Sunday, February 21, 1999

Pinstripes equal winning to Clemens




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        TAMPA — Roger Clemens does not try to fool you. He is as straightforward as a fastball at the jawbone, a throwback to the days when baseball was more a battle of intestinal fortitude than cash flow.

        He joins the New York Yankees because they represent the shortest distance between two points: frustration and fulfillment.

        For all his pious talk of family and home, the definitive power pitcher of his generation was seeking the surest possible thing as he plotted his exit from the Toronto Blue Jays. Thirteen years since he finished one strike short of a World Championship in Boston, Clemens has grown weary of waiting and resigned that his best shot is in pinstripes.

        “I make mistakes once,” Clemens said Saturday afternoon, “but hopefully not twice.”

        Two years after rejecting the South Bronx for the SkyDome, Clemens invoked his right to demand a trade and then vetoed a series of proposals until he could be united with George Steinbrenner. He refused a deal with his hometown Astros because of the perception the players involved would have compromised Houston's chance at a title. He went to the Yankees, inevitably, because no other team could afford to give up both the talent it would take to acquire him (David Wells, Homer Bush and Graeme Lloyd), and the dollars it will take to retain him (many).

        This story effectively summarizes baseball at the close of the century: the filthy rich becoming obscenely rich. Four months since they swept the World Series, the winningest team in the history of the game has been bolstered by the only five-time Cy Young Award winner there ever was.

        “I've always said the Yankees were the leading contender,” said Randy Hendricks, the player's agent. “Because of the depth of talent ... and because I know how much Roger lusts after that ring. It's like a big missing piece of his career.”

        Maybe the Atlanta Braves could have made a run at The Rocket, but Clemens' leverage made for a limited field of suitors. Any player traded in the midst of a multi-year contract has the right to demand another trade at the end of that season. Anyone who wanted Clemens would be expected to pay dearly in players, and then have to deal with him as if he were a free agent. In this market, Steinbrenner is a virtual monopoly.

        Maybe Clemens is worth it. He has won more Cy Young Awards by himself than the Yankees have earned in their illustrious history and his best stuff is still breathtaking at 36 years old. Warming up for the first time in a Yankee uniform Saturday, he threw 10 minutes of serious smoke. Toward the end, catcher Joe Girardi pulled his left hand from his mitt and blew on his fingers as if they had gone numb.

        “Welcome to the majors, Roger,” a spectator called from a catwalk above the bullpen.

        Clemens must have heard the remark, but his eyes remained trained on his target. On his first day in camp, his mind was already in a mid-season mode. He wore the No.12 instead of his usual No. 21 in deference to Yankee outfielder Paul O'Neill, but it might be the last good deed he does any hitter.

        “The intensity he takes to the mound, you can't teach that,” said Yankees manager Joe Torre. “I'd put him in a category with Bob Gibson and (Don) Drysdale — guys who were always intimidators. If (Sandy) Koufax knocked you down, it was a mistake. With these guys, it's part of their resume.”

        Last September, Clemens engaged in a beanball battle with the Yankees that caused hard feelings. Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter, who was twice hit by Clemens last year, says he will play only on Clemens' team in intrasquad games.

        “I guess,” Jeter said, “we should get 130 wins this year.”

        When it comes to winning the World Series, New York is the best place to play. If Roger Clemens can't make it there, he can't make it anywhere.

        Tim Sullivan welcomes your email at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

        SULLIVAN ARCHIVE