Roger Clemens hates this. He has just beaten the Toronto Blue Jays 7-1, and now, cornered by a battery of microphones and a half-circle of reporters, he is forced to answer questions about the game. He does not like post-game interviews. He’s not crazy about reporters, either, which is probably putting it mildly. He does not relish explaining himself to people who he feels only dimly grasp the game’s nuances. But he knows what is expected of him and he does it anyway, fielding question after question, even though some of them clearly tick him off. In spite of his mastery of the Jays on this late-April afternoon—in seven innings he gave up seven hits and struck out eight—the reporters will not let go of the idea that today’s victory is now the exception rather than the rule. That Clemens’ performance, in fact, is the exception that proves the rule. That he is somehow lucky to have his old stuff again. That the 38-year-old Clemens, one of the game’s greatest pitchers—and arguably the greatest pitcher ever to come out of Texas (including the much-glorified Nolan Ryan, who never won a single Cy Young, much less a handful)—is rapidly losing his edge. Roger, over and out. The reporters are not making this up. The former University of Texas star who won successive Cy Young Awards with Toronto in 1997 and 1998 has, since then, leveled into nothing more than a .500 pitcher. His tepid 14-10 season last year, when his ERA was nudging 5, has given way to a 6-6 record this year. He is no longer one of the best pitchers in baseball. He is not even, for that matter, the best pitcher on his own team, the New York Yankees. His explosive, rising fastball appears and disappears, mystically, for no apparent reason. One good inning is often followed by a weird, wildly erratic, or simply awful inning. Sometimes you find yourself hoping he doesn’t get banged around like a batting-practice pitcher and yanked from the game in the early innings, thus tarnishing your memory of the indomitable Rocket who once terrorized baseball and twice struck out twenty batters in a game. Back when, as Yankees manager Joe Torre says, he was “unfair.” Back when he threw 97-mile-an-hour fastballs. “There were times you didn’t look to be successful against him,” says the Texas Rangers’ Rafael Palmeiro. “You just wanted to survive.”
What’s wrong with Roger Clemens? The press, which has put Clemens in the increasingly uncomfortable position of having to explain his repeated bad outings, has waited nearly two seasons for him to answer that question, to display some sort of weakness. To confess, perhaps, that he may in fact have slightly less command of his pitches than he had, say, three years ago. That his fastball may be softening. He never has. He does not give an inch now. He stands there before the cameras, microphones, and notepads, arms folded across his hard-muscled barrel of a chest.
A man with a microphone asks him what it’s like to, at last, have his old stuff again.
Clemens pauses for a second, looks straight into the man’s eyes, and seems to seethe for a moment. If the reporter were a hitter, he’d almost certainly be getting a baseball stuffed in his ear. Years ago, back in the days when Clemens threatened a sportswriter with bodily harm, he probably would’ve snapped at him, gone off on the guy. Now, kinder, gentler, and more media savvy, he’s able to compose himself long enough to say, “I think it’s pretty much the same stuff I’ve been taking out there.” He is dressed immaculately in a black turtleneck, gray slacks, and a diamond-studded watch. “My ball’s been alive. I’m throwing as hard as I ever have. I just need the confidence to race it in there and take my chances. I’ve been beaten with some poor off-speed, and that’s the kind of thing that’ll make you shake your head on the drive back home. I have to remember I’m still a power pitcher, and my fastball is still my best pitch.”
This, of course, is nothing but Clemens’ pride talking. In recent years his “out” pitch has become primarily his splitter, which looks to a hitter like his “riding” four-seam fastball, thrown with the same square unturned wrist, but is around 10 to 15 miles per hour slower and dips sharply as it crosses home plate. It’s safe to say that the splitter saved his career, or at least prolonged it. Which doesn’t mean he’s not fundamentally a power pitcher anymore. It’s just that, at this stage in his career, he needs more than a little help from his splitter and other pitches—his slider, his curve, and a rare change-up—to get him through lineups now.
But isn’t it a relief, chirps someone else, to finally pitch a game like this?
Clemens stares at the guy, eyes burning. “A relief?” he says incredulously. “It’s never a relief for me. I mean, it’s a constant grind. You continue to work all the time. I don’t relax until the season is over.” He pauses, his tone turning a tad sharper, more severe, his eyes narrowing. “If you’re thinking I’m going to rest on my laurels, I don’t do that. I continue to pound.”
He also continues to refuse to see what almost everybody else does. Sometimes this produces confusing effects. Such as when, after being shelled by the New York Mets on June 9, a totally perplexed Clemens offered this remarkable analysis: “I thought I threw some good pitches—but they hit them out for homers.” He was on center stage that day, amid the circus of New York’s Subway Series, in front of a Yankee Stadium crowd of nearly 56,000 people. He responded with his most humiliating game to date, giving up nine runs, including only the second grand slam of his career, to Mike Piazza, before getting pulled with no outs in the sixth inning. When he walked off the field, he was