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Rocket Watch

Intrigue surrounds Clemens' scheduled start today against Piazza, Mets at Shea

June 15, 2002|GARY KLEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Roger Clemens' dominating fastball and intimidating pitching style have made hitters jelly-legged at the plate for more than 18 major league seasons.

But today, it is the New York Yankees' future Hall of Famer who finds himself in an unfamiliar jam.

Clemens is scheduled to start at Shea Stadium against the New York Mets. More to the point, the six-time Cy Young Award winner probably will bat against them for the first time since his unflinching pitching approach and aggressive behavior toward Met catcher Mike Piazza twice split the Big Apple during the 2000 season.

In July of that year, after Piazza had hit home runs against him in three consecutive games, Clemens nailed Piazza in the head with a pitch in an interleague game at Yankee Stadium. Three months later, in Game 2 of the World Series at Yankee Stadium, Piazza's bat shattered while hitting a foul ball against Clemens. The burly pitcher grabbed the splintered barrel end of the bat and threw it toward Piazza as the catcher ran up the baseline, spurring a national debate about Clemens' sanity.

Clemens was fined $50,000 but was spared physical retribution when Yankee Manager Joe Torre juggled his rotation so that his ace did not pitch against the Mets in three interleague games at Shea Stadium last year. But Met fans and the New York media circled today's date on the calendar weeks ago when it became apparent that Clemens' turn in the rotation could put him in the batter's box at Shea Stadium.

If that wasn't enough to send New Yorkers over the top, the pitcher known as the Rocket further fueled his headhunter reputation last weekend when he hit San Francisco Giant slugger Barry Bonds a few days after intimating such an act would not be an accident.

Some unidentified Met players told the New York Daily News that Clemens intentionally hit Bonds so he would be suspended for the series against the Mets.

Major League Baseball thought otherwise. After investigating the incident, Bob Watson, baseball's dean of discipline, declined to suspend or fine Clemens, who has hit 132 batters in his career and knocked countless others off the plate.

If Clemens does start, and bat, many baseball observers believe that Met Manager Bobby Valentine and starter Shawn Estes will follow time-honored, but unwritten, baseball rules and throw at Clemens to avenge the incidents with Piazza, who probably will be crouched behind the plate calling pitches..

Earlier this week, Clemens--who has never been hit in 16 career at-bats--said he wasn't worried and blamed the media for keeping the feud alive.

He has not answered questions from reporters for the last three days.

"I don't have to keep defending myself," Clemens told the New York Times on Wednesday.

No one in baseball blames Clemens for pitching aggressively inside. In fact, he is admired as one of the preeminent practitioners of a once-classic pitching style that has faded as ballparks have become smaller while salaries and the armor-protected hitters who earn them have grown to enormous proportions.

"When I go inside, I don't aim the ball, I throw the ball. I turn it loose," Clemens said before this season. "When you do that, if you're an eighth of an inch off, you're going to hit guys. It's part of the game. They don't apologize when they hit balls up the middle."

Some contend that Clemens would be forced to change his style if he played in the National League and could not hide behind the designated-hitter rule. But Pedro Martinez never backed down when he played for the Montreal Expos, and Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson of the Arizona Diamondbacks are two of the most intimidating pitchers in the majors.

Still, Schilling and Johnson are split on how far inside is too inside.

Schilling, who turned around his career after a long conversation with Clemens about 11 years ago, told Maxim magazine that he approved of his role model's conduct in the two incidents with Piazza. He also said he intentionally throws at hitters.

"If I'm really trying to hit a guy, I'll aim for the armpit right below the rib cage," Schilling said. "It's an impossible spot to get out of the way. But I'll throw above a guy's shoulders and inside too. If you don't knock a guy on his [rear] or break his bat when you throw inside, you've done nothing."

Johnson, a four-time Cy Young Award winner, does not go that far.

"I have to be able to pitch inside," Johnson told New York Times columnist Harvey Araton. "For me, though, the intimidation is not in hitting a guy. It's the fear of it, the not knowing. Once you hit someone, it's not about intimidation anymore. When you do what Clemens does, people get ticked off. They feel they have to retaliate. The point of what you were trying to do is lost."

Fearing retaliation, or trying to make a point, Clemens could very well step up to the plate today wearing the elbow padding and other protective paraphernalia that Bonds and other hitters put on before fearlessly crowding the plate.

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