When he stepped out of the clubhouse and into the sun on a flawless spring training morning, he wore a strange new uniform, a sight as shocking as a police car in the rearview mirror. His number 21 jersey was as bright and blue as Windex, and it appeared as if someone had put fresh batteries in his cap. It was impossible to take your eyes off him—which, of course, was the point.
From the pasty-white Canadian tourists behind the chain-link fence to his new teammates on the practice diamond in Dunedin, Fla., everyone had the same reaction to Roger Clemens's first appearance in a Toronto Blue Jays uniform: They stopped dead and stared. Can you believe we really got him?
"It's just so blue," Debbie Clemens said upon seeing her husband in Toronto practice garb. "I guess it's going to take some getting used to."
For 13 years Clemens wore the conventional grays and whites of the Boston Red Sox, and most people had assumed he would finish his career in a Boston uniform. In this era of major league mercenaries, there was something different about Clemens, something proudly permanent. He was a self-styled throwback athlete in the ultimate throwback town, inspired by the knee-buckling intensity of the Red Sox nation and undeterred by the cumulative pressure of the team's past failures. For more than a decade Clemens was Boston, and Boston was Clemens, and until six weeks ago it was impossible to imagine him glaring out from under an enemy cap.
But there he was on the first day of spring training, bouncing out of a new clubhouse like a kid heading for the playground, all tangled up in Blue Jay blue. He was tanned and trim, as fit as he had ever been at the start of a season. He talked a blue streak for the army of reporters and photographers who chronicled his every step, and he signed autographs for tourists and even some teammates. "I don't think anyone could have more desire than Roger has every year," said righthander Erik Hanson, who left the Red Sox for the Blue Jays as a free agent after the 1995 season. "But I think he's got a little more energy this year. He's a little more fired up. He wants to live up to the contract and to the billing."
Clemens has always come to camp with high expectations to fill, but never more so than this year. When he marched across the border to Toronto after last season, he did more than just upset the competitive balance in the American League East. He lifted the hopes of an entire franchise and knocked the rest of the baseball world on its ear. He proved that a player's mere presence can be as important as wins and losses, as valuable as experience or ability. When Clemens signed with the Blue Jays, he set the price of presence, and he set it high.
"If he had no arm or pitching ability left, we wouldn't have signed him," says Blue Jays president Paul Beeston. "But the fact is, this is a statement—to our fans, to our players, to the rest of the league. We've got Roger Clemens now. We' mean business."
They've got Roger Clemens now. Just try to look away.
Last Sept. 28, after the Red Sox lost to the New York Yankees in their penultimate game of the season, Clemens pitched in a Boston uniform for the last time. His five-year, $25.5 million contract was about to expire, and he would be, for the first time in his big league career, a free agent. The Red Sox retained exclusive rights to negotiate with him until 15 days after the World Series, but everyone knew Clemens intended to test the market. Everyone knew there would be interest in his services. No one had any idea the bidding would get so crazy. "We knew Roger had value," says Boston general manager Dan Duquette. "But it went way beyond what we thought the market would bear."
The Red Sox misread the market, but who could blame them? Clemens went 10-13 last season. He was only one game over .500 (40-39) for the last four seasons combined, and on Aug. 4 he will turn 35. He has been on the disabled list twice in the last four years and four times in his career. He is one of the great pitchers of his generation, but his prime is behind him. Duquette, punching all of the above into his computer, offered Clemens a four-year, $20 million contract, although only $10 million was guaranteed. Clemens laughed at the offer and headed for the open market. He is laughing still.