Clemens, 50, turns back the clock
SUGAR LAND, Texas -- Roger Clemens stopped by Saturday night, and the locals were glad to see him. It had been five years since he last pitched in the major leagues, almost five years since he was named in the Mitchell Report, two months since he was found not guilty of lying to Congress, and now, at age 50, he thought he could still pitch. He chose the right team for his latest comeback. They are called the Skeeters. Their official logo features a war-like mosquito piercing a baseball with its long sharp bloodsucking nose. The Skeeters are an independent minor league team, playing at roughly the Triple-A level, and at the moment in metropolitan Houston they may be more popular than the Astros.
It rained hard in the afternoon, making puddles in the mud by the dugouts, and the Skeeters huddled in their clubhouse, watching the Little League World Series while they waited for the Rocket. He arrived at 5:23 p.m., about two hours after the rest of them. He wore black Texas boots. "How we lookin'," he said, slapping fives with his nominal teammates. "Good?"
Upstairs on the concourse, the air smelled like smoking meat. Nine-fifty would get you a giant jumbo Holmes pecan-smoked sausage that was supposed to be so good it would knock your boots off. The rain had stopped by then, though a stiff breeze was still whipping the flags in right field. The public-address man had an important announcement.
"WE NEED EVERYONE ON YOUR FEET AND CHEERING ALL GAME LONG, AS THE NATION'S EYES ARE GONNA BE ON THE SKEETERS."
People streamed in through the gates. The game was sold out, and there were unconfirmed reports of black-market tickets selling for as much as $500. Royal-blue Clemens shirts were selling briskly for $15 each outside the BuzzzzSTOP Retail Store. Better still, you could pay $150 for an authentic Skeeters jersey with CLEMENS stamped on the back.
"I don't care what you take," said season-ticket-holder Edwin Cobbin, also age 50. "You still gotta have hand-eye coordination."
"If you're fast, you're fast. If you're good, you're good. If you're not, you're not." He predicted that Clemens would soon re-join the Yankees.
The breeze softened before game time and the sky was slate-blue beyond left field. It was a lovely evening, unusually cool for Texas in August, and Clemens strolled to the mound. You couldn't help getting excited. Joey Gathright, the leadoff hitter for the Bridgeport Bluefish, stood in. Clemens hurled one strike, then another. His third pitch landed in the dirt, and his fourth was inside. Gathright chopped the next two foul toward first base. The seventh pitch came in high and off-speed. Gathright swung and missed. The Rocket had struck him out.
The second batter hit a weak grounder to second for an easy out. Clemens went up 0-2 on the third batter. He rubbed the ball and adjusted his cap. The next pitch caught the outside corner. The umpire called strike three. The fans stood and cheered as Clemens walked to the dugout. Three up, three down, with two strikeouts. A perfect inning.
After the Skeeters failed to score in the bottom half, Clemens came out for the second.
"COME ON, ROCKET!" a man bellowed. The next Bluefish was Willis Otanez. He grounded to short, and the Skeeters first baseman made a nice dig on a wide throw. One out. There was a collective intake of breath when the next batter launched one high in the air, but it was too high and not long enough. Flyout to left. Five up, five down.
The perfect game ended when Bluefish outfielder James Simmons lined one hard to right for a single. But Clemens got out of the inning on the next batter when the third baseman made a fine stop.
"He was found not guilty," said Bill Starr, a certified public accountant from New England who fondly remembered Clemens' days with the Red Sox. "And I'll stand by that." The public-address man reminded everyone they were on national television, so they should all stand. The Skeeters scored a run in the second, the only run they would need.
Clemens hit 88 mph on the radar gun in the third inning. He got a flyout to left and a flyout to center.
"This is the best weather we've had all summer," said Jane Starr, Bill Starr's wife. Clemens got a grounder to first to end his third scoreless inning. He swaggered off the field to another standing ovation, thus clearing the way for a dancing animal sideshow that called itself Deion Salamanders.
Before the fourth inning could start, the public-address man had to find the Dos Equis Most Interesting Man of the Game. Various shots of the crowd were shown on Texas-sized video screen above center field. A diligent search was conducted. Eventually the Most Interesting Man was located, on the pitcher's mound, in the person of Roger Clemens.
The first batter of the fourth inning lined the ball to the left fielder. And with that, after 37 pitches and 3 1/3 innings of scoreless work, Clemens was done. He waved his cap to the cheering crowd and entered the dugout.
It should be noted that the evening's attendance, officially 7,724, was not much larger than usual. Most Skeeters home games are sellouts. The people of Sugar Land come to watch baseball but also to ignore baseball, and Saturday night was no exception. Beyond the outfield wall, girls with glittering eyelids rode model horses on a carousel. The scent of chlorine drifted off an in-ground swimming pool that contained a dozen children. Still more children lined up for a turn on a sort of giant oblong gyroscope that spun and spun and spun until they got off and collapsed to the wood-chips. Never mind the Rocket. This was a carnival.
Gilbert Rodriguez, a former Army ranger who now works as a stockbroker and financial advisor, stood and watched his children on the playground as the game wore on behind him.
"This is it right here," he said.
Rodriguez has seven season tickets behind home plate, one each for himself and his wife and his five children between the ages of 3 and 14. Five of those seven seats were empty for most of the game, and now all seven were empty. Rodriguez was glad to have seen Clemens, but he would have brought his family to Constellation Field either way.
"He did better than I expected," Rodriguez said of Clemens' performance. "Poor thing. He looked like he got tired."
As a half moon rose above the ballpark, nerves began to fray. "A little throw-up never hurt nobody," said the father of a young child near the carousel. A mother herded her boy away from the water, telling him, "You'll dry as you walk." Interest in the game dwindled further when Roger Clemens held a post-game press conference before the game was actually over.
"That was a great deal of fun for me," he told the reporters crammed into the Texas Embassy Room, upstairs by the luxury suite. Someone asked him if he would be attending tomorrow's game.
"No," he said.
"Does your success make you think about returning to the majors?" someone asked.
"No, it doesn't," he said, although it was hard to believe him.
Someone asked whether he had achieved his goals for the evening, and he said yes, if he had made even one person smile.
When it was over he walked out of the room and into the adjoining luxury suite, where children held up various objects for him to autograph. He complied graciously. As he crossed the room, flanked by three police officers, fans broke into a spontaneous cheer. Clemens got in the elevator, where he could be seen drinking water from a clear plastic bottle. He waved as the doors slid shut. But it was not goodbye. With Clemens it never is.
The Skeeters led 1-0 with two outs in the ninth. Gary Majewski, a 32-year-old right-hander from Houston, reared back and fired a strike. There was a small burst of applause. Strike three, out three, inning over. On the biggest night of their inaugural season, after Roger Clemens vanished and most of the fans left their seats, the Sugar Land Skeeters did something that nearly went unnoticed.
They won a baseball game.