Roger's tragic flaw overshadows his game

Tuesday, October 24th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

By Bill Reynolds / The Providence (R.I.) Journal

This should be the best time in Roger Clemens's long and great career.

This should be the time he's lauded by everyone in the sports world, not only for his last two super performances, but also for obliterating the perception that he's never been a big-game pitcher. The time he finally stands amid universal acclaim.

It is not.

Instead, once again Clemens's bizarre behavior has transcended his performance. This time it was the amazing sight of Clemens throwing a large piece of Mike Piazza's shattered bat in the general vicinity of Piazza in the first inning of Sunday night's game. This time it was Clemens as the centerpiece in a baseball version of the Theater of the Absurd, one of those amazing moments that will live for a long time in World Series folklore. When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro, right?

That's our Roger.

The ol' "Possessed Rebel" himself.

Then again, his behavior always has been his tragic flaw, this proclivity to self-destruct, either by doing the wrong thing or saying the wrong thing. In fact, he's done it so many times that he long ago became a parody of himself, Roger Rocket turning into Roger Rockhead.

The first time probably was when he made his infamous statement of how tough athletes have it, having to carry their own bags through airports. In retrospect, that was Clemens's Maginot Line in Boston, the first time he turned off many fans. Until then, it had all been strawberries and cream for Clemens, the "K" signs hanging on the bleacher wall in Fenway, the adulation that came with being the best young pitcher in the game.

After that, it was always more complicated.

Clemens became the personification of the Jock Brat -- too much money too soon, seemingly oblivious to the real world. He never really recovered from that perception, whether real or imagined. He always was respected in Boston for his ability, his accomplishments. But he never was loved. Not the way he could have been.

He had a propensity for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, a victim of his own words, as if a microphone and a reporter's note pad always have been more formidable opponents than opposing hitters. Remember when he said he'd never leave the Sox unless it was to go back to his native Texas? Then he turned around and went to Toronto.


Clemens hardly knew it.

That is why Clemens seems so disliked here in New England, even if at the moment he's arguably the greatest pitcher in the franchise's history. Not simply because he left Boston to go somewhere else. But because he burned so many bridges through the years, to the point that at the end there was so little good will left. Because there were too many Rogerisms over the years, too many times when he became the poster child for the arrogant contemporary athlete.

The sense that Clemens was downright bizarre came in 1990, in the infamous playoff game at Oakland when he self-destructed on national television, getting thrown out. This was heightened by the fact that he called himself the "Possessed Rebel," a nickname that used to hang over his locker in the Red Sox' clubhouse. It's a feeling that's lasted for a decade now, this sense that Clemens always is perched on some personal fault line, ready to emotionally implode at a moment's notice. July's incident with Piazza was just another example, Clemens hitting the Mets catcher in the head with a pitch. Some other pitcher might have been given the benefit of the doubt. Not Roger. There have been too many incidents.

Sunday night, we saw it again.

Clemens's behavior once again got in the way of his performance.

That's the sad part.

Ever since the infamous Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, when Clemens left after seven innings with a blister on his throwing hand, he's battled the perception that he's not a big-game pitcher. That he self-destructs when the stakes get high. That he somehow lacks the psychological makeup to perform well in pressure situations.

Last year's playoff start in Fenway against Pedro Martinez was one more example. Clemens fizzling like a defective rocket, up in smoke almost before he began. Clemens coming up little in another big game.

This year has changed that.

He was brilliant last week against the Mariners, one-hitting them, striking out 15, Clemens at his best, as if it were 1986 again and the "K" signs hung on the bleacher wall in Fenway like laundry in the afternoon sun. He was brilliant again Sunday night, turning the Mets' bats into kindling, Clemens showing why he one day will be enshrined in the Hall of Fame. The kind of postseason performances that make us look at him differently. The kind of performances that erase the unwritten asterisks from his career.

Then he blurs it all by doing something inexplicably stupid, something indefensible, something so Roger-like that it almost defies belief. Something so grand in its bizarreness that it transcends his performance, as if he ultimately tarnishes his own accomplishments.

As if the tragic flaw is always there.

As if Roger Clemens finally has met the enemy and it is him.