Roger Clemens and Houston, Texas: A Love Story

Relationships with men are difficult, my mother warned me, because when it comes to men, you have to take the good with the bad. Or, you might say, that the only perfect men are found in the pages of romance novels. And for a while, Roger Clemens and Houston, Texas were involved in a romance that could have come straight out of a novel.

Perhaps I should explain a bit: playing baseball isn’t exactly a recent phenomenon in Texas. We’ve had the Texas League, which gave us good minor league ball long before the minors became the farm clubs of the majors. Over the past 50 years, Texas high schools and colleges have sent countless players to the pros. Although the best Texan ballplayer of all time is undoubtedly the first “Rogah,” Rogers Hornsby, the state’s most famous ballplayer, the one most strongly identified with Texas is Nolan Ryan, who brought life to the Rangers, when John McMullen, the Astros owner, figured Nolan had to be washed up at age 41.

Until that October in 1988, Dallas had been a city where “sports” meant the Cowboys, the football team whose owner left an opening in the roof of their stadium so the good Lord could watch His team play. Nolan brought fans to Arlington Stadium in numbers that hadn’t been seen since the heyday of David Clyde and put the Rangers on the front page of the Dallas Morning News. In fact, news about Nolan’s pitching often displaced news about which Cowboy had stubbed his toe on his way to training camp, an incredible feat unsurpassed to this day. But I’ll tell you this: if he had been from, say, Alaska, it wouldn’t have made much of a stir. You see, Nolan Ryan was a Texan born and raised and he was most certainly going to be a Hall of Famer and he was a Native Son, and you see, that was an absolutely crucial element to his popularity.

I told this story about Nolan because it is the prelude to the Coming of Roger. Astros fans were furious that Nolan had been dismissed so cavalierly, had been snatched away by the Other Texas Team to be their Hall of Famer. It’s true that keeping Nolan Ryan wouldn’t really have had an effect on the terrible Astros teams of the late 80s and early 90s, but it was the principle of the thing, you see. The Astros went on to have better and better teams, finally reaching the playoffs for the first time in 11 years in 1997. Astros attendance remained fairly steady, but not remarkable, in spite of having stars Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio. Fan interest increased somewhat when Randy Johnson was obtained for the stretch run in 1998, but even then fan interest wasn’t sufficient to sell out the Astrodome for the first round of the playoffs. After Johnson left for Arizona after the first round loss in the playoffs, fan interest waned, recovering only somewhat with the opening of the new stadium.

By October 2003, Billy Wagner had made his infamous remark about Drayton McLane, the Astros owner, being unwilling to pay for the extra player that would turn the Astros from merely “competitive” to winners. Conventional wisdom said that Houston isn’t really a baseball town, that fans would never turn out in droves to support the Astros—they never had before, not even in 1986, the magical year of Mike Scott. And Astros fans most certainly wholeheartedly agreed with Billy Wags, who was unceremoniously shipped out of town post haste for a few pitching prospects. Grumbling increased as season ticket sales dropped.

Then, a miracle occurred. The Yankees, for some reason, didn’t make a competitive offer to Andy Pettitte, a local boy made good. Pettitte decided he wanted to play at home and signed a three-year contract in December of 2003. Now, Drayton had already gone the signing homeboys route when he bought the team in 1992, signing Greg Swindell and Doug Drabek. It was a good marketing idea, but the pitchers didn’t pitch very well, so the fans didn’t embrace the pitchers. However, Andy was a bigger name, having pitched and won in four World Series for the Yankees and earned the title of Big Game Pitcher.

Andy had one additional asset: his best friend and training buddy, a legend, a Houstonian—the newly “retired” Roger Clemens.

Suddenly, and for the first time ever, baseball was the sport on everyone’s lips in January, during football season, preempting Super Bowl coverage. The question :Will Roger unretire?” took over FM radio, papers and TV. Football, basketball, every other sport was barely mentioned because of the endless “Roger, we love you, Roger please play for the Astros” pleas in the paper, on the radio. Roger’s kids were on TV, on the radio, saying they wanted him to bring the Series to Houston. Roger finally caved in and signed like a guy who wanted to all along, but just needed to hear all the begging and pleading first, and he signed for basically pennies.

How could a baseball player possibly be more loved? A hometown hero, a legend, chooses to play at home and he does it for love, not money. True romance. “Oh, myyyyyyyy,” as Annie Savoy would say. Houston simply went Astros crazy and at a time of the year when the word “baseball” wasn’t even thought, let alone mentioned. Ticket sales, shals we say, rocketed. Clemens and Pettitte jerseys sold out as soon as they arrived. Houston was deeply, madly, hopelessly in the throes of a passionate love affair.

And Roger? Well, seemed as if he was just as deeply in love. He was used to lots of media, spotlights and recognition. But he had never received the volume of adoration that he received from hometown fans and he relaxed and enjoyed himself in a way that he had never done before. He enjoyed playing with his best friend without George and the NY media dogging his every pitch. He loved playing host to the baseball world during the All-Star game. “Welcome to my home,” he said, and he obviously meant every word. He was deluged with the kind of attention that he had never experienced before. Houstonians and Texans turned out in the streets by the thousands to celebrate the All-Star festivities, something they hadn’t done in 1986 during the previous All-Star game.

The 2004 team was supposed to excel, but only managed to play .500 ball for the first half of the season, but Roger kept drawing full houses and kept media attention on the team.

