When it was first announced that Roger Clemens, at 50-years-old, would pitch for the Sugar Land Skeeters of the independent Atlantic League, it was suggested by some that this was the first step down the path to a Major League return. That seemed implausible to me.

Clemens hasn’t pitched competitively in five years, which in and of itself wouldn’t be enough to make a comeback seem unreasonable, but the fact that during those five years the right-hander celebrated his 46th, 47th, 48th, 49th, and most recently, his 50th birthday is not something to be glossed over. Yes, we saw 49-year-old Jamie Moyer extend his career to its limits earlier this season, but that example is an outlier. Typically speaking, pitchers at Clemens age are more likely to be broken down old men than contenders to make a Major League Baseball team’s active roster.

That’s not all. It should be remembered that he’s pitching a game in the Atlantic League. While the league may boast that in the last fifteen years over 600 of their players have graduated onto Major League organizations, you’re far more likely to see the sad pursuit of former affiliated baseball players chasing the dream in the Atlantic League than you are rising stars.

Even the former Cy Young Winner himself seemed to have a more realistic view than some of his fans, insisting at a press conference on Tuesday that he was pitching just to have fun and help the Skeeters. He claimed to be nowhere near ready to pitch in a Major League Baseball game.

Then, Clemens appeared on CNN to talk about his return to competitive baseball with Piers Morgan, and he dropped one of those coy little hints that could have anywhere between zero meaning at all to all the meaning in the world. He admitted that if Saturday’s start goes well, he might have something even better to announce in the future.

Since he retired as a member of the Houston Astros, and that was the only team present at his workout earlier this week, it seems that if a Major League comeback were to ensue it would be with that club. In an interview with a local FOX network, Astros owner Jim Crane was asked about Clemens and his possible comeback. He replied:

If it goes alright and he comes to us, we’ll talk to baseball about it at length. The only thing we don’t want to do is make it a publicity stunt. If we did it, I want to try and take it and turn it into a positive, which would be Roger’s doing it for the good of baseball. The extra proceeds on the game might go to the community charity deal to build fields, do something positive out of it. I think the fans might like it. It might be fun and certainly get a few people in the ballpark. I don’t see anything negative about that, but the Astros wouldn’t want to do it for the money, the extra gate or anything like that.

The similarities between Clemens and Crane’s responses are um … interesting. However, would Major League Baseball be prepared to allow a team to field a player whose place on the team isn’t for the sake of talent? I’m far from the type of person to bring up phrases such as the “sanctity of the game,” but Crane’s response seems disingenuous. He says it wouldn’t be for the sake of a publicity stunt, but that’s a bit like opening a sentence by saying, “Not to be racist,” and then proceeding to say something offensive.

I believe that the owner’s intent wouldn’t be to use Clemens for the sake of immediate income, but the good will created by a Clemens appearance amongst the fan base of a team that’s had a dreadful season and figures to have at least a couple more as they acclimatize themselves to the American League would make such a venture financially worthwhile to Houston. So, while Crane talks about donating proceeds to charity, it’s the future money that such a stunt would create that’s truly on his mind.

As for Clemens, there’s a secret motivation for him as well. His name will appear on ballots for the Baseball Hall of Fame for the first time at the end of this year. With voters still exhibiting a hesitancy to honor former players associated with performance enhancing drugs, Clemens could push back his eligibility by five years with a single big league appearance. Five years down the road, it’s entirely possible that younger voters would be more understanding to his plight and less judgmental than the current set.

Only the most cynical among us could be aware of all that Clemens and Crane stand to gain by his playing a game for the Houston Astros, and still want it to happen. At its most basic, baseball is an entertaining distraction, and while seeing The Rocket pitch once again at the highest level possible would certainly be entertaining, it would be a fleeting moment of entertainment. The true source of baseball’s ability to keep us interested is found in its competitiveness.

When a team assembles a roster or a lineup or a pitching staff for purposes other than that competitiveness, it lessens the entire sport’s legitimacy and authenticity. It reduces the game of baseball to a gimmick. To me, that’s a far worse crime than anything any user of banned substances has ever done. This makes baseball about something other than winning and losing.

