One by one his teammates hugged him so tightly, so earnestly behind the pitcher's mound at The Ballpark in Arlington that it seemed as if someone in this welcome wagon in spikes would hand over a basket of freshly baked muffins. Roger Clemens had worn the pinstripes for eight months, but only last Saturday night, after polishing off the New York Yankees' pathetic little sparring partner, the Texas Rangers, in an American League Division Series sweep, did he become one of the Yankees. With seven steely, clinical innings of shutout pitching, Clemens justified the bombshell trade that brought him to New York, debunked his reputation for getting overly emotional in big games and, for the first time, introduced his old self to new teammates. "What I saw on his face," fellow New York righthander David Cone said after the game, "was relief. It was a defining moment in his career, and I think he knew it going in."
"It may be the first time that he realized there are people who are here to help him," said Yankees manager Joe Torre. "He's the kind of guy who likes to go it alone, figure things out for himself. Tonight he was more a Yankee than he's ever been."
As it did last year, New York permitted Texas only one run in three Division Series games. Starting pitchers Orlando Hernandez, Andy Pettitte and Clemens took care of 67 of the 81 outs while Cone, the author this season of a perfect game and owner of the best ERA in the league outside of the Boston Red Sox' exceptional Pedro Martinez, wasn't even needed.
In a week when the teams of Martinez, the Arizona Diamondbacks' Randy Johnson, the Atlanta Braves' Greg Maddux and the Houston Astros' Mike Hampton went 0-4 when those aces took the ball, the Yankees underscored the value of having depth in a rotation. They're the only club in baseball with four starters who have pitched the opening game of a postseason series. Heading into the League Championship Series this week against the Red Sox, New York's starters were 13-1 over the past two postseasons. Torre's edge: He can start a premium pitcher every game without even having to consider using one on short rest.
Clemens enriched the rotation with his coming-out party in the 3-0 win last Saturday night. Call it addition by Division. Until then the Yankees had traded for Cy Young and received J.D. Salinger. "We haven't had the chance to get to know him." second baseman Chuck Knoblauch said last Saturday. "We don't see much of him. We joke around, 'Is he here today?' "
After every inning Clemens pitched in exhibition games at the Yankees' spring training site in Tampa, he would bolt down the dugout runway and disappear. He'd always be back in the dugout after his teammates had made the second out of their turn at bat. He'd be breathing heavily. Fresh beads of sweat dripped from his brow.
Wondering, What was this guy up to? catcher Jorge Posada discreetly followed Clemens one night. He watched him duck into the dugout tunnel, pass through a rear door of the clubhouse, turn left, walk past the batting cages under the rightfield stands and arrive at an outside area of practice mounds. There, in near darkness, Clemens would grunt his way through a monotonous drill known as pickups, in which he would field a ground ball rolled to his left by a coach, then shuffle to field one to his right, then back to his left and so on. Posada, careful not to reveal his surveillance, shook his head in amazement.
Clemens kept to his little dark corner all year. He routinely disappeared into the weight room at Yankee Stadium, where he would train by himself or mime his delivery over and over in front of a wall of mirrors, trying to burn into his muscles' memory the proper position of his right arm at the moment the baseball left his hand. All the while Yankees fans refused to embrace him, mostly because he won only 14 of 24 decisions, posted a career-worst 4.60 ERA and walked batters at a rate (4-32 per nine innings) exceeded among American League pitchers only by Tampa Bay Devil Rays righthander Bobby Witt. Also, Clemens wasn't David Wells, the popular lefthander whom the Yankees sent to the Toronto Blue Jays with two other players to get Clemens. Wells was the kind of guy who did his running and pickups at New York's watering holes. Gotham loved that nearly as much as Wells's postseason portfolio (8-1), which made Clemens's (1-2 in nine starts until Saturday) look inadequate.
"I'm my own worst critic," Clemens said after beating Texas, "but I did win 14 games, and in the 10 games I lost we didn't score many runs . I had my way with the league for the past two years [when he won Cy Young awards with Toronto]. I just haven't had it here."
On the last weekend of the regular season Torre told Clemens that he would not start against Texas until Game 3. Clemens looked Torre in the eye and said flatly, "That's just what I want." The No. 3 spot in the rotation would mean that Clemens would have the chance to close out a series in his home state in front of his family and friends on the same day his beloved Texas football team took on archrival Oklahoma 30 miles away in Dallas. He watched the first half in his hotel room, the second half in the Yankees' clubhouse. The football game was a timely diversion for someone who becomes notoriously spring-loaded before important starts. Catcher Joe Girardi immediately noticed a becalmed Clemens in their pregame review of the Rangers' hitters.