It is his last season. Roger Clemens is emphatic on that.
If opinions vary as to whether he is about to become the last dinosaur in his last season, this much can also be said emphatically:
As a 300-game winner, he will become -- at the least -- representative of an endangered species.
Then again, what’s new?
If it was easy to win 300, more than 20 pitchers would have done it.
Now, however, incremental changes in the structure of pitching staffs, the economics and the rules of the game have compounded the difficulty.
Now, too, the spotlight is even brighter, the microscope more intense, and Joe Torre, who is Clemens’ manager with the New York Yankees, said he was not sure if “today’s player” was willing to endure that constant analysis and examination over the 20 years or so necessary to reach 300.
In addition, he said, “it’s tough anymore” because ...
* The widespread use of five-man rotations has reduced the number of starts from 40 or more a season to 30 or so, and the increased reliance on bullpens has also reduced innings and opportunities, meaning the win is now often going to the reliever.
* The lower mound, smaller ballparks, livelier baseballs, inconsistent strike zone and introduction of the designated hitter have all come at the expense of pitching.
* The increased dollars have made it possible to retire earlier, and few have the long-term dedication and work ethic of Clemens.
“Maybe [Mike] Mussina,” Torre said, scanning a bleak horizon for 300 possibilities and coming up with the 34-year-old Yankee right-hander whose next win will be his 190th.
Mussina shook his head.
“I’m not the freak of nature that Roger is,” he said, offering a compliment to Clemens for the amount of road work and weight work he has been willing to endure to remain the same power pitcher at 40 that he was at 21, when he won his first game with the Boston Red Sox.
The horizon, of course, is so bleak that only three active pitchers have more than 200 wins.
Greg Maddux has 276, but is struggling at 36 with only three wins this year. Tom Glavine has 246, but is struggling at 36 with only four this year while pitching for the New York Mets, who don’t provide him with the defense that the Atlanta Braves did. Randy Johnson has 225, but at 39 has already had knee surgery this season and now has only one win.
On the more distant horizon, the acclaimed Pedro Martinez has 155 wins at 31, but has already had arm and shoulder problems, and who knows what’s ahead for the Oakland A’s Big Three of Tim Hudson (67 wins at 27), Mark Mulder (55 at 25) and Barry Zito (52 at 25)?
No one has reached 300 since Nolan Ryan in 1990, and no one will after Clemens -- in the view of Jim Kaat, the Yankee broadcaster who won 283 games during a durable career of 25 years.
“It’s not that pitchers today don’t have the talent to do it,” he said. “It’s that they don’t have to hang in any more for financial reasons. If a guy is sitting at home with millions in the bank and the kids grown, he’s going to ask himself, ‘Why wouldn’t I stay home?’ The older you get, the more you have to drive yourself, and nobody does that better than Roger.
“The other point I would make is that people have to change their thinking on 300 being automatic inclusion in the Hall of Fame. With the five-man rotations, 250 is now the equivalent of 300.”
Clemens, of course, is powering toward the Hall, buckling knees with his split-finger pitch, overpowering younger batters with his fastball. He has two World Series rings and 106 wins in the six-plus seasons since he left Boston as a free agent in 1996, when then-general manager Dan Duquette reflected on consecutive 10-win seasons and said the Rocket was in the twilight of his career.
Now, Clemens has a chance to register victories No. 299 and 300 against the team with which he spent his first 13 years, but how can Mr. Motivation be any more motivated than he already and always is?
“Look,” he said, “I loved Boston. I loved the city and was treated well by the fans. I always thought it would be difficult to leave, but Dan wanted his own team and made an evaluation based on how I pitched in those two years, even though I was hurt part of that time. I’ve said this so many times that it’s old news, but he did me a favor.”
By extending the twilight, Clemens now has six seasons of 20 wins or more and a record six Cy Young Awards. He needs 31 strikeouts to join Ryan and Steve Carlton as the only pitchers with 4,000, and he will be the first 300-game winner since Warren Spahn in 1965 to have won more than half of his starts. He is 298-153 in 582 starts.
“I’m especially proud of the win percentage,” a relaxed Clemens said at his locker. “A lot of the guys had 200 or more losses when they reached 300. I’m also proud that I’ll have done it in 20 years, whereas some guys have needed a lot longer.
“I don’t think any pitcher can set 300 as a goal when he’s younger, but it’s become more of a challenge to me in the last few years when everybody has been talking about it and saying how difficult it is with the five-man rotations.
“It’ll be a big moment and accomplishment for me personally, but it’s only a step in trying to reach the World Series and win another ring. Some of the guys here don’t have one, and I’m sure our boss cares more about us winning the Series than he does about me winning 300.”
Perhaps, but George Steinbrenner agreed to pay his 13-game winner of last year $10 million to return and win 300 as a Yankee, to return for this last season.
“To do what I have to do to be the pitcher I have to be,” Clemens said, “I just can’t keep demanding that of my body now that I’m 40. I have a son [Koby, 16] who plays football and baseball, and it’s time to sit and watch him instead of the other way around. My family has sacrificed, my body has sacrificed. As I’ve said before, with the way I have to work at it, the day I pitch is actually my easiest day.”
In this final countdown to 300 and a career, he may be the last dinosaur.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
*--* All-time victory leaders among major league pitchers: 1. Cy Young 511 2. Walter Johnson 417 T3. Christy Mathewson 373 T3. Grover Cleveland 373 5. Warren Spahn 363 T6. Kid Nichols 361 T6. Pud Galvin 361 8. Tim Keefe 342 9. Steve Carlton 329 10. John Clarkson 327 T11. Don Sutton 324 T11. Nolan Ryan 324 13. Phil Niekro 318 14. Gaylord Perry 314 15. Tom Seaver 311 16. Hoss Radbourn 308 17. Mickey Welch 305 18. Eddie Plank 305 T19. Lefty Grove 300 T19. Early Wynn 300 21. Roger Clemens* 298
Ultimate Fan Club
*--* Major league baseball’s all-time strikeout leaders: 1. Nolan Ryan 5,714 2. Steve Carlton 4,136 3. Roger Clemens* 3,969 4. Randy Johnson* 3,777 5. Bert Blyleven 3,701 6. Tom Seaver 3,640 7. Don Sutton 3,574 8. Gaylord Perry 3,534 9. Walter Johnson 3,508 10. Phil Niekro 3,342 * -- active