Long before Roy Oswalt was pulled in the third inning of last night’s loss to the Tampa Bay Rays, it was apparent that the Oswalt experiment was a mistake. After finding few takers this offseason, Oswalt chose to rest for half a year and shop his services at midseason, just like Roger Clemens did for two seasons at the end of his career.
On the surface, it seemed like a solid idea. Oswalt’s back would be better with time off, and it certainly stood to reason that what Clemens could do at 44 years old, Oswalt could do a decade younger. But despite the time off, and his relative youth, velocities that are unchanged from last year in Philadelphia, and the best strikeout to walk ratio since his rookie season, Roy Oswalt has been getting absolutely lit up, allowing a homer for every five innings he’s tossed.
Meanwhile, at 50 years old, Roger Clemens has thrown eight scoreless innings in the Atlantic League on a whim. And despite the angry vitriol from some writers suggesting that he’s poised to make a cynical appearance for the Astros to increase his chances of making the Hall of Fame, it’s fairly clear that he won’t be allowed to join Houston before the season ends in three weeks.
While he’s been pretty terrific in the Independent Leagues (and that’s a tremendous accomplishment for any 50 year old), that’s a far cry from being able to retire Major League hitters. Maybe Jon Heyman’s right. Maybe this did start as an attempt for Clemens to subvert the most virulently anti-PEDs voters. But it probably won’t end up that way. He’ll probably finish his career (again) with a handful of minor league innings and some good memories of cheering crowds and getting to throw to his son behind the plate.
But what if he does make it? What if the Astros do sign him to throw a few innings? What if, by God, he’s actually marginally successful? Would that really be so bad? Would it really hurt the game if a 50 year old icon got to throw a few more pitches?
Yes, he very well may have used Performance Enhancing Drugs to stay healthy and grow stronger. But he did so in an era in which literally hundreds of other Major Leaguers were also using. And the vast majority of those players weren’t chased out of the game by a mob brandishing torches and pitchforks. With rare exception, the ballplayers who have been caught or identified have served their time and been welcomed back until it was clear they couldn’t play anymore.
Instead, guys like Sammy Sosa, Manny Ramirez, Gary Sheffield, and Jason Giambi have been allowed to serve their time when appropriate and end their careers on their terms (or in the case of Giambi, to continue it). And look! The game still seems pretty strong. Neither God nor man has smote it for our willingness to forgive Ivan Rodriguez, Andy Pettitte, or David Ortiz.
So instead of wasting our breath on condemning Roger Clemens, and trying to read into his motives, let’s marvel instead at his ability to still throw 88-90 MPH at 50. Let’s cherish the chance to watch the best pitcher of the modern era (for these purposes, I’d suggest the modern era begins with the end of World War II) throw just a few more strikes.
In 1965, Satchel Paige threw three scoreless innings, allowing only a double to Carl Yastrzemski. Yes, it was a publicity stunt. Yes, his team sucked and it ultimately didn’t matter. And yes, only 9,289 people paid to see him. But can you imagine the joy of getting to watch Satchel Paige pitch his last game? The stories you would tell your kids and grandkids?
Baseball is stronger and better when it’s creating more of those stories to feed to the next generation of fans who will want to know more about the game’s rich history, and the players we saw when we were young. They’re going to want to know about getting to watch Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire and Cal Ripken and Greg Maddux and Roger Clemens. And anything the Rocket can do to add to his narrative, the better off we’ll all be.
Getting to watch a pitcher like the former Red Sox, Blue Jays, Yankees, and Astros ace is a privilege, no matter what age he is or how much time he’s had off. And as we’ve learned from watching Roy Oswalt’s face plant, not everyone can do what Roger Clemens can. He’s exceptional, and we should allow ourselves the chance to appreciate his talents all over again.