Roger Clemens is on the comeback trail… sort of. The seven-time Cy Young award winner, who turned 50 years old on August 4, has signed with the Sugar Land Skeeters of the independent Atlantic League, and is expected to start for them on Saturday against the Bridgeport Bluefish. Clemens, who last pitched in the majors with the Yankees in 2007, has apparently been discussing plans for a return with Skeeters manager (and former major leaguer) Gary Gaetti for months. When he worked out for the Texas-based team on Monday, his fastball was clocked at 87 MPH, according to agent Randy Hendricks.
This is hardly Clemens' first comeback. Indeed, he's something of baseball's answer to Brett Favre, an all-time great who can't quite bring himself to walk away from the game at which he excelled, and who seems to live for the attention produced by yet another comeback despite diminishing returns. Throughout the 2003 season in which he won 17 games and helped the Yankees reach the World Series, Clemens repeatedly insisted he would retire, only to change his mind and sign with the Astros in the offseason. After leading the NL with a 1.87 ERA on Houston's pennant-winning 2005 team, Clemens essentially implied that he was retiring at the ripe old age of 43 by not pursuing another contract. Though he pitched for Team USA in the inaugural World Baseball Classic, he sat out the first two and a half months of the 2006 season, finally signing with the Astros on May 31 and then making his season debut on June 22. He put up a 2.30 ERA in 19 starts, but implied he was retiring again following the season. Then he made a surprise appearance in Yankee owner George Steinbrenner's private box at a May 6, 2007 game at which he issued a statement announcing yet another comeback. He joined the Yankees on June 9 and pitched through the end of the season, putting up a 4.18 ERA and leaving his lone postseason start in the third inning with a hamstring injury.
Any hopes Clemens had for further comebacks seemed to disappear when his name was included in the Mitchell Report released in December 2007. Clemens challenged the allegations that he used performance-enhancing drugs via a Congressional hearing that backfired, resulting in his being charged with six counts of perjury, obstruction of justice and making false statements to Congress. After a mistrial in July 2011, the case finally concluded in June of this year, when he was acquitted on all six counts.
Clemens is eligible for election to the Hall of Fame via the Baseball Writers Association of America balloting this winter. On paper, his candidacy would appear to be a no-brainer given the Cy Youngs, 11 All-Star appearances and other awe-inspiring statistics, most notably 354 wins (ninth all-time, third among pitchers after World War II) and 4,672 strikeouts (third all-time). But even with the acquittal, many BBWAA voters may resist voting for him. Said Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal prior to the verdict, "Nothing that happens in this trial is going to change my perception. I just believe there’s enough smoke to say that he used performance-enhancing drugs. Do I have legal proof? No. Do I need legal proof to vote one way or another? No." Said the New York Daily News' John Harper after the verdict, "I think everybody believes he was guilty in some form or fashion… I think that's the real issue as far as voters go. I know that's an issue for me." Said ESPN's Tim Kurkjian, "As of now, I’m voting for Roger Clemens, but I’d be really surprised if he got in on his first year eligible. To me, the writers have already spoken; if you have a connection [to performance-enhancing drugs], you’re not getting in. I’m on the other side of the fence and I think about it every day."
Kurkjian is referring to the extremely low vote percentages received by Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro despite having attained milestones that used to guarantee entry into the Hall. The primacy of such milestones will be further put to the test this winter, when Clemens, all-time home run leader Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa, one of eight players to reach the 600-homer plateau, all become eligible for the first time. Earlier this month, I examined the situation further in connection with Bonds' statements regarding the Hall of Fame. At the very least, none of the players connected with PEDs are likely to gain entry next year, and they may have to wait a very long time before getting in.
There's some thought that Clemens' comeback with the Skeeters is a means of pushing back his Hall eligibility, but that wouldn't be the case unless he returns to the major leagues. The BBWAA rules state in part that a player "shall have ceased to be an active player in the Major Leagues at least five (5) calendar years preceding the election but may be otherwise connected with baseball." Among recent players, Rickey Henderson's case provides a clear parallel. After last playing in the majors in 2003, he spent 2004 with the Newark Bears of the Atlantic League, then spent 2005 with the San Diego Surf Dawgs of the Golden Baseball League. He still appeared on the 2009 ballot (which was released in December 2008) and was elected on his first try. Had he appeared in the majors during that time, he would have pushed his eligibility back.
Even with at least 60 former major leaguers having played for its eight teams this year, the quality of competition in the Atlantic League isn't very high. With the Skeeters, Clemens joins a rotation that includes fellow ex-major leaguers Scott Kazmir (who's been rocked for a 7.89 ERA in eight starts thus far), Tim Redding and outfielder-turned-pitcher Jason Lane. SB Nation's Rob Neyer wrote that the rumor around Houston is that the four pitchers are auditioning for a September spot with the Astros, and the Houston Chronicle'z Zachary Levine reported that the team did send scouting director Mike Elias to watch his workout. Even so, given the work that first-year general manager Jeff Luhnow has done to begin the organization's turnaround, it's difficult to believe the team would stoop to such a publicity stunt. The Astros may not have much in the way of starting pitching — their rotation's 4.73 ERA is 15th in the league — but that doesn't mean they should squander the opportunity to evaluate pitchers who can potentially help them down the road. Perhaps one last desperate grab at the majors isn't the intention of Clemens' comeback. It may just be that he wants a chance to push the limits of his body, put a charge into a crowd of spectators, and walk off the mound to an ovation one last time, unencumbered by legal hassles. Or maybe, as he heads towards the Hall vote, he just wants to change the conversation away from his recent case. There's a desperation to all of that, sure, but none of us are inside Roger Clemens' head. Only he knows for sure why he's doing this.