March 12, 2006


Rocket Redux: Twenty years after Roger Clemens first brought his blazing fastball up from Pawtucket to Boston, the Red Sox are counting on another of their home-grown studs from the South, Jonathan Papelbon, to heat up Fenway Park (Charles P. Pierce, March 12, 2006, Boston Globe Magazine)

PHENOMS HOLD A UNIQUE PLACE in the history and culture of baseball. The image of the cornfed fireballer from parts unknown -- from Walter Johnson to Bob Feller and beyond -- is central in its own way to both Damn Yankees and The Natural. Even though the dark retelling of the myth in the latter is inexcusably brightened up by the movie made from Bernard Malamud's novel, the outline of the story held steady through the years. But it is a less plausible story now than it was before, a tale out of the dim times before ESPN, fantasy leagues, and Baseball America, a saga from a time when the sport still had a hazy frontier made up of rumor and exaggeration.

In fact, Roger Clemens may have been the last real phenom. Twenty years ago, he arrived in Boston with some mystery still clinging to him. The only people who truly knew him were those who'd closely followed the University of Texas baseball team and the minor leagues, which ruled out most of that part of the human race that does not live in Peter Gammons's house. Clemens arrived in Boston still pretty much a surprise and completely unformed as a public figure.

It did not end well here, of course. He found himself beset by the newspapers. The Herald carried a near-daily jibe at him under the rubric "The World According to Roger," and the late Will McDonough savaged him in the Globe as the "Texas Con Man," which was certainly an odd appellation to be flung about by an apologist for the Bulger clan. Clemens also found himself beset by his own strange public pronouncements. Then the Red Sox determined that he was over the hill -- in the "twilight of his career," according to Dan Duquette, the general manager at the time -- and Clemens was gone.

That all seems to be beside the point, now that Clemens has gone on to such a towering career. He truly has never left. It was Clemens who came up through the Boston system, who was central to the first team built to break away from what had always been the franchise's signature characteristics. In some ways, it was Clemens who made Pedro Martinez possible. That there now is still an outspoken public desire to have Clemens return, if only for 15 starts this season, is an indication of the mark he left on the franchise. Even if Boston fans won't admit it, there's a part of them that's always been looking for the next Rocket.

It may be Jonathan Papelbon.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 12, 2006 9:18 AM

Papelbon dreams about having Philip Hughes' stuff.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at March 12, 2006 11:12 AM

And by the time Hughes reaches lil Papi's current advanced age of 25, he'll likely have been in the majors long enough to qualify for free-agency.

Posted by: Jim in Chicago at March 12, 2006 11:17 AM

Yeah, the Yankees do such a stellar job of developing pitchers....

Posted by: oj at March 12, 2006 11:20 AM

The next Clemens is somewhere in the Upper Midwest preparing to stun his varsity coach with the best fastball the guy's every seen exploding out of a 15-year-old arm.

Just a guess, of course.

Posted by: Palmcroft at March 12, 2006 10:04 PM