Meddling in magic

added 7/16/2006 by Daniel Cohen

Roger Clemens is the greatest pitcher of all time. You say it and you feel it drop down your spine and back up through your arm into a glorious fist pump. You are a blue-blooded Astros fan and you have the greatest pitcher of all time on your team. The bullpen is shot and run support is lacking but the Rocket still stands ready to throw flames high and inside.

The papers call it magical. No pitcher has ever performed quite like this. A 1.87 ERA? He’s old enough that he played with his son in his minor league rehab starts and every hitter he faces is essentially Mario Mendoza (or should I say, Jason Lane) upon entering the batter’s box.

That same magic turns into an entirely different animal when the home team takes off the beer goggles and sees the man for what he is to the rest of the game. Roger Clemens hit Mike Piazza in the head with a fastball. Later, he threw a bat at him. Roger Clemens has loved and left more teams than an East Texas heartbreaker. Roger Clemens sits on his hands and strings along the media.

Of the bat-tossing incident, Clemens claimed "There was no intent. I had no idea Mike was running. I grabbed the bat and slung it toward our on-deck circle where out bat boys were. There was no intent."

Ahem. I love having the greatest pitcher of all time but could he possibly have ascended to these levels without the ability to control the direction of a bat when he throws it? Perhaps in some direction away from the greatest hitting catcher of all time?

That routine was about as magical to Mets fans as John McMullen’s decision to let Nolan Ryan walk was to Astros fans. You hear that kind of news before kicking something close by, barely remembering to make sure it isn’t living before putting your foot through it.

I don’t believe in magic and I don’t hate Roger Clemens. I do, however, believe that believing in such magic may make you into the character to which such magic may be attributed.

Still with me?

Clemens was the best pitcher on the Red Sox for five years. During those same years, the best hitter on those teams was Wade Boggs. Aside from his five batting titles and a Hall of Fame career, Boggs is known for being a believer in magic himself. He ate chicken before every game, woke up at the same time every day, beat the same path to and from the field and drew the Jewish symbol for life in the batter’s box each time he stepped to the plate.

Boggs believed in the magic and it paid dividends in batting average. The oddest thing about it is that his success was very practical. Michael Lewis discusses at one point in Moneyball how Jim Rice expected the Red Sox hitters to swing on the first pitch and be aggressive while Boggs approached every at bat with tactics and care. He took pitches, fouled off the hard ones and sat on the easy ones.

While built in a much more machinated manner, Clemens is similar in the way he plays. He hits corners, he ratchets up the speed when he needs to and he fools batters with pitchers on the corners. He uses his legs and body fundamentally to deliver in a way that takes the pressure off his arm. He gets ahead in the count and then finishes them off with the two-seamer.

The fans point to the accomplishments as though an angel has appeared and graced the team with a gift from above, but a .328 lifetime batting average or 341 wins is not a magic trick. Wade Boggs is a Hall of Fame hitter because he’s the best. Roger Clemens is the greatest pitcher of all time because he was better than everyone else, fair and square.