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No fond farewell for the Rocket

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 16, 2003

BALTIMORE. -- Roger Clemens pitched -- and won -- his last game in Baltimore last night, but he might as well have been Roger Moret for all the acclaim and attention it got.

This was the last time Baltimore fans would have an opportunity to come and see the greatest pitcher of his era and one of the greatest of all time, but there was nothing special about the crowd at Camden Yards.

There was no promotion from the Orioles, who faced the New York Yankees in game two of their four-game series, about coming out to see Clemens in his Baltimore finale, after 20 years of performing in the town. Clemens goes back to 1984 and Memorial Stadium and pitched against Orioles who are long retired, such as first-base coach Rick Dempsey.

"I don't remember getting too many hits off him, if I got any at all," Dempsey said. "He had no reason ever to throw at me. He would brush you back, but he did that with all hitters, and that's OK. I wish I had a bunch just like him."

Of course you do. Just one like Clemens would do just fine -- a pitcher who has won 308 games over his career after last night's 6-3 victory and lost just 160 for a .658 winning percentage that ranks with the best among pitchers winning 300 or more games, a pitcher who has struck out 4,093 hitters, a pitcher who has won a record six Cy Youngs.

Yet last night, with just 26,263 in the stands, he was simply the starting pitcher for the New York Yankees. There were no gifts, no cars, no special locker set aside for him in the visitor's clubhouse, not even a giant-size check to his favorite charity -- none of the hoopla that usually accompanies saying goodbye to a legend.

"This is significant," said former Orioles pitching great Jim Palmer. "This is his September song."

There has been no farewell tour for Roger Clemens, who insists this will be his final season. Instead, it has been more like good riddance. He is hardly the most beloved figure in baseball.

"It's hard to love Roger Clemens," Palmer said. "But it is easy to respect him."

His presence om the mound -- even at the age of 41, with a 15-9 record and a 4.08 ERA -- demands respect. He started out young and strong, but didn't fade or flame out -- such as his National League counterpart early in his career, Dwight Gooden -- and is finishing without the embarrassment that many players suffer near the end of their careers. There is little doubt that he could return for another season and still be a solid starting pitcher.

"It's amazing what he has been able to do, and to do it that long at that level," Palmer said. "He didn't just win 300 games, but he didn't lose that many either. He wasn't one of these guys that just pitched 800 games and won 300 and lost 280 or something like that.

"To be able to pitch and maintain that ability level at this age is remarkable."

It is remarkable, but it is not inspiring, perhaps because the anger and intensity that seemed to fuel Clemens throughout his career was just too much for fans to embrace -- admire, maybe, but not embrace.

He will be remembered for throwing a piece of a broken bat at Mike Piazza in the World Series three years ago just as much as he will be for his 300th victory earlier this year. He will be remembered for his ugly exit from Boston after the 1996 season just as much as he will be for going on and winning three more Cy Youngs with Toronto and New York. He will be remembered for getting kicked out in the second inning of a 1990 American League Championship Series game by umpire Terry Cooney for arguing balls and strikes as he will for winning a World Series championship with the Yankees.

Clemens was cast as an opposing pitcher in the film "Cobb" and he could have easily fit in during that rough-and-tumble era.

"There has been a lot of stuff with him that has gone on, leaving Boston, going to Toronto, then going to the Yankees," Palmer said. "But here's something I don't get. Nolan Ryan [who was showered with good will and gifts when he retired with much fanfare] was just as mean as Roger, but he was maybe looked at as just a good old boy."

No one ever thought of Roger Clemens as a "good old boy" on the field. He was always a bad, bad man -- but one that anybody would love to have on his team because he was the best there was.