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Booster Rocket

The already formidable Yankees may have locked in another World Series berth by landing Roger Clemens

By Gerry Callahan with David Sabino

Issue date: March 1, 1999

Sports Illustrated Flashback George Steinbrenner took about 30 of his underlings and advisers to dinner at Malio's Steakhouse in Tampa on Wednesday of last week, and for a change no one told him what he wanted to hear. Sitting on the table was a trade, a big one, involving an exchange of aces, one of whom is among the greatest pitchers in the history of the game. The purpose of the party: to pick the deal apart like a plate of nachos.

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Heinz Kluetmeier
Before he pulled the trigger, Steinbrenner, the New York Yankees principal owner, wanted his people to step back and discuss the potential blockbuster from all angles, but the exercise proved futile. It was like a father asking his kids whether they should get a new puppy. The guys did everything but spell out CLEMENS with their body parts, like the Village People doing YMCA. Not even Costanza could find a problem with the trade.

"It was unanimous," says 31-year-old Yankees general manager Brian Cashman. "No one could come up with a reason not to make the deal."

That's because there was no reason for the Yankees not to make the deal. When they sent lefthanders David Wells and Graeme Lloyd and second baseman Homer Bush to the Toronto Blue Jays on Thursday for five-time Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens, the Yankees did more than upgrade the defending World Series champion and arguably the best team ever. They proved that there are still a few people in sports who are motivated by the simple desire to win and who are willing to do whatever it takes.

Baseball fans across the country can continue to hate the Yankees, but they've got to hand it to them: The Yanks aren't just hoping to medal. They're going for the gold -- this year, next year, always. "I definitely met my match with Mr. Steinbrenner," says Clemens. "He's someone who wants to win as bad as I do."

In 1998 the Yankees won 125 games and their second World Series in three years. At the start of last week, the plan was to bring to camp 24 of the 25 players from last year's team (all but outfielder Tim Raines, 39, a free agent who was not re-signed), and everyone, everywhere, was picking them to win it all again. When Toronto general manager Gord Ash contacted Cashman last week and expressed a desire to quickly unload Clemens--who had been seeking a trade since the end of last season -- no one would have blamed the Yankees G.M. if he had treated the call like a vinyl-siding sales pitch. His team was most definitely not broke. Why fix it? Why even consider it?

"Because that trophy we won last year has got rust on it now, and everyone is gearing up to take the championship away," says Cashman. "Baltimore's better. Cleveland's better. We had to get better."

So Cashman told Ash to give him the names of the players the Blue Jays wanted in return. Ash asked for Lloyd, a short-relief specialist; Bush, who was playing behind Chuck Knoblauch and had no shot of becoming a starter in New York anytime soon; and Wells, the eccentric lefthander who will turn 36 in May and who, some members of the Yankees' organization suspected, was due to return to earth after his '98 season in the stars (18-4, 3.49 ERA and a perfect game).

When Cashman heard the names, it "made my knees buckle," he says. The Yankees had been talking to the Blue Jays for months about Clemens, but this was by far the most attractive package to Cashman. He ran it by Steinbrenner, who was reluctant to give up on Wells, a folk hero in New York and one of the owner's favorites. But then the Pinstriped Politburo met at Malio's, and most of Steinbrenner's people had more trouble deciding on a salad dressing than on whether to make the trade.

Cashman called Ash at 11:42 that Wednesday night and told him they had a deal. Roger Clemens was a Yankee. A championship team without a sure Hall of Famer had added a sure Hall of Famer without a championship. Along with a 97-mph fastball, a nasty slider and a forkball that is almost unfair, Clemens, 36, brings an old-style attitude to the Bronx that will make the swaggering Yankees even more intimidating. "He's one of those guys you hate when he's on the other team just because of the way he carries himself," says righthanded reliever Jeff Nelson. "If you saw a rookie get a hit off him, you knew [the kid] was getting drilled the next time up."

Of course, when Clemens reported to Legends Field in Tampa two days after the trade, some of the players he had drilled in the past were waiting for him. Shortstop Derek Jeter, who twice was on the painful end of a Clemens purpose pitch last season, had the same reaction as many of Clemens's new teammates: He welcomed his old nemesis into the family. "No one is happy when they're getting thrown at," says Jeter. "I wasn't happy about it, but it's over with."

"He's not just a pitcher," says Cashman. "He's an animal. And he's our animal now."

It's Heidi Klum getting a tummy tuck or ER adding Brad Pitt to the cast. Can the best get better? Well, the Yankees can try, and their rivals for the pennant and at the box office -- especially the Boston Red Sox, for whom Clemens had played 13 seasons, and the crosstown New York Mets -- can only look on with awe and envy. "He's not the ace of our staff, he's the ace of the league," says Yankees righthander David Cone. "We gave up the best lefthander in the league, and that's important in Yankee Stadium. But we add the best pitcher in the game. How can you turn that down?"

