|A giant walking the earth|
By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist
I look at Roger Clemens and I see John Henry.
Pitches like hammer swings: swift, strong arcs; the ring and pop of ball to target; and a relentless rhythm, always coming on (coming on for 19 years now).
Like John Henry drove steel, Clemens pitches like he was born to it, like it's a natural expression of what he is. He doesn't ever seem to rear back or gear up; he doesn't dig deep. He just pitches, pitches out of a strong, steady drive, like throwing is living, like dealing BBs is nothing more than breathing out.
And like he'll never stop.
I look at Roger Clemens on the hill, with just the slightest little hip swing in his stance, and I see John Wayne.
Like there was about the Duke, there's a broad-shouldered grace in Clemens (the Babe had it, too), something that surprises and charms you, a softness on the edges of great strength.
Watch Roger's feet in the wind-up, watch the casual ballet of them -- think of Wayne in "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," shuffling and sidling as if to music.
Wayne had that distinctly American confidence that breathes easy in tight air. He had that stare that sees the forest even as it bores a hole straight through the one tree it seeks. His clothes hung easy; he looked supremely comfortable in his own skin.
Take a look at Clemens the night he struck out 20 Mariners in '86, or take a look at him last Wednesday night in Boston -- he has all that.
There's a deep-breath cool about him in the moments before he throws, a Duke-like feel for being centered and capable regardless of the circumstance or the setting.
I look at Roger Clemens' face set in stone behind his glove and I see Jim Brown.
Grim. Mean. Out to get you.
Clemens turns his shoulder and shifts his weight plateward, and he's Brown hard-charging for paydirt.
I look at the flare in Clemens' right leg flying wide at the follow-through and I see the swivel and swing of the young Elvis on the mic.
I look at the way his ball dives, screams, rises and pops, and I see Walter Johnson, Bob Gibson and Tom Seaver.
Sometimes, I swear I think I see Zeus.
All of which is to say, I look at Roger Clemens and I see a legend.
We tend not to see greatness when it's in our midst. Day-to-day performance, even when it's stellar, tends to blur and pale when we look at it up close.
We don't trust the age we live in, maybe; we're too familiar with its flaws, too often stung by its shortcomings.
Maybe it's that we've been told not to expect much of modern athletes. They're money-hungry. They're specialists and opportunists rather than warriors. They're talented, they're marvelous "athletes," but their hearts are somehow deficient.
Maybe we're distracted by our zest for pennant races and rivalries, our attention to big games and big series happening in the present.
Or maybe it's just a nostalgia thing. Greatness, legendary status -- maybe these are things that have to gather over time, have to be cured with the salts of historical comparison and judgment, have to steep in the warm water of memory and reflection.
Maybe our dads walked to school every day in the snow, barefoot, uphill, both ways.
Whatever it is, the talk about Clemens is often muted -- appreciative and impressed, but not flabbergasted. He's a great pitcher, sure, but I don't know if we can put him in the class with the all-time greats, and so on. (Jim Kaat, who calls Yankee games, and gets to see Roger pitch every five days or so, was talking on air this way just last week.)
The thing is, we can put him in the class with the all-timers. The guy has a pedigree as long as your arm: flashes of spectacular brilliance and top-level longevity to boot.
He struck out 20 batters, remember. Twice. And 10 freakin' years apart, thank you very much.
That's some legendary stuff, right there.
Now, add to that some of this:
Over 19 years, he's won games at a .662 clip, which, until he signed with the Yanks a few years back, has always been at a much healthier pace than the clubs he pitched for.
There are six Cys on his mantle. Six.
In 1997, at age 34, when some thought he might be done (and when it would be more than reasonable for a power pitcher to tail off), he led the AL in wins, ERA and strikeouts. And he went out and did it again in '98.
He's pitched over 4000 innings, with an ERA around 3.00. He's won 20 games six times. Six times he's led his league in ERA. And four times, he's posted ERAs about half the league average.
He's a bad mutha, I'm telling you.
In the New Bill James Historical Abstract, the man who knows as much about numbers and player evaluation as any baseball mind past or present (and a whole lot more than I do) wrote this about Clemens: "In my opinion, Roger Clemens is the greatest pitcher of this generation ... [and] there is actually a very good argument that he is the greatest pitcher who ever lived."
And now, this afternoon, at 40, Clemens is gunning for the Holy Grail of pitching: 300 wins.
You know what that number is? It's just a marker. It's not justification. It's not proof. It's not a coronation that allows us, finally, to say that he's a legend.
It's just a marker, a chance, an opportunity (the same way the 20s were, same way each Cy ceremony's been), to appreciate, to recognize how crazy-brilliant and legendary this guy already is.
Oh, to have been a fan back in the day, when men were men, when giants walked the earth ... Screw that.
Oh, to be a fan right now (and for each of the last 19 years of the Clemens era). Oh, to be as lucky as we are, to watch him work, to experience his mechanics, witness his drive, soak up the sweat and sound of him doing what he does.
Here's what we ought to do with the 300th win (whether it's today or next time out or whenever): Evaluate and compare him with the other greats, sure, but then let that fall away for a bit, too, and just watch him.
Key on the ritualistic way he kicks at the dirt near the rubber. Tune into the compact, economic dip of his glove from face to waist. Try to imagine the sly physics of his ball moving just out of a hitter's reach or just too fast for a hitter's reflexes. Pay attention to the shoulder sag that brings him to set-and-ready. Check the lift he gets on the left leg.
I don't know what you'll see in it. I see Nolan Ryan. I see Paul Newman. I even think I hear a little Springsteen -- it's that blend of sweet and scraggly, ruffled and soaring I hear in "Thunder Road" -- when I watch him pitch. All I'm saying is, appreciate; pay attention and stay open. You'll see something.
This guy's that good. And we're lucky to be looking at him.
Eric Neel is a regular columnist for Page 2.