Human side of Clemens on view as curtain drops

October 23, 2003|By LAURA VECSEY

MIAMI -- That wasn't lightning flashing through the humid Florida night. Those were camera bulbs dancing in Roger Clemens' eyes. He said he would be happy and sad taking the mound for the very last time, but did he figure on being blinded for posterity?

Everyone knew what they were about to see.

Maybe this wasn't fair to the Florida Marlins, who had already courted destiny twice by beating back the Giants and Cubs, Jason Schmidt and Kerry Wood and Mark Prior. In the cosmos, it must be written somewhere that the great ones come with a script in which the final act is a scene completely their own. Even in the Marlins' own ballpark, the chorus sang out, "Let's go, Roger," as Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo grounded out.

But wait a minute. Were those cheers or taunts?

Clemens sweated under the bright lights and Ivan Rodriguez lined a hard single to center. Roger, Roger.

Then it was the 20-year-old kid, Miguel Cabrera, up to take a crack. Clemens buzzed him and Cabrera snapped his neck back just in time to miss getting tagged in the helmet. But the intimidation tactic did not work. On a 2-2 pitch, Cabrera stood in and belted a homer over the right-field wall to serve notice:

No storybook ending on our dime.

Clemens did settle down, but not before the Yankees could pull off another comeback the way they did in Clemens' last start, in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series. What's with this Groundhog Day scenario?

The Yankees got it to 3-3 in the ninth on Ruben Sierra's 2-RBI, pinch-hit triple, Rocket's red glare all but faded, and then they stretched the proceedings way past midnight before shortstop Alex Gonzalez lined a bases-empty homer over the wall down the left field line.

It was almost enough to turn Clemens into footnote. Imagine that? Your major league finale, in a World Series, no less, trumped by Sierra, whose own Hall of Fame career was derailed by too much pumping iron and too many trips to the music recording studio. But the Marlins had an easy target against Yankees reliever Jeff Weaver, who took the 4-3 loss.

Then the Florida fans really cheered. But at least Clemens got his moment when the flashing lights started popping again in the top of the seventh. Castillo would be the last batter Roger Clemens would face. Cameras caught every pitch for posterity, history and a called strike three.

One more for the road.

"It was quite memorable for me. Roger just took it all in. He certainly straightened it out and when I see Pudge [Ivan Rodriguez] standing at home plate, that was amazing," Joe Torre said.

Clemens pounded his glove and Pro Player Stadium erupted in a spontaneous, loud, warm appreciation. He was human, Clemens was, as he walked off for a curtain call and to the kind of baseball immortality reserved for players of his elite caliber.

Maybe that was the fitting farewell, considering the mixed reaction Clemens elicited throughout his long, storied career. His power, domination, longevity and work ethic were the stuff to bolster a Hall of Fame legend. The 300 wins, the 4,000 strikeouts, the six Cy Young awards are the signature of one of the game's greatest.

It was a good thing his achievements were so impressive because he was not going to win you over in the interview room -- at least not until the very end, when he began to calm down, take it in, to reflect instead of repel.

Maybe that's what got him last night, much like it got him in Game 7 of the ALCS against the Red Sox. For so long, Clemens pitched on fury and now the tank was empty.

As the modern definition of a headhunter, Clemens was a control freak, even if he was so hopped up for each start it barely seemed that way. Just ask Mike Piazza, or recall that strangest baseball frozen moment: Clemens in an enraged windup, a dangerous, splintered bat in his big Texas paw.

For a long time, this was the lasting impression Clemens left on the game. It was no surprise to see him buzz Cabrera. Clemens dropped Alex Rodriguez to his knees one memorable postseason game against the Mariners. The young are not spared from this kind of dirty work.

Spring, summer and fall for the last 18 years, Clemens wanted to know immediately from his catcher, from the umpire, what was his to work with. I have to understand what's going on out there, he'd say. How high, how low, how wide and especially how far inside he could bring it. The 17-inch plate became 24 inches, other men's knuckles and teeth and thighs no obstacle.

That's why it always seemed a very fitting trial what Clemens had to go through between 1999 and 2001 to really become a New York Yankee. You can sign a contract with George Steinbrenner for all the money in Gotham, but that's no guarantee you're going to make it in the clubhouse or in front of the fans.

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