Comments (24)

  1. With respect to your conclusion, why do you think Moyer’s appearances were not seen as gimmicky and merely an outlier? Did anyone honestly think he’d have it in him to perform?

    • I believe Moyer was seen by the Rockies as a legitimate starting pitching option. He started multiple games and was eventually released when it was realized how hittable he was. It seems the talk about Clemens is for one game.

  2. “[It] lessens the entire sport’s legitimacy and authenticity. It reduces the game of baseball to a gimmick.”

    That’s exactly how I see the use of banned substances. Except, instead of just being one game, it’s all season and not just one season, but every season.

    Does Armstrong’s effective admission of PED use alter your views on the probability that PEDs are effective at all? I think I’ve seen you argue previously that PEDs might be beneficial for endurance sports, but not for baseball. But does the type/standard of evidence that you demand for PEDs in baseball really exist for endurance sports either?

    • Not at all. I’m actually kind of close to the Armstrong issue because I used to ride as a teenager when Armstrong came into popularity. I’d wager that the chemo therapy that significantly reduced his muscle mass had way more to do with his sudden dominance than PED use.

      Again, we don’t know effects of PED use. We don’t even know usage patterns or purpose behind use. Too many assumptions to discredit seasons worth of performance.

      I’ve never said that PEDs aren’t beneficial for baseball. I’ve said that I just don’t know that they’re as beneficial as people seem to claim.

      • I can’t wrap my head around what I see as the following contradiction.

        We don’t know effects of PED use.

        But the chemo, I’m pretty sure that it is more effective than any PED he may have taken.

        The standards of evidence for these two claims seem to be entirely different and doesn’t come close to explaining Contador, Landis and the myriad of others at the top of leaderboards in the last couple of decades.

        • I’d argue that there is no proof that using PEDs explains the performance of Landis or Contador or whomever, but rather that having used PEDs levelled the playing field so that their natural dominance was again apparent. Not that that makes it okay, but when 42 of the 70 top-10 finishers in the years Armstrong won the TdF have been found to have used PEDs I think it’s pretty telling that they aren’t using the PEDs to win, but rather to put them on the same level as the majority of the other riders.

          • I kind of accept that argument. However, I have read articles by cyclists who claim that teams would only select you if you answered the ‘Will you do whatever it takes to win’ questions with the expected nod and wink. So I don’t think it’s a victimless crime, even if the entire field who actually competed were doping.

        • Armstrong was a special case, different from other riders. I’m actually planning on writing about it over the weekend. But his style and size was not conducive to winning stage races. After chemo and rehab, it was.

          I wouldn’t refute that PEDs made Bonds stronger. I would say we don’t know how that impacted him as a hitter, or that we can’t definitely say it.

    • I’m not a huge Armstrong fan at all, but it’s a huge leap to say that it’s an “effective admission”. In all his statements he still vehemently denies that he used any substances, and while I doubt the truth of those statements the pillorying of him without there even having been any admission or trial is a bit off.

      • He is the one who has chosen that there is to be no trial.

        I would feel more sympathetic for him if he had endured the trial and if that trial had been as unfair towards him as he claims it would have been.

        From a legal point of view, there isn’t really any alternative but to treat a no contest plea as being an effective admission. That is, you treat them as if they had made an admission without them actually making an admission.

  3. To play devil’s advocate… If a team such as the Houston Astros is unable to provide much entertainment value by means of a fielding a competitive team (let’s face it they are pretty bad) then by your logic wouldn’t they be justified in finding an alternative means of making the game entertaining? When a team fields a roster as bad as the Houston roster is competitiveness really being sacrificed by swapping out some scrub for some former star?

    • That’s a fair argument, but I think there’s an element of good faith missing from this decision. I suppose it’s more the overall ideals that are being crushed by the switch, and less about the actual impact of the competitiveness. The way that two parties would benefit from this also plays a factor for me.

      • Here’s a question… Would employing Roger Clemens for a day because of who he was rather then what he brings be much different than employing Omar Vizquel for a whole season? I don’t mean this merely as a rhetorical question. I’m genuinely curious as to what you think.

