Clemens enjoys memorable, surreal return

Roger Clemens was back on the mound Saturday night, striking out hitters again.

SUGAR LAND, Texas — Step outside your cynicism if you can. Just for a moment. Don't think about the perjury trial or the Hall of Fame. Because if you were there, if you were one of the 7,724 people at Constellation Field on Saturday, you were witness to something you will tell your grandkids about.

I saw Roger Clemens pitch for a little independent baseball team in Sugar Land, Texas, you'll tell them. And, yeah, they'll know exactly who Roger Clemens was. The greatest of all time, they might say.

"One word," said Tyler Allison, a Houston Astros fan from Hillister, Texas. "Surreal."

A chill ran down Allison's spine when he watched The Rocket take the mound. What a spectacle. A 50-year-old Clemens out there again five years after he retired, and promptly striking out Joey Gathright. And what was this, a comeback?

"I don't know exactly what's next," Clemens said.

The scoreboard reported Clemens' first pitch traveled 119 miles per hour. The radar gun was shut off for a while after that, but when it came back on The Rocket had come back down to earth. Most of his fastballs came in between 84 and 88, meaning he had lost about four miles per hour over the five years since he last pitched. But Clemens was in control and his splitter, he said, was especially good. In 3 1/3 innings he threw 23 strikes on 36 pitches, struck out two, walked none and gave up one hit. The Skeeters beat the Bridgeport Bluefish 1-0.

When Clemens left the game the crowd rose to its feet. These are his people. He was born in Houston and lives 20 minutes away from Constellation Field. He pulled off his cap, revealing those dyed blonde tips of his, and waved at one grandstand, then the other. And then he parked it in the dugout next to everybody else.

And a good time was had by all.

But what now? What was that we all witnessed Saturday night? The happy ending or a new beginning?

The speculation is that Clemens is trying to get back into Major League Baseball so that he can postpone his Hall of Fame vote by five years. Getting into a game for the Houston Astros would make the most sense because the Astros are not in playoff contention and Clemens has a personal-services contract with the organization already.

Nobody seems to be in a particular hurry to squash that speculation.

Clemens says he'd never shut the door on the Astros and owner Jim Crane said he would be open to signing the legendary pitcher to a player contract if MLB would approve it.

Given that Clemens on Saturday looked like a competent professional pitcher, it is difficult to come up with reasons this shouldn't happen that don't end up sounding like "well, just because."

Early in the week Clemens established his position on the whole matter, and it cleverly places him in rhetorical no-man's land. No matter what happens next, nobody will be able to make fun of anything he has said this week.

He was asked Saturday if his performance made him think about getting back into the major leagues.

"No," he said, "it doesn't."

He was then asked if anything about the idea of pitching the big leagues again intrigued him.

"Not really," he said.

Well, OK, but why not? The reason Clemens offers is basically that he has been there and he has done that. The implication being that he has nothing left to prove. Which, of course, he does not. He won the Cy Young award seven times.

"My career speaks for itself," he says.

And so you leave wondering what Clemens really feels. He will not close the door on a return to the big leagues, but he won't open that door either.

All we know is that Clemens wanted to pitch again, and did, and pitched well. Maybe he just wanted to hear the cheers one more time. Maybe he wanted the enduring image of Roger Clemens to be on the baseball field, not in the courtroom, where he successfully defended himself against six perjury charges earlier this year. Maybe he just wanted to help out the Skeeters.

But there is this: When you see a 50-year-old Roger Clemens running his fastball in there at 87 miles per hour, and hitting his spots, getting out professional hitters, doesn't it change your perspective on the 45-year-old Clemens just a little?

It doesn't prove or disprove anything, of course, but doesn't it make it a little easier to believe he was all natural when he was throwing the low 90s in his 40s? If it can't change your mind, can you see how it might change someone else's?

If that's what Clemens was hoping to get out of Saturday's performance, he won't say it. He won't say much of anything, actually, except that he understands what it means for people to see him pitch, and he saw a chance to give them that at least one more time.

"If one person was smiling and happy," he said, "we got everything out of it we wanted."