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8 Upper

Rocket Science

By Tom Scocca | Posted 10/24/2001

A split-fingered fastball is a poor substitute for courage. But it is very good at fooling people, which is all that Roger Clemens really wanted to do in his biggest game in 15 years. The splitter plunged into the dirt, the Seattle Mariners kept chasing after it, and Clemens was able to quit the field, head held high, with seven strikeouts in five shutout innings.

Clemens did not stick around to win Game 4 of the American League Championship Series. That was never the plan. The goal was to take care of Roger Clemens, and in that the Rocket succeeded brilliantly. The Yankees took care of the rest, as they have ever since Clemens came down from Toronto, looking for an easy world championship.

And the easy life is exactly what he's found in the Bronx. He now has two championship rings, with a chance at another. He will likely win his sixth Cy Young Award this year, on the strength of a 20-3 regular-season record--a record padded by the fact that his teammates averaged 6.58 runs per game in his starts, the second-best run support in the league. He is now third on the all-time strikeout list, with 3,717. When they eventually close the books on him, he'll be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, with the most impressive résumé of any pitcher in the last 20 years.

Yet Clemens has never been a hero, and he likely never will. He is immensely talented--so talented that most days when you put him on the mound, he will win, and win easily. But in the playoffs, the odds change, and he doesn't like it. Talent alone can't give him enough of an edge. In October, Clemens has always been defined by two muscles: the trembling little one that beats in his chest and the big, thick one between his ears. Together, they prevent him from being anything more than a loud, swaggering footnote, the rootin'-est, tootin'-est second-rater in baseball history.

The Yankees, of course, are blaming a different muscle. Clemens, they say, is battling a sore right hamstring. The New York papers have cataloged every telltale sign of stiffness in their hero, every hint that he isn't really himself. But he is precisely himself. He took the mound against the red-hot Oakland Athletics in the Division Series, fell behind 2-0 early, and limped off the mound, clutching his hamstring. In the 1999 ALCS, he took the mound in Fenway Park against Pedro Martinez, fell behind 5-0 early, and fled, grimacing, to get lower-back treatment.

It's a funny thing about Clemens' injuries. Most of the year, his thick lower half is hailed as the source of his success, with power and endurance built up through diligent weight training. But in the cold autumn air, his foundation suddenly becomes delicate.

The phenomenon should be familiar to anyone who's ever dealt with a 4-year-old--or anyone who's ever been a 4-year-old. The body will always find an excuse not to do what you don't want to do. Your head aches. Your tummy hurts. Your hamstring has a boo-boo. After 162 games and a round or two of playoffs, every player who's still around is in some sort of pain. But most stick around.

On some level, Clemens understands that bailing out of the big games is shameful. But his Plan B is even more childish. In his Division Series rematch with the A's, he gave up three quick runs, but he didn't deign to grab his leg. He just started throwing at Oakland batters' heads. Because he was struggling with his control, see? Somehow, none of the errant pitches tailed low and outside, or even high and outside. They just went straight for the green batting helmets.

He pulled the same stunt against Seattle, in the third inning of his outing Sunday. Ichiro Suzuki, the lone position player on the Mariners who has thrived in the postseason, worked Clemens for a walk, deliberately fouling off every pitch that came close to the strike zone. Then, after a half-dozen pick-off attempts from Clemens, Suzuki calmly and easily stole second. For a moment, it looked as if Clemens might start to cry. Instead, he fell behind Bret Boone 3-0, then fired the fourth pitch at Boone's ear for another walk. But the Mariners being the Mariners, he got out of the jam.

After the game, Yankees manager Joe Torre downplayed the cheap shot, invoking the memory of his own headhunting St. Louis teammate, Bob Gibson. It was an insult to Gibson. In his nine World Series games, Gibson went 7-2 with an ERA of 1.89. More to the point, he pitched eight complete games.

October baseball statistics, like any small sample, can be misleading. Ask Ted Williams or Barry Bonds--or Edgar Martinez, this year. But even when they're in an unlucky patch, the great players keep playing. Bob Gibson's success began with this: He wanted to stay on the mound.

If you're looking for Bob Gibson this fall, look in Arizona, where Curt Schilling has hurled three complete games in as many tries, allowing only two runs. Look at Jamie Moyer, who has pitched three times with Seattle on the brink of ruin, and is 3-0. Or, on Clemens' own Yankees, look at Mike Mussina and Andy Pettitte--and at Mariano Rivera, the closer, who stands ready to pitch two innings instead of his usual one when the team needs it in the playoffs. That's what matters in October: pitching when there's a chance you might lose, staying till the victory is secure. And that's what Clemens, for all his awards, has yet to do.

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