  4. “When a team assembles a roster or a lineup or a pitching staff for purposes other than that competitiveness, it lessens the entire sport’s legitimacy and authenticity.”

    Reminders about the sanctity of the game:

    -A man with dwarfism, standing 3’7″, once pitch-hit in a game in order to draw a walk
    -The A’s signed a track runner to play exclusively as a pinch runner to steal bases
    -A list of the game’s all-time great players is riddled with steroid users, wife-beaters, drunk drivers, racists, gamblers and cheaters
    -An entire team once rigged the World Series

    • > The A’s signed a track runner to play exclusively as a pinch runner to steal bases

      That seems legit to me! What’s the problem with it? The dwarfism thing, not so much but that was clearly a different era/time.

    • Just because that’s happened before, it doesn’t justify further affliction on the sanctity of the game.

      • In 1965, the Kansas City Athletics could get nobody to watch them, they were two years away from moving to Oakland, and they were in another 100-loss season. So Charlie Finley signed 59 year-old Satchel Paige (at least he said he was 59) for 1 game near the end of 1965. The fans showed up (only 9,000, but for the KC Athletics that was a huge crowd), it was a shameless publicity stunt, and it worked. Paige went out there, threw 3 shutout innings and allowed just 1 hit, left to a standing ovation while the crowd serenaded him with “Old Gray Mare” (says Wikipedia), and spent the rest of the game in the bullpen, sitting in a rocking chair, being “fed” by a nurse. And baseball applauded, shrugged its shoulders, and moved on.

        Now how is that Satchel Paige-Athletics stunt any worse or any different than the Astros trying to grab a couple of sellouts late in yet another disastrous season by signing a 50-year old Clemens? It’s the same situation. The Astros are the biggest joke in baseball whether they do this or not, so let them have their fun and get the one or two sellouts. At the very least we know the Astros won’t have Clemens in a bullpen rocking chair, though I’d guess he would love having that nurse.

        • Exactly. Thanks for that. Parkes, just stop with this sanctity of the game nonsense. You are acting like Damien Cox.

  5. “[It] lessens the entire sport’s legitimacy and authenticity. It reduces the game of baseball to a gimmick.”

    The Houston Astros do this pretty much every time they take the field anyways…

  6. Hey Dustin – had a question for you… I do agree with your statement that there’s an element of good faith missing from the equation, but let me pose this. Is there a point where a potential comeback doesn’t become gimmicky? For example, if he signs for the rest of the season at some point and makes a couple of starts, and pitches in and around replacement level status, it relatively mitigates the argument that his age and time away from the game limits the good-faith reasons he’d have for signing. I’d play devil’s advocate here to my own argument by stating that any comeback made this season would have more of a good-faith feeling to it if he also did the grunt work in the off-season and came back next year, on a Spring Training invite, to try to make the team.

    Rather than pointing at Jamie Moyer (which we do because of age), you could look at Andy Pettite – not a great example, since he’s much younger – but he’s a guy who also retired and came back and was pitching well until he got hurt. I doubt sincerely that Clemens could do what Pettite did, but it’s worth dreaming about, I suppose, if you’re an Astros fan.

  7. Clemens making a, probably one-off, “comeback” appearance with the Astros this year?

    Of course it’s a gimmick for the club to inject a little fun for still Clemens-loving Astros fans in an otherwise dismal year, while resetting the Hall of Fame ballot clock for Clemens and put a little distance between himself and the class of steroid suspects that are coming up for voting in the next few years.

    But then the White Sox brought back Minnie Minoso, not once but twice (at 50 and 54!), and while controversial to some extent, it’s mostly seen now as a fun, little quirky story of baseball history. So then not such a big deal if the Astros try the same gimmick now, assuming Clemens can do it without embarassing himself.

    I wouldn’t it all be surprised if Clemens could make a good go of it. Sure, it’s for all the wrong reasons, but if Astros fans like it, then so be it. And while I’m no Astros fan, I’d watch it out of curiosity. It’s just a game after all and supposed to be entertaining.

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