Clemens won the Cy Young in each of his two years in Toronto, with a combined record of 41-13 and a 2.33 ERA. His five Cy Youngs amount to one more than Yankees pitchers have won in the 43-year history of the award. Last season he led the Blue Jays to 88 wins and a surprising late-season run at the wild card. Still, when he decided Toronto didn't have a credible shot at contending this year, he demanded a trade, his right under a secret side agreement to the December 1996 free-agent contract he signed with Toronto -- a deal agreed to by then Blue Jays president Paul Beeston, who is now the president of Major League Baseball.

Before accepting Toronto's four-year, $31.1 million deal (including a staggering $9.75 million signing bonus and that side agreement), Clemens had rejected his other strong suitor, the Yankees, saying he didn't want to move his family to New York. "I made a mistake once, but hopefully not twice," he said last week.

Steinbrenner offered Clemens another chance to prove that he is sincere in his quest to win a ring, and in agreeing to the trade Clemens jumped at the opportunity. "I've had a great deal of success individually, but I haven't done it collectively," said Clemens, who has pitched in only one World Series, with the Red Sox in '86. The Yankees have said they will consider giving Clemens a contract extension -- last week they denied that they had already done so -- but it probably won't include clauses for private planes for his family or premium season tickets (as did free-agent righthander Kevin Brown's $105 million deal with the Dodgers). "He is a Yankee," says Steinbrenner. "He will obey the Yankee rules."

The perks will come on the field. Clemens will now be supported by the best defense, the best setup corps (righthanders Nelson and Ramiro Mendoza, and lefthander Mike Stanton) and the best closer (righthander Mariano Rivera) he has ever had. He may even get improved support over the 4.99 runs per nine innings the Blue Jays provided in his 33 starts last year; by contrast, the Yankees supported Wells with 6.84 runs and Cone with 6.89. Moreover Clemens averaged almost 250 innings in his two seasons in Toronto, a workload Yankees manager Joe Torre is not likely to place on him. New York's deep bullpen could ensure a strong and well-rested Rocket in the postseason and might even prolong his career. "It would be nice to stay fresh into August and September," says Clemens, who didn't exactly run out of gas last season. He went his final 22 starts without a loss.

Clemens's acquisition leaves the Yankees with only one lefthander, Andy Pettitte, in the starting rotation, which might be a problem if Clemens were a mere mortal righthander. But last season lefthanded batters hit .197 against Clemens, one point lower than righties did. (By comparison, lefties hit .245 against Wells.)

Barring a Yankees collapse that would be even more historic than last season's triumph, Clemens this year should get his first taste of the playoffs since '95. "I thought it would be easy to get to postseason play because I did it a lot early in my career," says Clemens. He reached the postseason four times with the Red Sox but in nine starts was 1-2 with a 3.88 ERA.

You have to figure the Yankees would enter the postseason expecting heroics from Clemens, but it would be hard for them to feel more confident than they did when Wells took the ball in October. The Rocket may be the best pitcher in the game, but it's easy to argue that Boomer is the best money pitcher. In 10 career postseason starts, Wells is a remarkable 8-1 with a 2.74 ERA. His hard-partying, heavy-metal image may obscure the fact that when he takes the mound on a crisp autumn evening, Wells is pure warrior.

So there you go, a reasonable question for the Yankees concerning a trade that has gotten better reviews than Shakespeare in Love. Why give up an established postseason performer for a guy who, as great as he is, has yet to prove himself in October? The answer: The Yankees quietly suspected that Wells was losing more than just his hair. Boomer's approach to conditioning was also a constant concern, a stark contrast to the fitness regime of Clemens, who brings the same maniacal passion to the weight room that he does to the mound.

Wells reportedly threw at the Yankees' complex in Tampa two weeks ago, but had to stop after 15 tosses because of pain in his back. Says Cone, who was Wells's best friend on the team, "There's no question that part of the thinking was, How much does Boomer have left?"

The Yankees are also wondering how much Cone has left. The 13-year veteran and one-time Cy Young winner is eight months younger than Clemens but had shoulder surgery two years ago. In the final four months of last season, his ERA more than doubled (1.57 to 3.79) when he pitched on four days rest as opposed to five or more. "We're all concerned [about Cone's arm]," says Torre. "He's still our leader, but I think the presence of Clemens will signify to Coney that we don't have to rely quite as much on him as we once did."

On the other end of the deal, the wild man could mean the wild card for the Blue Jays. After the trade Ash spoke with Wells, who told his new boss, "Start me against Clemens and the Yankees, and I'll kick their butt." Reflecting on a pitching staff that had no regular southpaw starters last year, Ash says, "We have a balance in the rotation now that we haven't had."

The Jays also got a potential spark plug in Bush, 26, who batted .380 in 71 at bats last year. Bush confidently predicts that if he gets 500 at bats, he'll hit .290 with five to 10 homers, 60 to 70 RBIs and 40 to 50 stolen bases. "I like how we match up with New York," he says. "Pitching is their strength and ours."

Of course, the Yankees' strength just got a whole lot stronger.

Issue date: March 1, 1999

 


 
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