Sports Nut

Killer Clemens and the New Murderers Row

Roger Clemens is the Marty McSorley of baseball. He stalks his opponents not with a stick, but with a deadlier weapon: a 95-mph fastball. Clemens is all the proof you need that intimidation is as significant a factor in baseball as it is in hockey.

Consider his one-hit wipeout of the Mariners Saturday. It started this way: After retiring the first two hitters, Clemens faced star shortstop Alex Rodriguez, who has hammered Roger in the past. So Clemens buzzed not one but two fastballs up near Rodriguez’s chin, forcing Rodriguez both times to dive out of death’s way. The old brushback is often described, euphemistically, as “a battle for the inside part of the plate,” but in the hands of a pitcher like Clemens, it sends the hitter a more primitive message: “The next pitch could be the last one you ever see.”

Now, if this had been June, Rodriguez might have settled the score by charging the mound and trying to take out a couple of Clemens’ teeth. But in a big game, he can’t risk being thrown out. So from the Yankees’ perspective, he did the next best thing—he lost his cool, and that had just about the same effect. Seattle manager Lou Piniella also lost his cool, doing a little Bobby Knight imitation on the dugout steps. You could have turned your sets off right there. The Mariners were done for the day.

This single encounter explains the difference between the Yankees and the Mariners. Talent-wise, the series is nearly a tossup. The Yankees have a slight edge, only because their roster is larded with overpaid role players. Even with a $110 million payroll, however, they are a very beatable team—the infield, excluding Derek Jeter, would look right at home in Brewers uniforms; the right fielder is always a wreck by this time of year; and the pitching, outside of Clemens and Mariano Rivera, is a crapshoot. The DH, erstwhile second baseman Chuck Knoblauch, drove in 26 runs in 400 at bats, a pathetic total even for a lead-off hitter.

But the Yankees have one overwhelming asset: They cannot be intimidated. This is one of the hallmarks of the Joe Torre era. There isn’t a manager in the game more adept at ensuring that his players never get too bent out of shape by any single plate appearance, pitch, or game. He brilliantly minimizes the psychic damage of failure. Torre’s message at all times is that tomorrow there’s another game, and we’ll win that one. It’s a patient, almost complacent strategy that can easily backfire and result in a pile of losses, as it did during the hideous skid that the Yankees suffered at the end of the regular season. But if you’ve got the talent, it works over the long run. Torre has proved it.

The problem with this year’s Yankees is that they only kind of have the talent, and that’s why they need to be more than unintimidatable—they need to intimidate. This, however, is not Torre’s style. One gets the distinct feeling that he doesn’t much care for Clemens’ headhunting—he dutifully defends his pitcher, because that’s the managerial protocol, and Torre would never deviate from it. But it’s certainly not behavior that he has ever encouraged from the rest of his team. When was the last time you saw Rivera come in high and tight on a hitter? Would anyone ever get another hit off him if he did?

For the Yankees to win this year—especially if the season ends, as it looks like it will, in a Subway Series—they need Roger Clemens to rattle the opposing team’s best player, as he did Rodriguez, as well as Mike Piazza of the Mets earlier in the season. The Mets, just like the Mariners, are real suckers for this; Bobby Valentine is less foulmouthed than Lou Piniella but just as much of a hothead. A couple of tight pitches and he’ll start screaming his head off at the Yankees and at the umps and let it get under the skin of every player in his dugout, and then they’ll go out and they’ll lose the game. It may not be the way Joe Torre likes to win, but he’ll take it.