Clemens' exit comes up short on rule of thumb

JOHN EISENBERG

October 11, 1990|By JOHN EISENBERG

OAKLAND,CALIF. — OAKLAND, Calif. -- Roger Clemens' ejection from the last game of the American League Championship Series stirs two opinions. It is about time someone put the Red Sox's swell-headed pitcher in his place, and what he said apparently deserved an ejection. He was not sufficiently warned before he was thrown out, however. The umpire, Terry Cooney, did not handle the situation properly.

Clemens may be utterly graceless, and by all accounts except his, his cursing of umpire Terry Cooney was awful -- he shouted what Boston manager Joe Morgan called "the magic words," and they are anything but pleasant -- but the bottom line is that the players should always be given every chance to decide postseason games, and Cooney did not give Clemens every chance.

Cooney spoke first in their disagreement. That was his first mistake. Clemens was on the mound in the bottom of the second inning, shaking his head at a ball four Cooney had called, and Cooney began talking back, saying, in essence, what Robert DeNiro's character said so angrily in "Taxi Driver": "You talking to me?" Had Cooney just kept his mouth shut, the problem could have been avoided.

It is true that the first rule of umpiring is never tolerate getting shown up on the field, and that's fine; umpires are allowed their dignity like anyone else. But Clemens was not being outrageous at that point. Replays did prove that Cooney's call was correct, that he had a right to be offended, but he should have taken into account that it was a postseason game and Clemens is acknowledged as a fierce competitor.

It is a fact of life that ballplayers get hot, especially when they're losing, as Clemens was. Cooney, an 18-year veteran, should have had the cool and selflessness to take a back seat to the game and the players. But he didn't. Instead, he provoked Clemens. It is a mistake too many umpires make these days. They're too sensitive. The game doesn't belong to them.

Anyway, more importantly, if Cooney was so offended, he should have taken off his mask, stepped out from behind home plate, gone to the mound and warned Clemens that he was asking for trouble. But he didn't do that. That was his second mistake. He stayed behind the plate and kept his mask on as he shouted at Clemens to cool it. That was not a fair warning.

Umpires rarely eject players without taking off their masks to demonstrate that they're serious -- and to be heard. Cooney said he didn't remove his mask because he didn't want to draw Clemens into an argument. That's a weak excuse. If he was insulted enough to shout at Clemens, he should have gone ahead and warned the pitcher properly. In a game of such magnitude, the Red Sox deserved at least that.

This wasn't a June night in Cleveland. A pennant was riding on the outcome, and anyone who says that makes no difference is crazy. The teams and fans deserve better than to have an ump butt in and sway the percentages after a 162- game season. Always, but particularly in the playoffs, umps should go out of their way to butt out.

When Clemens shouted back so profanely -- "What he said warranted an ejection," Oakland pitcher Dave Stewart said -- Cooney tossed him. Fine. At that point, Clemens deserved to be ejected. His behavior was remarkably stupid; the words he said guaranteed that he would get ejected, which is why they are referred to as "magic words."

What we have, then, is a strange situation: Cooney didn't give a fair warning, but Clemens had it coming. The guy has been acting like a jerk for a long time. He bullies his manager. He stomps his feet like a 2-year-old when he doesn't get his way. Yesterday, he embarrassed himself in a postgame news conference, during which he flat-out lied.

He said he cursed only once, and not actually at Cooney. This is disputed not only by everyone else's account of what he said, but by video replays. He also said he wasn't shaking his head at the calls. Well, what was he shaking his head about then, the high cost of lettuce? Clemens tried to paint himself as a victim, but his paint ran thin. "Did I shove an umpire? I don't know," he asked innocently. Answer: Yes.

Clemens clearly thought he could get away with saying anything, that he would never get ejected in such a big game. That's classic Clemens. He's a terrific pitcher, but he believes he is above the rules. He walked off a team flight in a huff this year because it was delayed. He punched a clubhouse door last week, bruising his pitching hand, when management told him it wouldn't exclude the media from the division-clinching celebration.

Worst of all, Clemens told his manager before Game 3 of this series that he would pitch Game 4 only if the Red Sox were facing a 3-0 series deficit. What does that mean? If his sore shoulder was healthy enough for him to pitch in one circumstance, why not another? And didn't he have it backwards? At 3-0, the series is all but over. Wouldn't the Sox have needed him more had they won Game 3, giving them a chance to tie the series in Game 4?

Clemens is a bully who got exposed yesterday, and there's nothing wrong with that. More than a few people -- including a few of his teammates -- probably aren't sorry about that aspect of it. But the game is more important than personalities, and Game 4 of this series was over as soon as Cooney ejected Clemens. The A's earned this pennant, but the ump handed it to them. It isn't supposed to work that way.

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