Satchel Paige famously said: “Age is a case of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it don't matter.” But he may be the only pitcher for whom that was ever true.
Now it seems as if Roger Clemens will be putting Paige’s philosophy to the test. If Clemens comes back to pitch for the Astros this season, at age 50, he’ll become the third-oldest pitcher in major-league history, after Paige and (by about a month) Jack Quinn, one of the last of the legal spitballers, who retired in 1933. Jamie Moyer, who until last week seemed to have a lock on 2012’s top “old pitcher” story, would be bumped down to fourth, though he still could retain his title of oldest ever to actually notch a win. Both Clemens and the Astros brass have said, if not in so many words, that they are open to a deal, pending cooperation from Clemens’ middle-aged body. A comeback that seemed too far-fetched to contemplate two weeks ago now looks downright likely.
Clemens tossed 3 1/3 scoreless innings for the independent Atlantic League Sugar Land Skeeters on Saturday night. As the team’s name indicates, the Skeeters are far from the majors in both attitude and talent. (In honor of the Rocket, they postponed Saturday’s scheduled promotion, in which “Human Fireball” Ted Batchelor would set himself aflame and round the bases, until Sept. 8). Still, if you were looking for encouraging signs -- if you were, say, the owner of a major-league team that could use a little excitement from the stunning comeback of a controversial hometown hero -- the night could not have gone more smoothly.
Clemens struck out two, walked none, allowed one hit and reached 88 mph on his fastball, that last stat being the most significant. Eighty-eight is a lot slower than the man’s fastest stuff used to be, but it’s not impossibly slow for major-league success. Whether or not Clemens can reinvent himself as a deceptive, Moyer-esque hurler at this late date is an open question; whether he truly even intends to do so is another.
Paige is the only man to ever pitch in the majors not only older than 50 -- he threw three scoreless innings for the Kansas City Athletics when he was reportedly 59, and Lord only knows how old he really was -- but also after a years-long MLB layoff. Yet Paige’s last real season in the major leagues, the last appearances that were more athletic competition than stunt, came in 1953, when he was 47(ish). If Clemens is actually trying to pitch successfully in the majors again, rather than simply push back the clock on his Hall-of-Fame eligibility until the steroid cloud hanging over him disperses a bit, then what he’s attempting is genuinely unprecedented, a historic long shot even for one of the all-time greats.
Clemens has unretired three times already, but never after more than a few months away. He left the 2007 playoffs with a hamstring injury and a 4.18 ERA, and perhaps that would still not have been the end of the line … but in December of that year the Mitchell Report came out. Soon he went to see Congress, and Clemens became too toxic for any team to touch.
Roger Clemens is no Satchel Paige, although to be fair, no one is. Paige pitched inventively, creatively and joyously; even at the height of his powers, Clemens was a bit grim. Baseball’s oldest pitchers have relied on their wits, tricks and a willingness to experiment to get hitters out. Paige would throw anything that wasn’t nailed down at a batter -- changeups, curves, knuckleballs, eephuses, his famous “hesitation pitch” -- using arm angles that had never been seen before and seldom have been since.
Clemens, on the other hand, has always been a power pitcher, practically the embodiment of the type. He is famous for his punishing, brutal workouts, his strikeout fetish, concussing Mike Piazza and then hurling a shard of bat at him during the World Series, pitching high and tight to his own son, and putting Icy Hot on his groin to get fired up for his starts. And of course now, despite his recent acquittal, for his entanglement with performance-enhancing drugs. It’s hard to see him as the sort of beloved figure who’d be welcomed back to the mound for a stunt appearance, but if that could happen anywhere, it could happen in Houston.
"The Astros need some identity right now," Clemens said after Saturday’s performance. It’s tempting to ask whether the identity they need is really Clemens’, but whatever else he did throughout his career, he won. The Astros, meanwhile, were 40-88 after Sunday’s loss to the Mets. They won three games in all of July, and August hasn’t gone much better. Nothing else this exciting is likely to happen for them this season, no matter how thrilled prospect experts might be about the development of second baseman José Altuve. And while Clemens would probably be booed off the mound in Boston, he was given a long and loud ovation in Sugar Land. It seems likely that the reception in Houston, his home turf, would be similar.
Clemens will never actually call this a stunt, and it’s impossible to know what his real hopes and intentions are. But certainly one effect of an Astros appearance would be to push back his Hall-of-Fame candidacy, to separate himself from Barry Bonds (who was also forced from the game after the 2007 season, while he was still productive) and other famous first-wave PED users, and to buy himself some time on the ballot after that storm blows over. Baseball fans, and many writers, are already massively sick of the steroid debate; by 2017, perhaps they’ll be ready to move past it, or at least be more open to that approach.
If Clemens’ comeback is indeed an attempt to game the system, it would seem that he did not learn the lessons that the government hoped he would from his recent prosecution. But it’s also a shrewd move. Throughout his career, Clemens has been very open in caring about the Hall and his place in baseball history, generally -- career wins, strikeouts, Cy Youngs. (It's worth noting that he currently trails Greg Maddux, 355-354, for the honor of winningest living pitcher.) Prosecutors claimed that he cared so much, in fact, that he not only took human growth hormone and steroids, but also lied about it to preserve his image, even when a simple “I’m not here to talk about the past” to Congress would have saved him years in legal fights and the threat of jail time. (Granted, the government's case was built on the word of Brian McNamee, a man so weasely that he might have trouble convincing a jury that the sun rose in the east, and Clemens beat all charges.) It’s easy to believe that the Hall, and his reputation, are important enough to Clemens that he would go to these lengths.
While it behooves Clemens to reach the Hall of Fame years after Bonds and Co. test the writers’ commitment to barring steroid users, it will be very difficult for any BBWAA member to justify a vote for Clemens but not Bonds. True, Bonds was convicted of obstruction of justice -- though not of actual PED use -- while Clemens was acquitted, but that is an awfully flimsy bit of justification. If Hall-of-Fame voters relent for Clemens but not the all-time home run king, they risk some very uncomfortable questions. So perhaps Bonds benefits from a Clemens comeback too, albeit indirectly. Their fates are intertwined even if Clemens does get an extension.
Whatever your stance on steroids and the Hall, Clemens pitching for the Astros would make for fascinating television. It could be painful, embarrassing to watch, if the once-great athlete gets blown out of the game by players his sons' age. Even if it’s inspiring, watching him defy all the odds, there will be caveats, because Clemens brings a lot of baggage with him, whether he’s traveling to Sugar Land, Houston or Cooperstown.