfect third inning. He threw one more pitch after that and Figueroa lined out to end Clemens’ night with the Skeeters on top 1-0.
That was the final score, too.
After he left the game, Clemens stood along the railing of the dugout and chatted with his teammates, including fellow former major league pitcher Scott Kazmir and Jason Lane, who played with Clemens on Houston’s 2005 World Series team.
Fans kept inching down near the dugout armed with phones, iPads and other cameras looking to snap a picture and collect a memory of the big night in this Houston suburb about 20 minutes from downtown.
Playing close to home, Clemens had a large group of friends and family among the crowd, including wife Debbie and sons Kacy and Kody.
Clemens earned about $160 million and won 354 games in a 24-year career with the Red Sox, Blue Jays, Yankees and Astros. His 4,672 strikeouts are third-most and he was picked for 11 All-Star games.
Clemens has spent much of his time out of baseball defending his reputation.
He was accused by former personal trainer Brian McNamee in the Mitchell Report on drugs in baseball of using steroids and HGH, allegations Clemens denied before Congress. The Justice Department began an investigation into whether he had lied under oath, and in 2010 a grand jury indicted him on two counts of perjury, three counts of making false statements and one count of obstructing Congress.
He was acquitted of all the charges on June 19 after a 10-week trial and had largely stayed out of the public spotlight until now.
Many of his former teammates have said they believe that he could pitch again in the majors.
Clemens had two great seasons with the Astros after he turned 40, going 18-4 with a 2.98 ERA in 2004 to win his record seventh Cy Young Award. He was 13-8 with a career-low 1.87 ERA in 2005 while helping his hometown Astros reach their only World Series, and the team has already said it wouldn’t rule out bringing him back this year.
On Saturday, he sounded as though he’d be more interested in joining fellow former Houston stars Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell in advising the players on what is the worst team in the majors right now than returning to play there himself.
“Where I can help, I’ll do it,” Clemens said. “I still think our hometown team, the Houston Astros, need some identity right now and I sure hope that Biggio and Bagwell come back if I’m running out there because they have a wealth of knowledge and they can help these young kids if they want to listen.”