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Clemens: Nasty duality

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By GARY SHELTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 23, 2000


NEW YORK -- The legacy grew Sunday night. The lines around a reputation became firmer, more focused. The way we will remember him became more clear.

Roger Clemens, nasty pitcher.

Roger Clemens, nasty guy.

By now, we should marvel at him. The Rocket is 38, still glaring, still glowing. We should be talking about him in reverence, the way he shut down the Mets Sunday night, the way he turned their bats into powder and blew them away. We should be talking about the fire in his eyes and the heat in his arm.

But the dark side of Clemens will not allow it. Instead, he leaves us shaking our heads at how he has crossed the line. He makes us worry about a man whose emotions constantly bring him to the breaking point.

This time, he didn't throw a ball at someone. He threw a bat.

This time, he wasn't trying to be a headhunter. He was trying to be a knee-breaker.

What a shame. There is so much to admire about Clemens. His ability. His durability. The way he allowed the Yankees to grab a 2-0 lead in the World Series. But that's the problem with Clemens. He cannot polish his rep without tarnishing it.

For those of you keeping score at home, it was 8:11 p.m. when the blood turned bad. That was when Mike Piazza, his old nemesis, hit a foul ball. Piazza's bat split, and the barrel skipped toward Clemens. Clemens grabbed it and threw it, missing Piazza by a foot or so as Piazza ran down the line.

It was a raw, ugly play, and it reopened the wounds that have lingered for more than 100 days, since Clemens plunked Piazza in the skull on July 8. Since, the debate between Yankees fans and Mets fans has simmered, until this had become the most anticipated showdown of the Series. And again, Clemens, the man who threw at Piazza, and at Alex Rodriguez, turned into the kind of player only Marty McSorley could love.

"I don't know what's going on in his mind," seethed Mets coach John Stearns. "He better check out what's going on (psychologically) He better check out what's going on. The last time, he drills our guy. This time, he throws a bat at him. At some point in time, you have to decide how much can you tolerate. I'm still upset by it."

The incident came in the top of the first, on the fourth pitch to Piazza. Piazza's bat shattered, and he lost the ball. The bat one-hopped to Clemens, who admitted his emotions were over the top.

When the bat flew past him, Piazza walked toward Clemens, pointing the bat at him and yelling.

"I asked him what his problem was," Piazza said. "He had no response. He didn't say anything. It was bizarre."

Even after the game, Clemens' answers were odd. He insisted there was no intent to hit Piazza, that he was simply throwing the bat toward the on-deck circle. Then, in the next breath, he said his emotions were so high that he had to go into a room by himself after the inning to calm himself.

Clemens wasn't the only one whose emotions skyrocketed. The entire city was in a frenzy over this confrontation, as if the toughest kids from two boroughs were facing each other. After Clemens hit Piazza in July, the sides had divided, with Yankees fans, essentially, telling Piazza it was only baseball and to stop whining and with Mets fans, essentially, questioning Clemens' courage for hiding behind the designated-hitter rule.

By Sunday night, even Yankees manager Joe Torre's agitation showed. He snarled in his post-game news conference, asking aloud why Clemens would risk being ejected in the first inning of a World Series game. "It was his emotions," Torre said. "Or is that too s----- a story for you? Why would he do it? It doesn't make sense."

What Torre missed, however, is that he kept asking rational questions of an irrational situation. Given time to think about it, Mike Tyson and Marty McSorley might have acted differently, too.

Ask yourself these questions: Is it coincidence that Clemens' occasional lapses in control, of pitching as well as of personality, seem to come when he is facing the best the opposition has to offer? And if Clemens was indeed just tossing the bat to the on-deck circle, why did he toss it toward the Yankee on-deck circle instead of the Mets?

By now, even Yankees fans have to acknowledge there is a bit of Tonya Harding (who had her own designated hitter) to Clemens. And you have to wonder why. Does a guy with his stuff need to cross the line? Does he really need to have this kind of edge?

I'll buy this much. It was an emotional moment. For months, Clemens had answered questions about hitting Piazza, and in essence the Mets, in the head. I'm sure he was beyond the boiling point when he took the mound.

That said, is emotion an excuse? Who is in charge of an athlete's temperament? And if a player tosses a bat at another, shouldn't he be ejected from the game?

"What does this say to the youth of America?" wondered reliever John Franco. "That it's all right to throw a bat at somebody?"

Good question. Look, this isn't about pitching inside. The most important thing a pitcher has is control, of the ball and of himself.

For Clemens, he needs to regain it.

If not for his team, for himself.

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