No alarms and no surprises, please.

Monday, May 07, 2007

The Prodigal Cy Returns

I didn't want to do it. I didn't want to like Roger Clemens. When the Yankees traded for him in 1999, sending David Wells, Graeme Lloyd and Homer Bush to Toronto for a man who was 36 and had won 5 Cy Young Awards, I had been trained for years to despise him. Clemens had just spent 15 years pitching in the same division as my beloved Yankees. He had beaten them countless times. He glared menacingly at opposing hitters. He yelled at umpires. He pitched up and in at my guys seemingly on a whim and certainly at a rate we did not deserve. And worst of all, in 1986 he dared to win the MVP award as a pitcher over my beloved Don Mattingly. Mattingly hit a Pujolsian .352 that year and played a sterling Gold Glove defense for 162 games. Clemens missed two starts and played in only 33 games. How can he be the MVP? It was a travesty! How could I root for a guy who was such a big jerk and completely jobbed my most favoritest Yankee ever for an MVP award? Impossible.

So, I resigned myself to watching the Yankees in 1999 and trying not to think about the fact that Clemens was pitching for my team. It really was a serious test of the Seinfeld joke that all sports fans do is "root for laundry". The cognitive dissonance I experienced was difficult to deal with. Apparently it was for Roger, too, as his ERA jumped nearly two points in 1999. I went into the off-season thinking, "Great, the Yanks got Clemens just in time for the old-and-broken down years. I get to watch him suck for my team instead of enjoying his downfall as I should rightfully be allowed to."

The 2000 season came and many thought that the amazing run of the 1990s was probably over. The Yanks had just beaten the Braves again to win the World Series, but the team was another year older and certainly would begin to break down. And seriously, who wins three WS in a row? There was a lot of talk that Clemens was a hanger-on in the 1999 WS and didn't deserve the ring that he got. He was, after all, the 4th worst pitcher on the 1999 team and was the first prominent Yankee player to get the "He's not a *real* Yankee" treatment. This logic would later be applied to Jason Giambi, Gary Sheffield and most effectively to Alex Rodriguez. The 2000 season would be the season where Clemens would put to rest any of that talk. Moreover, the 2000 season would be the season where Clemens would finally win me over.

The 2000 Roger Clemens was far more effective than the 1999 Roger Clemens. While Pettitte would lead the team in wins in his typically gritty, more-hits-than-innings-but-grinding-it-out-anyway style, Clemens was the Ace of the staff. In 1999, that was David Cone's job, but he completely fell apart in 2000. We'd later find out that he had a shoulder aneurysm that would end a fantastic career. Clemens took the ball in his turn and provided the kind of pitching you need from an ace. That was what you expected though from him. Certainly I'm not shallow enough that one year of decent starts and I'm Roger Clemens' love slave? Not quite.

The moment that he became a Yankee, at least in my opinion, was during the inter-league play with the Mets that year. Since it had almost occurred the year before, many people went into the season hoping for a real Subway series between the Mets and the Yankees. There was a lot of energy in the head to head matchups. There was even more energy after Roger Clemens hit Piazza in the head at Yankee Stadium.

The world exploded. Or at least, you'd have thought so if you listened to WFAN in NYC, specifically Fatso and Fruit Loops.

New York was at War! The glaring perennial Cy Young award winner had ruthlessly plunked Mike Piazza, who before then was best known to that point for 1) being the best hitting catcher of my lifetime (Sorry Johnny Bench) and generally a nice guy. 2) having killer sideburns. 3) being Tommy LaSorda's nephew and 4) controversial sexual orientation.

Piazza later put the #4 to rest by marrying a playboy playmate (seen at right) and baywatch beauty. But, the Clemens Piazza beaning dominated the NY sports summer that year. The rabid Mets Fans were ready to nail Roger to that stupid red apple in the outfield in Shea. And in defending the Yankees and Clemens from these foaming-at-the mouth-nutjobs that I began to grow to like him. It's that old "family" phenomenon. I can hammer Clemens, but you bastards can't because he's a Yankee. That was it. He was a Yankee. Yankee fans circled the wagons and flipped the collective bird to those whiny Met fans. Later that summer, the Yankees played at Shea and Green Tea Joe gerry-rigged the rotation so Rog wouldn't have to get beaned during every at-bat for the shocking transgression of hitting St. Piazza, patron saint of ambiguous sexual orientation. Other Yankees were hit, benches were cleared and golf tips were exchanged by disinterested players in the media-created melee that kinda-sorta ensued. Boy, those Mets are such tough guys!

That October, in a Hollywood like turn of events, the forces that be decided that more Clemens-Piazza hype was required. So they conspired to allow the Mets to join the Yankees in the World Series. Once again, Green Tea protected Roger by assuring that he'd not have to pitch at Shea by holding . Mets fans are kinda loony and are capable of doing anything to exact their revenge, from high powered rifles to Magic Loogies. After a matchup of gutty left handers in game one, Clemens took the mound in Game 2. The world held it's breath. What would happen when Clemens pitched to Piazza? Would he hit him again? He sawed off Piazza's bat on a foul ball and the barrel came rolling out to Clemens. Clemens, being prone to getting over-excited for big games, shockingly picked up the barrel of the bat and threw it toward the dugout. Piazza was jogging up the first base line on the foul ball and just about everyone wondered, "Did RC just throw that at him?" Even Piazza would admit that later he thought to himself, "Is this guy crazy?" I say no, that he was tossing the bat away in a kind of "Get this crap outta here!" manner. But it sure was weird. I loved it. The dude didn't obsequiously bow to the "Do Piazza No Harm" hype. He didn't pitch around the dude and worry about going inside! He went after Piazza, the Mets and absolutely dominated them for eight innings. After that, He was A-Ok in my book.

He'd go on to win another Cy with the Yanks the next year and pitch well for 2 years after that. Then came a retirement, three years in Houston and another Cy Young - 7 in all or nearly 1 every 3 years he's played. Unbelievable.

How will he do? Well, he probably won't pitch to an ERA in the 2-point-somethings that he's had in Houston. So, how much shall we discount that? I'm gonna give him 3.75 and 12 wins. More importantly he can provide stabilization to the most unstable MLB rotation in 2007, possibly ever. Please also note that he has been particularly dominant in the last two years. These years are different from the rest of his career because they are the first two of the short seasons that he's had. It's entirely possible that at 44 he's better suited to a short season than the full length season. It's also entirely possible that this is the season that his body says, "Enough of this, I'm going the way of Carl Pavano". It's unlikely though. With Roger Clemens, the Yankees have the potential to have as good or better a starting staff as any team in baseball - Clemens, Wang, Mussina, Pettitte and later, Phil Hughes. That includes the one that has Mr., who has a very entertaining and rambling account about how they don't need the greatest pitcher who ever lived and even if they did, he wouldn't say so. Glad to have you back, Rog!