Clemens opens up on minor league appearance, possible comeback
Clemens: 'I have retired and unretired a number of times, so I know what it takes'
Clemens will start for independent league Sugar Land Skeeters on Saturday night
Seven-time Cy Young winner has been working out and says he's throwing 87 MPH
Two months ago, Roger Clemens slipped out of the public eye after being acquitted of six federal charges of perjury and obstruction of justice relating to his alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs. Now the 50-year-old Clemens might be taking the first step in pursuing the nearly impossible goal of returning to the big leagues. The 11-time All-Star with 354 wins and a record seven Cy Young Awards, will pitch Saturday night for Sugar Land Skeeters, an independent league team in the Houston suburbs.
"I'm nowhere close to being ready for Major League Baseball,'' Clemens said in a phone interview with SI.com. "I'm been running and working out, but there's a big difference between that and getting ready to pitch in a big-league game. When I was making comebacks in the big leagues, my workouts were much more time-consuming. I've got two more boys that I'm trying to get through high school. I'm spending a lot of time doing that. I can't think that far ahead. I have retired and un-retired a number of times, so I know what it takes.''
The idea to pitch for the Skeeters came from manager Gary Gaetti, a Clemens friend who was the Astros' batting coach when Clemens played for the team. The two started talking about the comeback in April. At first, Clemens said he laughed at Gaetti's suggestion. But then he got more serious about a comeback after visiting Dr. James Andrews, who told Clemens that his right shoulder is in a good shape and he shouldn't have any problems pitching.
Clemens first retired after pitching in the 2003 World Series for the New York Yankees, but then unretired to play four more seasons, three with his hometown Astros and another with the Yankees. He hasn't pitched since 2007 and he's not sure about returning to the big leagues.
Still, Clemens' appearance Saturday night has fueled speculation that the Astros might sign him if he pitches well for the Skeeters. The Astros' new owner, Jim Crane, hasn't ruled out having Clemens pitch on a more regular basis under the right circumstances.
Crane, who bought the team in November from former Astros owner Drayton McLane, doesn't want a Clemens comeback to be seen as a publicity stunt to fill empty seats for a team that's likely have triple-digit losses for the second consecutive season. Crane said he hasn't talked to MLB about the possibility of adding Clemens to the roster and wouldn't do so with without the blessing of the league office.
"I want to respect baseball, and I wouldn't do it for the money,'' Crane told SI.com. "If we did it, I'd have all the extra proceeds go to charity. I don't want it to be a circus, and I don't want it to be an embarrassing situation. We'll have to wait and see. We are not planning anything beyond Saturday's game.''
Phil Garner, Clemens former manager with the Astros, doesn't rule anything out when it comes to the Rocket, who won 18 games with a 2.98 ERA for the Astros in 2004 and went 13-8 with a career-best 1.87 ERA the following season.
When Garner heard the news that Clemens was going to pitch in Sugar Land, about 20 minutes from Minute Maid Park, he was surprised. But after he thought about it, Garner said it was classic Clemens.
"Roger likes to compete and he likes working with younger players, so that all might have something to do with it,'' Garner said. "While I don't think a return to the big leagues is impossible, it would be hard. Most 50-year-olds that come back are either lefthanded or have a knuckleball. Roger is a power pitcher. But, don't count him out. The Rocket is the Rocket, and if he puts his mind to it, he can do it.''
Clemens' first link to performance-enhancing drugs came in December 2007 when he was accused by former trainer Brian McNamee of using steroids and HGH in the Mitchell Report. Later, the Justice Department launched an investigation about whether Clemens lied under oath when he denied using illegal drugs in front of the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. In 2010, a grand jury indicted him on two counts of perjury, three counts of making false statements and one count of obstructing a congressional investigation. Clemens was acquitted on all charges on June 19 after a 10-week trial.
Since then, he returned to Houston and has kept a low profile. He's been spending time with his wife and four sons. He's also playing left-centerfield for his agent Randy Hendricks' 50-and-over softball team. Clemens has smashed a couple of home runs over a 300-foot fence, and he was shocked his home run trot was stopped at first base because league rules don't allow players to run around the bases after popping a home run. Clemens also had made a couple of sliding catches in the outfield.
"I made a hook-slide catch and [my teammates] told me to watch out so I don't blow out my knees,'' Clemens said. "I like the exercise. I sprint out and back to my position. I love being around it.''
Clemens wouldn't answer questions about steroids or the trial and refused to speculate on whether they would affect his chances of getting into the Hall of Fame.
"As far as all that stuff going on in D.C., it had no bearing on me needing to play baseball,'' Clemens says. "I just want to play and have fun.''
Clemens is scheduled to appear on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time in December, but if he wound up signing with the Astros, his candidacy would be pushed back another five years, which would give voters more time to consider the credentials he compiled during 24 seasons with Boston, Toronto, the Yankees and Houston.
He said he'd love to be in the Hall, but he's not going to worry about a vote that he can't control. "Everybody can speculate all the want,'' he said.
Clemens and Crane have played golf together and attended this year's All-Star Game in Kansas City. Clemens has four years left on his personal-services contract with the Astros. Next season, Crane said Clemens would be working with pitching prospects. "And if they give them any sass, he'll knock them on their butts,'' Crane said.
The Skeeters play in the Atlantic League, which is in its 15th season and has eight teams in two divisions. With the exception of the Skeeters, all teams are in Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Pennsylvania. The Skeeters already have three former big-league pitchers, Jason Lane, Tim Redding and Scott Kazmir, trying to make comebacks. Redding and Clemens were teammates in Houston. Lane played with Clemens on the Astros' 2005 team which went to the World Series.
Players in the Atlantic League have, on average, four to six years of big-league experience and the league has sparked comebacks for players like Rickey Henderson, Jose Canseco, Ruben Sierra and Carlos Baerga. Currently, pitcher Jerome Williams of the Los Angeles Angels and outfielder Lew Ford of the Baltimore Orioles are in the big leagues after getting scouted in the Atlantic League. The Atlanta Braves have five minor league players in their system purchased from the league.
The Skeeters, who are in the first year of a new $37 million ballpark that includes a swimming pool, carousel and splash pad for kids, have averaged 6,700 fans a game. Saturday night's game was nearly sold out before it was announced that Clemens was going to pitch, and the remaining tickets sold out in less than an hour.
Clemens might pitch only a couple of innings on Saturday night against the Bridgeport (Conn.) Bluefish. Clemens said he'll treat the start like a spring training game. He's been throwing 87 mph, but he's not sure how his body will react to game conditions. He hopes Gaetti won't have to come get him in the first inning.
"Right now, I feel as if I am 35, but when I get out there, I might feel like I'm 50,'' Clemens says. "It's not going to be a piece of cake. I'm taking it one game at a time. I'll get through Saturday and then we will see.''
Mel Antonen lives in Washington, D.C., and is a baseball analyst for SiriusXM and MASN-TV.