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.