(Eds: AP Sports Columnist Jim Litke is on vacation. This is a replacement column. With AP Photos.)By PAUL NEWBERRYAP National Writer
Well, he’s back.
Just when we thought we were rid of the Rocket, he turns up again. In the Atlantic League, of all places.
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At age 50.
Roger Clemens just won’t go away; he’s just fast enough to escape our repeated swats, a survivor above all else. Age didn’t stop him from repeatedly retiring and coming back over and over again, a Brett Favre in pinstripes.
Ugly allegations of doping and infidelity failed to slow Clemens down. He even spanked the feds, walking out of the courtroom a free man after being acquitted on all charges that he lied to Congress when he denied ever using performance-enhancing substances.
It was the biggest win of his career.
It should’ve been enough.
On Saturday night, Clemens will start for an independent minor league team in suburban Houston known as the Sugar Land Skeeters, almost five years after he last pitched in the big leagues and with a date on his birth certificate that qualifies him to be a full member of AARP. If this was anyone else, we’d dismiss it as nothing more than a ludicrous stunt. But this is the Rocket, a man whose competitive fire – fueled with a healthy dose of narcissism – leads us to believe anything is possible.
”If I get through Saturday,” he said, ”we’ll see where we go from there.”
We hope it leads to going away.
There’s nothing feel-good about this comeback story. We’ve seen it so many times, it’s coming across like another tired sequel in the ”Twilight Saga.” Nine long years ago, Clemens first announced his retirement while pitching for the New York Yankees. He was toasted at stadiums around baseball, soaked up all the cheers, even received a standing ovation from the opponent when he left the field for what everyone thought was the final time in the World Series.
Turns out, he was just getting warmed up.
Clemens came out of retirement a few months later, but his motives seemed genuine. He had a chance to pitch in his adopted hometown of Houston, alongside close friend Andy Pettitte. We cheered.
Then, the following year, Clemens put off retirement again and asked for a whopping $22 million in arbitration. Hmmm. After one of the best seasons of his career, he finally seemed ready to put away his cleats. Uhh, no. Another comeback, this time for a prorated season with the Astros and another hefty paycheck. But wait, there’s more.
Showing he had absolutely no scruples, Clemens turned up in the owner’s box at Yankee Stadium and signed on for one more partial season in New York.
All along the way, he played the diva role better than Mariah Carey, demanding and getting all sorts of special perks. When his supposed team went on the road, he got to stay at home if it wasn’t his turn to pitch. Other players grumbled, realizing Clemens was all in, but only for himself.
We may have marveled at his age-defying skills, but he always seemed like the last guy you’d want to invite over for dinner – surly and detached. A fraud who once complained about having to carry his own bags. An egomaniac whose kids all have names beginning with the letter K, as in strikeout.
What happened over the last five years forever doused the Rocket’s sizzle for many of us.
He had a starring role in the Mitchell Report, the investigation of steroid use in baseball. He went before Congress to vehemently deny ever being involved in that sort of chicanery, though it sure seemed to explain how he was just as overpowering – if not more so – in his 40s as he had been in his 20s. Unrelated, there were also allegations of a long-term affair with troubled country singer Mindy McCready that began when she was in her teens, further sullying a player who always portrayed himself as a family man.
In fairness to Clemens, marital infidelity is hardly unique and he never tested positive for performance enhancers. His main accuser was about as credible as Pee Wee Herman starring in ”The Sopranos,” which is surely why the jury delivered its verdict – not guilty, on all counts. That’s also why, in keeping with the American tradition of jurisprudence, we must refrain from lumping Clemens in with all the other admitted dopers from one of baseball’s darkest eras. (And, just in case you were wondering, the Atlantic League has the same drug-testing procedures and penalties as the affiliated minor leagues, according to Joe Klein, the executive director.)
That said, we have no desire to see Clemens don another big league uniform, which is surely what this is all about. He tries to downplay this latest comeback as nothing more than a one-off, a chance to bring a little cheer to his Houston-area fans, but we’re not fooled. There will surely be big league scouts in the stands Saturday night, eager to see if the Rocket has anything left in that right arm. Even if it’s just enough to pitch an inning or two at a time, there would likely be a contending team with contract in hand, ready to feed his ego and sign him up for a playoff run.
”If you’re going to go and play, the one thing on his mind is trying to get back to the major leagues,” said Tony DeFrancesco, interim manager of the Houston Astros.
Clemens repeatedly shrugged off that sort of talk.
”I’m nowhere near where I need to be to compete the way I want,” he insisted. ”We just want to have some fun.”
Cynically, we wonder if Clemens has other motives for going back to the mound. He’s eligible for the Hall of Fame ballot this winter, but there are surely plenty of voters unwilling to put a check beside his name, innocent verdict or not. If he’s turned down once, it might be easier to keep voting him down, as is the case with Mark McGwire.
But, if Clemens makes it back to the big leagues, the five-year window for Cooperstown eligibility starts over. Maybe some of the hard feelings will have softened by 2017 or 2018, especially if Clemens has tacked on one more comeback, the most improbable one of all, to his resume.
It’s all too much to take.
Please, Roger, go away.
This time for good.
Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963