In classic duel with Martinez, Clemens can't hold up his end

October 17, 2003|By LAURA VECSEY

NEW YORK - The Bronx has been a comfortable fit as Roger Clemens' final baseball home. His retirement home, of sorts, now that he has settled all the scores, won his ring and his 300th game. His Hall of Fame cap will bare the initials "N.Y."

The applause was warm, long and resounding at Yankee Stadium last night when Clemens took the mound in what everyone knew could be his epic finale. But it was too quick into the game when Clemens started getting hit hard, giving up a first-inning single and then a two-run homer in the second to Trot Nixon.

From their dugout, the Red Sox had to look out at the mound and face the ghost of Rocket, a 13-year Boston fixture, to bury the Curse. All the pressure seemed to be on Pedro Martinez, who, at age 31, is a decade younger than Clemens and has yet to pitch in a World Series.

But it turns out that wasn't pressure, just a shower of hate and vitriol hurled at the idiosyncratic Red Sox ace, and that, we know, does not scare Martinez.

And as it turns out, the script that placed Clemens and Martinez in a duel for all the marbles, for the right to go to the World Series, was not a script Clemens could follow.

Who could ever imagine feeling sorry for Clemens, hardly a sympathetic figure any time in his storied, stellar career? Last night was a first, and a last.

It took only until the fourth inning for the active pitcher with the most wins and the most strikeouts to find out he did not have the stuff to take it to the Red Sox. There was a meeting on the mound right after Clemens had been tagged for a first-pitch, bases-empty homer by Kevin Millar to put the Red Sox ahead 4-0.

There were no outs, but there was still time - at least until Nixon singled, followed by a single by Bill Mueller, right through the hole at shortstop as Derek Jeter had broke to second to cover the bag.

Jeter gestured at second baseman Alfonso Soriano that a mistake had been made. Now it was too late. With runners at the corners, Joe Torre walked out of the dugout. It was time for Clemens to go.

As Mike Mussina worked in relief, the crowd bore down on Martinez, intent on rattling him.

It has been loud in Yankee Stadium a lot in October, but not like this. The Yankees have been dominant enough to dispatch so many postseason comers before it came down to do or die, except for an American League Division Series Game 5 in Cleveland in 1997 and that Game 7 implosion at Arizona in the 2001 World Series.

It was going to be bedlam either way in Game 7 last night against the Red Sox. But on top of that, everyone understood: Martinez asked for it to be loud as hell.

By unleashing that fastball at the head of that unheralded Yankee and sparking a fire that led to an epic October melee in Game 3 last Saturday at Fenway, Martinez mandated that this reprise scene of destiny for Game 7 in New York be equal parts theater of hate.

For Martinez, all 185 pounds of him, this entire showdown against the Yankees was a grudge match. It has been his unabashed desire to take down the Yankees, one game at a time and, finally, on a platter, in prime time, in the ultimate duel.

If hatred is too strong a word for what Martinez feels for the Yankees, then scorn will do. So will disdain and contempt. Is he secretly jealous of the Yankees, all those rings, all that legacy, dripping in $167 million in greenbacks? Are those the feelings that drove Martinez to taunt Yankees owner George Steinbrenner as "Georgie Porgie" this summer, reminding the Yankees' boss he doesn't have enough money to put fear in Martinez's heart?

If Martinez can stand up to Steinbrenner, why were we so surprised that he lashed out at Karim Garcia or Don Zimmer or Jorge Posada or any of the players Steinbrenner has brought in to uphold the pinstripe tradition of domination?

All that bad blood and need to elevate the adrenaline drove Martinez to go nutty on Garcia and spark a melee - a memory could only be erased by a superb outing - or at least a gutty one that showcases Martinez's talent, not his buzz-cutting intimidator tactics. A $50,000 fine may have exacted some punishment from Martinez, but was it enough to focus him, salvage some strength from that fray labrum and tired shoulder?

Last night, in the howling wind and yammering, sellout crowd at Yankee Stadium, what a way to find out.

No one wants to see a pitcher as great as Martinez go Mike Tyson in one of the biggest games of his career. There are few pitchers these days who want to win so much that they'll risk life and limb to prove they mean business.

But as soon as Martinez seemed poised to win this clincher for all of hungry New England, Clemens seemed ready to give them the gift that never came to the Sox. It was 1986 when the Red Sox last went to the World Series. A young Clemens could not lead the Sox to the promised land and never again got the chance with Boston.

But with the Yankees, particularly this final season, Clemens has reached peace with his career. Ever since he won his 300th game this summer, the Yankees' coaching staff have noticed a difference in Clemens. He has been calmer, more consistent. They were confident he was the right man for this grand finale.

"What I've seen over the last half-dozen or so starts is the fact that he's been pretty much in command of his emotions, his stuff, all of that put together," Torre said last night of Clemens.

"When he pitched against Pedro last week, as emotional as that game was, I thought he kept everything in perspective."

Last night, however, the old man with the K's and the wins and the ring took a giant step closer to retirement.

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