- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 10, 2007

For Roger Clemens, baseball is just a summer job, not unlike scooping ice cream or cutting lawns. In by June, out by October. And you can’t beat the pay. The Rocket will pocket $18.5 million for subleasing his splitter to the Yankees this season. (And he’s wangled this astonishing salary, I’ll just point out, without spending a single day as Paul Wolfowitz’s girlfriend.)

Eighteen-point-five-million dollars for four months’ work. You could build one heck of a Bridge to Nowhere for that.

Whether Clemens will be the Yankees’ bridge to anywhere remains to be seen. He is, after all, 44 — 45 in August. Most pitchers that age are candidates for Elton John surgery, never mind Tommy John surgery.

Just for kicks, I dug up the box score from Roger’s first big league game in 1984, when he was a much rangier Red Sox. Turns out the guy who DH’d for him that night against the Indians was Tony Armas, whose son now plays in the majors (Tony Jr., the Pirates reliever).

Here’s the best part, though: One of the batters Clemens faced in his debut was a shortstop named Julio Franco, the same Julio Franco who homered for the Mets last week at 48. Imagine: Two players from a game 23 years ago are still active in the bigs. (Just another indication, as John Riggins might say, of the benefits of formaldehyde.)

Maybe Rocket keeps coming back because he’s determined to outlast Franco. Or maybe — my pet theory — this is all about Greg Maddux. Clemens has the most wins since Warren Spahn, 348; but Maddux, who’s three years younger, has been creeping up on him. Greg already has notched Nos. 334 and 335 this season with the Padres, and he seems intent on pitching until his rotator cuff no longer rotates. Perhaps it’s important to Roger to at least be the winningest pitcher of his generation.

There’s got to be more to it than just mammon, doesn’t there? (Well, maybe not. The rapper 50 Cent just put his 53-room mansion in Farmington, Conn., on the market, and do you know what his reported asking price is? Yup, $18.5 million. Talk about your curious coincidences.)

However skeptical you might be about this latest Clemens return — about his bloated compensation (roughly $1 million every time he takes the mound), his no-travel clause (unless, of course, he’s pitching), his cheesily theatrical announcement that he was rejoining the Yanks (in the middle of a game, no less) — give him credit for being a smart shopper … and for knowing his limitations. At an age when most of us are thinking about back support or arch support, Rocket is thinking mainly about run support. He didn’t get much of it in Houston the past two seasons; in fact, he easily could have won a dozen more games if half the Astros weren’t wielding Wiffle Ball bats.

In New York, though, that shouldn’t be an issue. The Yankees were the highest-scoring team in either league going into last night, averaging almost six runs a game. Clemens might need those runs as he tries to make the transition back to the pitcher-unfriendly AL, with its designated hitter. In his previous stint with the Yankees, you may recall, he posted an ERA of 3.99 — well above his 2.40 mark in the kinder, gentler NL.

(You also may recall that Randy Johnson won 17 games for the Yanks a year ago despite an ERA of 5.00. Rest assured Rocket noticed — as did George Steinbrenner, who stamped “return to sender” on the sourpuss southpaw and shipped him back to Arizona.)

In spurning the Red Sox, another of his suitors, Clemens answered the long-considered question: Which ballpark is worse to return to as a former player, Yankee Stadium or Fenway? Clearly, Rocket has decided that it’s The Stadium. Unless, that is, he has merely opted for the Known (the wrath of rejected Sox fans, which he’s already experienced) over the Unknown (the scorn of abandoned Yankees rooters, a gauntlet he has yet to walk).

Just when you thought this rivalry couldn’t get any hotter, Clemens raises the thermostat a couple of degrees. The plan is for him to be up and running by June, at which point the Yankees and Red Sox will have nine games left against each other — with the possibility of more in the playoffs. Could the season end any other way?

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