NEW YORK – Amid the hysteria outside Yankee Stadium for the 44-year-old man's return, the scene inside looked like a Zen festival. Of all the things to save the New York Yankees from their own destructive selves, the arrival of Roger Clemens – the crusty cowboy who didn't exactly carve his career chanting Kumbaya – was like finding the missing black Pick-Up Stick after trying to play without it.
Finally, the Yankees were themselves, a whole set. On Saturday, at least. And for now, that's plenty, because they have won five consecutive games, including this 9-3 vanquishing of the Pittsburgh Pirates in Clemens' return from not-really retirement.
Throughout the season's first two months, the Yankees were baseball's version of a Napa Valley balloon ride: expensive, aimless and full of hot air. Personalities clashed. Egos crashed. As recently as Monday, they shared last place in the American League East with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
Not even manager Joe Torre, always the masseuse to the Yankees' tension, knew how to handle this cauldron of dysfunction. Owner George Steinbrenner is thinking about firing Torre, and Torre is calling his $25 million-a-year player, Alex Rodriguez, bush league, and A-Rod is allegedly getting busy with a stripper behind his wife's back, and the rest of the Yankees are trying to figure out when Bobby Abreu's bat started needing Cialis, and Jason Giambi is neck deep in his own pharmaceutical mess, and the relievers are overworked, and the starters keep going down with injuries, and the Boston Red Sox are just too good, and …
Clemens solves it all?
Well, for a prorated $28 million contract, he'd better do more than throw 20 games, and it's safe to assume he's not stain-sticking the laundry.
"I know what's ahead of us, and it's a lot of work," Clemens said. "This is a great ballclub. This is not a good ballclub. This is a great ballclub."
During their peril, the Yankees have held onto Clemens' return as both their last hurrah and their security blanket. It stands to reason that one man cannot so dramatically repair the attitudes of 24 others by presence alone – Clemens won't be name-dropping the Gipper anytime soon – and yet seven Cy Young awards and three championship rings inspire anomalies.
"The energy and the excitement and the intensity he brings – it's good to see," said Yankees catcher Jorge Posada, one of their few bright spots with a .360 batting average. "It's a lot of fun to have him back."
From his first pitch, a fastball at 1:08 p.m., to his last, an unfair split-fingered fastball that was No. 108, Clemens kept the Yankees as well as the 54,296 fans at attention. He went six innings, gave up three runs on five hits, walked two, struck out seven, earned his 349th career victory and acquitted himself well for having spent the previous three hours in constant motion.
After arriving at the stadium around 10 a.m., Clemens met his new teammates – only seven remain from his last go-around with the Yankees in 2003 – before moving to meetings with Posada (to describe his pitching sequences) and coaches (to learn the team's signs). On his jog to the bullpen, Clemens stopped in center field to soak in the cheers, saying he was "feeling everybody's energy," like he was one of the vortices of Sedona.
Clemens works miracles with his right arm. A cranky groin muscle kept him from making his first start Monday, but Clemens showed no ill effects against the Pirates aside from a walk that led to Jack Wilson's two-run double in a 28-pitch fourth inning. Clemens then had back-to-back 12-pitch innings and ended his evening serenaded by Elton John's "Rocket Man," as well as the crowd.
"Oh, I heard 'em," Clemens said. "It felt like old times."
Mostly. Clemens no longer throws 95 mph regularly. He may call on his arm a few times this season, but 90-mph fastballs are the norm, supplemented by his wicked splitter, a sinker with similar action, a slider he rarely breaks out and a slow curveball that fluttered in at 73 mph once Saturday. Any discussion of Clemens' stuff, though, comes with a caveat: It's really secondary to his mound smarts, something the Yankees – in spite of Mike Mussina and Andy Pettitte – have lacked.
"Pitching," Torre said, "gives you a better personality."
And he didn't mean in the Miss Congeniality sense. Great pitching will define a ballclub, imbue it with the necessary arrogance to win. The Yankees have become wimps. They brood and bellow and resort to playground tactics. They worry about job security and payroll and the future.
Since when do the New York Yankees have to worry about the future? It shouldn't matter when you're winning.
On his drive to the park, Clemens fretted about this latest chapter of his career, the 24th season. Three years ago, at 41, he came out of retirement and won a Cy Young Award with the Houston Astros, and two years ago, he should have won No. 8. Last year, his earned-run average was nearly half the league average. So it seemed odd that while on a road so familiar, Clemens worried about the outcome.
Turns out it was the same as usual. Roger Clemens knows how to win, and that's all the Yankees really needed.
- Roger Clemens