So much has been written already since word came out Monday that Roger Clemens would take the mound for the first time in five years Saturday night in an Atlantic League game to fill another file in the National Baseball Hall of Fame where the 50-year-old phenom may one day have his own plaque depending on how writers vote on his ultra-debated use—or non use—of forbidden substances.
We know this much: The Sugar Land (TX) Skeeters for whom Clemens will pitch near his Houston home have added auxiliary press box seating and probably will allow some intrusion into the dugouts by the overflow of still photographers who have been credentialed. ESPN Classic and ESPN3 will carry the game live and ESPN News will cut in for every inning Clemens pitches. USA Today, Sports Illustrated, The Associated Press and Houston’s four television stations will be among many media on site.
But my inquisitiveness had two other questions: What does Clemens’s appearance mean long range for the Atlantic League, indeed for all of Independent Baseball, since both should always welcome positive national attention to help the nation’s fans try to comprehend what the role of the non-affiliated leagues are all about? Secondly, what are the visiting Bridgeport (CT) Bluefish thinking of going into the spotlight against The Rocket, who has won seven Cy Young Awards and 354 regular-season major league games plus another dozen in postseason competition?
Frank Boulton is justifiably proud of the Atlantic League he created so his initial comments about Clemens’s appearance were that “we’re doing what we’ve been doing for 15 years”, which is to say giving players a good alternative to the affiliated major leagues.
But Boulton also acknowledged that the Clemens outing gives the league “a higher profile”, pointing proudly to getting a spot on the coveted back page of Newsday, the high-circulation newspaper that blankets Long Island, NY, where Boulton’s flagship Long Island Ducks bring him steady pride. (He did not know about the live TV coverage when we spoke.)
For Bridgeport’s part, Manager Willie Upshaw may have a ready answer to Clemens’ first game in half a decade in that the Bluefish will start Brad Thompson, who is game-ready since he has been pitching and has 201 major league appearances on his own resume plus a World Series outing for St. Louis in 2006. If one wants irony, Thompson’s major league record is 21-21, and, in case anyone has forgotten, 21 was Clemens’s uniform number, even back in his early years with Boston in the ‘80s. Thompson is 3-2, 4.67 since joining Bridgeport.
“You’ve got to block out the crowd (standing room-only 7,500),” Upshaw said. “That’s what baseball is. Get your pitch. It’s like driving in runs. Catch it out front. Concentrate on your pitch.
Bridgeport infielders Shea Hillenbrand and Luis Lopez both faced Clemens with Hillenbrand going 7-for-21 (.333) in eight games, with all seven hits singles. He specifically remembered one “liner over (Jason) Giambi’s head” that drove in a run. The Boston third baseman (of that time) said it was difficult to distinguish between the pitcher’s fastball and splitter, and praised “his sheer determination.”
Lopez Helped The Rocket Get on Sports Center
Lopez faced Clemens twice in six days in 2001 when he was with Toronto and Clemens pitched for the New York Yankees, going 1-for-5, with three specific memories of the initial game at Yankee Stadium. He had a number of relatives in the stands, got a single to left and took a called third strike that moved Clemens into third place on the all-time strikeout list. “They played that (his strikeout) over and over on Sports Center,” he laughed.
“Stay with your approach as a hitter,” Lopez said. “See it and hit it.”
‘Bucket Duty’ Not Likely for Clemens
The best comment may have come from veteran Bridgeport pitcher Matt Pike, knowing full well Clemens’s appearances with Sugar Land likely will be limited. “I don’t think he’ll be doing the bucket on Sunday”, laughed Pike of the chore assigned hurlers the day after they take the mound.
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