When Andy went down for the season in August, Roger changed gears and started working with the other pitchers and discovered he loved being a teacher. The term “team leader” gets a lot of use, but Roger was exactly that. The Astros won all six or Roger’s games in September and when the stretch run for the wild card came, Roger gave interviews right and left, helping raise Astro-fever to such an all time high that during the wild card clinching series with the lowly Rockies, even the scalpers were sold out and fans lined the streets around the ballpark and, incredibly, NLDS, NLCS and World Series tickets sold out before the wild card was clinched on the very last day of the season.

Unfortunately, for the want of a starting pitcher and a reliever, the Astros 2004 season was lost to the Cardinals, but Astros fever and Roger adoration dimmed not a bit. The fans begged and pleaded with him to stay, to pitch another year, to love them back, and Roger, after pretending to have to think it over, re-signed, this time for a record setting $18 million dollars. The fans didn’t care about the money, they just wanted their Roger back. And he spent the winter appearing at countless banquets, charities, speeches, and hospitals and even when Carlos Beltran left Houston for the city he really wanted to play for, we fans all consoled ourselves with the thought that at least we still had Roger.

It seemed to be a marriage made in heaven; and marriage it was because Roger had signed a 10-year personal services contract with the Astros, beginning at a time to be designated by Roger as his retirement. And, my friends, the second year of love was simply superb and culminated in the Astros first NL pennant. We fans did, of course, forget Roger’s poor start against Atlanta, but joyously celebrated his three inning, four strikeout win of the historic 18 inning NLDS clinching Game 4.

But, in case you didn’t know, romance novels always end after the couple resolves misunderstandings and say “I do.” And had this story been a true romance novel, Brad Lidge wouldn’t have given up that infamous home run to Albert Pujols, forcing a Game 6, thus throwing the rotation out of whack, and maybe the Astros would have won the World Series and Roger would have retired after going out on top again and he and we would have lived happily ever after. But life is what happens when you are busy making other plans, as John Lennon said, and that very winter, cracks started to appear in the bliss.

Roger extended his usual “I don’t know if I want to retire or not” dance all winter, angering, rather than enticing many fans. He said he wanted to go to the World Baseball Classic, that he wanted to go to spring training and work with the younguns, that he wasn’t sure if he would come back, and then he waited for the usual pleading and begging. But, as my mother warned me, the very same actions that are so endearing during courtship and romance are the very ones that become irritating after marriage. Roger finally agreed to come back, signing a contract on the last day of May for $22 million, a record breaking contract for a pitcher. Fans grumbled that he was a prima donna, that he was mercenary, that he wanted to appear on June 22, swooping in to magically resuscitate the Astros lackluster season. He was, of course, a glowing mega star, and his presence kept the cameras trained on him as he worked his way through the minors and kept national media attention on the Astros.

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But, you know, he didn’t seem to be as in love as he used to be with the idea of being the one the Houston Astros fans loved mostest. You could almost feel his surreptitious glances at New York and Boston, the teams he said he rejected for us in the spring. He started late that season and tired early, losing time and innings in September to problems with his legs. And sure enough, after the season ended, the season that Luke Scott, not Roger resurrected for an exciting but futile race to the finish, Roger again performed his usual “gee, I don’t know if I want to retire” dance. Fans couldn’t make up their minds if they wanted him to stay and put up with his forcing us to beg again or to tell him to leave.

But Drayton McLane decided to let Andy Pettitte go when he started singing Roger’s “gee I don’t know if I want to retire or not” refrain. Andy, shocked that he didn’t get so much as a halfhearted wooing, went back to the Yankees. Roger became even more vague about his desires and fans became resigned to losing him to the prettier girl with the flashier jewelry and the bigger, uh, fan base. No, resigned, is the wrong word. Angered is the right word, as in hell hath no fury like a hometown team fanbase scorned. “Jerk!” they screamed. “Prima Donna egotist!” they yelled. But yet as they blamed him for walking out when the going got rough, they still sometimes talked about getting him back.

The 2007 team was, how shall I put it, not good. Roger wouldn’t have made enough of a difference to the sorry team and its poor management, but fans still resented him for abandoning them, although he certainly didn’t abandon his mountain of charity work. Greedy, pampered, prima donna, jerk, unfaithful Roger who left his previously adoring fans in the lurch, didn’t exactly excel with his new partner. He had a poor year by his standards and for the third year in a row, tired in September and in fact was unable to perform in the playoffs at all. He had just barely decided to come home and begin his personal services contract when the Mitchell Report was released.

That he had decided to come back home after his affair with the glamorous Yankees mattered not a bit to most of the fans. The very ones who had loved him, adored him, begged him to be theirs turned on him in an instant. If he was accused he must be guilty, they said. If his best friend did drugs then he must have done drugs too, they said. The vast majority of fans who call into radio shows, who write to the paper, who blog and post on blogs have judged him guilty and have heaped invective upon him and showered him with rage, contempt and hate.

This really has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that Roger’s supposed sin is using steroids, or even allowing some other man to inject a foreign substance into his buttocks. Miguel Tejada, against whom there is more and better evidence of steroid use, has been welcomed with open arms with seldom a discouraging word to be heard. This is not to say that Houston fans don’t oppose steroid use—they certainly do, as long as the steroid user is named Barry Lamar Bonds or Mark McGwire or anyone else who wasn’t on the Astros or was any good—you won’t see them booing Ryan Franklin or J.C. Romero.

I am sure that if Roger had returned last year even though Andy didn’t, the mountain of fans now vilifying him would be defending him. This is the sad epilogue to the tale of the beautiful romance, the marriage made in heaven, or at least, Texas. I keep hearing Gladys Knight singing “There can be no way this can have a happy ending, no, no” because Houston Astros fans weren’t the first to say good bye.

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