According to Danny Knobler of CBS Sports, there exists a strong speculation in baseball circles that Roger Clemens, after making an appearance for the Sugar Land Skeeters on September 7th, will then be scheduled to pitch five days later for the Houston Astros against the Chicago Cubs.
It’s not often that I would use phrases such as “sanctity of the game” or “legitimacy of competition.” It’s not often that I would find myself agreeing with the reporter Jon Heyman. However, as I’ve written before, I believe that there’s an element of good faith required in the implicit agreement between fans of professional sports and operators/owners of their leagues. It asks that those phrases that I seldom use be protected by a minimal amount of effort on the part of the operators/owners to act only in the best interest of competitiveness.
The return of Roger Clemens to Major League Baseball does not do this.
I don’t think that Roger Clemens throwing a pitch at Minute Maid Park for the Houston Astros, an event for which the likelihood of occurrence seems to increase daily, will suddenly make baseball a lesser game. Throughout its long history, the sport has overcome even more cynical gimmicks than this: little people batting, retired Negro Leaguers being brought back for publicity purposes and one dimensional athletes taking specific roles on the bench.
However, Clemens pitching at the Major League level would represent a new abuse of the sport for purposes specific to individuals, and not the interest of competitiveness that I mentioned earlier. In this case, it’s the motivation behind the act that seems most important.
For Jim Crane, the owner of the Houston Astros, that motivation is rooted in an opportunity to increase ticket sales. Even if the majority of the proceeds from the game that Clemens starts go to charity, as has been suggested, it’s still an enormous marketing opportunity to sell future tickets and leave what remains of the Astros fan base with an illusory good feeling that will hopefully last long enough to be remembered during the next ticket drive.
Alone, this element isn’t all that bad if it’s followed to an assumptive conclusion. Increased ticket sales translate into more money; more money means bigger spending budgets; bigger budgets mean increased talent; increased talent improves competitiveness.
However, when Crane’s motivation is coupled with what Clemens stands to gain by playing, it serves to act as a conspiratorial hoodwinking of sorts. At the moment, the name Roger Clemens 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 by making just one appearance for the Astros.
Five years down the road, it’s entirely possible or at the very least more likely that younger voters would be more understanding to his plight and less judgmental than the current set.
Or if you don’t believe that five years will make all that much of a difference in the minds of voters, Craig Calcaterra of HardBall Talk suggests that the real reason for his return might be about the finale of his legacy and the note at which he leaves the stage.
It’s difficult for me to move past these ulterior motives. Making it even more difficult is that the parties involved seem to be putting on a charade to give this gimmick an element of legitimacy that it doesn’t deserve. Although it will never be admitted to, is it possible to believe that the outcome of a Major League appearance wasn’t the secret ambition of Clemens all along?
The 50-year-old man pitching for an independent league baseball team was first presented as a story of undying competitiveness in a former big leaguer. And then, “Oh, hey, look, what are you doing here, scout from the Houston Astros?” However, it seems far more likely that the ultimate purpose of the appearance was always the chance at a big league game for Clemens. His making his debut for Sugar Land and not an Astros farm club merely furthers the myth that Clemens’ journey to the big leagues wasn’t preordained, while simultaneously helping to promote his friend’s independent league team.
The air about this is all so conspiratorial and reeking of a plan that was hatched in a back room somewhere. While admittedly, most of this is nothing more than assumptions and circumstantial evidence, it’s something. There’s absolutely nothing to suggest that Roger Clemens will improve the competitiveness of a Major League Baseball team. And I feel as though that, whether it’s for the long-run or short-run or in-between-run, is what the purpose of a baseball transaction should be.
The moment it’s not, baseball becomes worse off for it.