News broke yesterday afternoon that Roger Clemens has signed with the Sugar Land Skeeters of the independent Atlantic League, adding yet another team to a resume that already includes the Red Sox, Blue Jays, Yankees, Astros, and a handful of affiliated minor league clubs. The announcement, made two months to the day after Clemens was acquitted of all perjury charges, seemed to come out of nowhere. But if we examine the possible reasons for his return to baseball, Clemens’ announcement isn’t too surprising at all.
From a practical standpoint, Clemens may be looking to recover the legal costs of the aforementioned two-year lawsuit, which included a 10-week trial and representation from lawyer-to-the-stars Rusty Hardin. Sure, Clemens earned $160 million over his 24-year career in the majors. But that doesn’t mean that his court case didn’t set him back quite a bit. So what better way to make some extra money than playing the game that has already earned him so much?
But that can’t be his only motivation. After all, if money was sole the issue, Clemens could probably earn it back with a book deal, a series of speaking engagements, or a minor league coaching gig. What’s more, you’d think that coming off one of the most reputationally-damaging lawsuits to strike an athlete in recent years, Clemens would want to lay low for a bit longer
But instead of staying out the spotlight, he’s putting himself right back into it, yet doing so in a way that has traditionally been a boon to cast-off stars. Whether it’s Lance Armstrong returning to the Tour de France in 2009 after fighting a series of doping allegations, or Michael Jordan resuming his basketball career after a lackluster stint with the White Sox, there are few things that fans love more than an athletic comeback. And more often than not, they result in a reputational comeback as well.
Even if the Rocket does tank (which, based on the 87-mph fastballs he reportedly threw in his Sugar Land tryout and the unassuming nature of Atlantic League, seems unlikely), it’s a low-pressure environment on a team with no major league affiliation. It’s not like he’s playing for a Triple-A team with clear intentions to come out of retirement and return to the majors, as he has done so many times in his career, right?
Because if you look a little deeper, there’s no question that this is Clemens’ attempt to play baseball at the major league level one last time.
Having played his final game in 2007, Clemens will become eligible for the Hall of Fame later this year, joining Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, and Mark McGwire on the Cooperstown ballot. While these players’ achievements cannot be overlooked, neither can the stain on their names and on their records. These sluggers are, after all, the unofficial faces of baseball’s steroid era, and their joint presence on the ballot may effectively ruin all of their chances to get into the hall. Not great company, Clemens must figure, at least from a reputational standpoint.
But if he wows the scouts and makes his way back onto a big-league squad , like his former teammate and (former?) friend Andy Pettitte did earlier this year, Clemens would delay his eligibility by at least five years, effectively skirting the guilt-by-association that may come with this year’s ballot.
So a reputation-boost has everything to do with it, though not in the manner we had originally thought. And the fact that, according to Sugar Land manager Gary Gaetti, Clemens’ comeback has been in the works “for months” may indicate that he’s been mulling the ballot issue for quite a while.
Not to mention that getting back into the big leagues just might get his name back in the record books, as well. Clemens could become the oldest pitcher to win a game in the majors, challenging the record set by Jamie Moyer earlier this year (Clemens is about three months older than Moyer). And if he ends up with a national league team, he could break another one of Moyer’s records by becoming the oldest major-league player to record an RBI.
Signing with a team in the pitcher-friendly NL seems most likely for the Rocket, who played for the Houston Astros from 2004 to 2006. And it wouldn’t be too surprising if that very team, fresh off of firing manager Brad Mills, takes the native Texan back, in an attempt to salvage some piece of their 39-83 season.
Clemens’ signing is already making headlines and making the Skeeters a windfall. Tickets to Saturday’s game at the 7,500-seat Constellation Field, which Clemens is slated to pitch, were sold out by 2:30 pm yesterday, less than two hours after the signing was announced. And general admissions tickets to the game, with a face value of $8, are now selling for upwards of $60 on StubHub.
But for Clemens, it’s not about the money. It’s about capping off a Hall of Fame career by keeping off the Hall of Fame– at least for a few more years.