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May-18-2007,
Pay No Attention to the Man in the Bullpen - Clemens, Rivera, and Reality...By Nelson Lardner

So Roger Clemens is on his way back to the Bronx, after he and his agent - with full knowledge that the Bombers remain well-endowed (and desperate, given their shoddy '07 start) - used the Red Sox and Astros to assure that the Yankee "braintrust" would disgorge top dollars for the service of the 44-year-old superstar righty.

Stumbling amongst the wreckage left by the Kevin Browns and Carl Pavanos of the world . . . overpriced implosions, waiting to happen . . . Yankee fans (not to mention certain advantaged members of Yankee management, who remain sensitive types, despite the considerable edge of having played five-card draw with eight cards, for decades) have to be holding their breaths. Will Clemens become a DL regular, given his advanced age?

Maybe . . . but probably not, given Clemens' physical makeup.

Will refrain from belaboring the fact the Yanks have again reverted to their free-spending, market-busting ways after solemnly affirming they wouldn't . . . and have essentially caved in to Clemens' demands for minimal travel wear and tear and accompanying special treatment. So much for the exalted Yankee Way. The AL East standings are beyond ugly for pinstripe adherents, with the hated BoSox sailing along in the lead, and with George Steinbrenner riding off into the sunset at high speed, no price seems too much to pay for one more jolt of October/November glory, especially since it's been such a long time between drinks.

Rajah's had his fun in the National League with the 'Stros, pitching against pitchers, not to mention lineups markedly inferior to most of those found in the Junior Circuit. But he's a pro, he takes great care of himself, and have little doubt he'll gear up and turn in a sustained series of Clemens-like efforts as promptly as later this month.

If plans hold, would expect you'll be able to see for yourself when he makes his first return engagement in organized ball with the Class A Tampa Yankees against Fort Myers this Friday night, in what's expected to be a 3/4-inning tuneup with a strict pitch count. Given their predilection for all things Yankee and Red Sox, it's broadly expected that ESPN will provide some cut-in peeks tonight, so all good little cable subscribers may lap it up. An appearance with the AA Trenton Thunder next week is the anticipated next step back to the Show, which could well take place in Toronto, should the accelerated schedule hold.

Barring some kind of belated steroid revelation from somewhere out there, Clemens saunters into Cooperstown, first ballot, guaranteed. And so long as he stays sound, he can and will eat innings, and figures to be effective, more often than not, thus raising the quality of this Yankee rotation markedly. The 800-pound gorilla in the room is the fact that you simply can't count on Rajah going seriously deep into all that many games, and the way things have gone thus far this season, the Yankee middle-relief corps may already be entering the early stages of mental burnout.

There are subtle concerns with many of the key Yank personnel, of course . . . not just Clemens. You can start with the tale of the Godfather (manager Joe Torre) and the two Dons (ex-bench coach Zimmer, and current bench coach Mattingly). No world championships in six seasons provokes pouts on the pusses of many a Yankee loyalist, and it appears that the broad strategic game-running approach was sharper with Zimmer in the building than it is now. But never underestimate Torre. He's presented four world championships to the hierarchy, in large part because he's a superior rich-jock psychiatrist - and Clemens has proven himself responsive to velvet-gloved coddling.

Roger's had his "interesting" postseason "moments", apparently brought on by being wound so tightly when striving to produce optimum results while under the spotlight. During his Red Sox stint, he beat the Angels in the seventh game of the '86 ACLS . . . and proceeded to do without another postseason "W" for thirteen years! The poster incident came in the final stage of the Red Sox swoon before the A's in the '90 ACLS, when Rajah was tossed by ump Terry Cooney in the second after throwing a ball-strike hissyfit, which Cooney has asserted contained over-and-above tolerable levels of profanity.

Better days came with Torre and the Yankees, with a long-awaited World Series W coming against the Braves in '99, though Clemens could still act like a petulant brat when it suited him. The notorious bat-barrel toss at the Mets' Mike Piazza in the first inning of Game Two of the '00 World Series was classless, and warranted an ejection which was not forthcoming. Piazza has fabulous career numbers against Clemens, and Roger was feeling the pressure. Having gotten away with that one (save a substantial fine), Clemens pitched eight shutout innings and won a 6-5 decision that in no way should have been that close.

Clemens proceeded to beat the Diamondbacks in Game Three of the '01 series, after the Yanks had dropped the first two . . . the kind of let-it-all-hang-out spot where Roger has his best mental chance to shine - and did. And God knows, he made a great start in Game Seven of that classic, only to see "the man behind the curtain" victimized in the final act, for one of HIS rare postseason failures.

And that would be the REAL Yankee concern . . . the Sandman, Mariano Rivera.

In fifteen appearances at this writing in '07, Rivera is 1-3. Won/lost is not the most significant stat for a closer, given the situations he tends to inherit. But Rivera boasts a mere three saves, has allowed 16 hits in 13 innings, and his ERA is a swollen 6.58.

But the history of the man throwing the unparalled cut fastball is glorious. Yes, John Wetteland was the Yankee closer in 1996. But knowing what they had in the hole, the Yanks bid Wetteland adieu after that season via the free-agency route, and Wetteland wound up his career with two good (and two not-so-good) seasons with the Rangers. Meanwhile, the Yanks had The Man, who was an integral part of the most recent quartet of Yankee world titles.

Clemens hopped on the New York merry-go-round in 1999, and made his contribution - but also benefited mightily from the cornucopia of riches around him.

It is no coincidence that the Yanks won it all with Rivera, sans Clemens. It is also no coincidence that Clemens couldn't manage to win it all without Rivera, though we'll be the first to acknowledge that Clemens deserved a better postseason fate than he got in '01, after that career-peak 20-3 regular season.

You can yammer on about the great mental makeup of those 1996-2000 Yankees. It can verge beyond overkill (though will acknowledge that those collections were markedly mentally stronger than subsequent editions), with praise of such overrations as that ball/strike-whinemaster, Paul O'Neill. But Rivera, you can't praise enough.

We've seen '07's movie, often. The Red Sox run off to a long lead, while the Yankees struggle to put it together, early. Given the history, it would be insanity to unilaterally count the Yanks out at this point. But the pressure's on, intensified by another Subway Series, a schedule feature which Torre has frequently bemoaned as a painful distraction . . . painful, because of the hysterical wailing he'll have to endure out of Tampa, if the Yanks tank versus the Mets.

But know this: if Mariano Rivera is not himself this year, the Yanks aren't going to get a whiff of it, no matter what Clemens and his precious personal rules and his zillions of dollars may accomplish, on the surface. And there'll be no spin that Steinbrenner PR guru Howard Rubenstein can put on it to make it pretty. Petty upper management can be the ugliest of things, and you can count on seeing plenty of it if Mariano Rivera is no longer Mariano Rivera.

05-18-07
Nelson Lardner
MajorWager.com
lardner@majorwager.com



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