Today’s dramatic announcement that Roger Clemens was returning to the Yankees surpised many, disappointed, and delighted, across two legions of rooters. For this Red Sox fan, it finally gives closure, and lamentably so. We grew up with Roger Clemens; to give everyone a little context, 1986 was our last year in summer camp and also our first year of college. That summer, Roger’s coming-out party (14-0 to start the season!), was certainly the apex of the first decade of our now lifelong love affair with the Sox. Clemens was a tall, lean, and strong fastballer, a kind of new Nolan Ryan, a strikeout machine whose every start was something to anticipate and behold. He was a player of a type that the Sox had never had while we had been rooting for them: a starter who inspired fear in the opponent and absolute confidence in the fan. When Clemens took the mound, we couldn’t lose. He went 24-4 that season, and it portended a run of success for our team; Clemens led Boston to playoff appearances in 1988, 1990, and 1995, and though he famously struggled in the post-season, he was our hero, without qualification.
So when Clemens left for Toronto, we couldn’t help but feel betrayed. Toronto!? They weren’t even contenders at the time! Not only that, but they were in the same division. If Roger wanted to move on, the least he could have done was find another team we weren’t going to be competing against directly. That he chose the Blue Jays signalled a real intention to show the Sox what they were missing. While we watched almost every start Roger made, watched the postgame interviews on the fledgling NESN, and while we read the local papers almost every day during his stint on the team, our youthful naivete didn’t allow us to see through the player and into the ego. It was at the moment that Clemens left our team that we realized that players weren’t blindly devoted to the team that groomed them. If any signing opened our eyes to the transience of the free agent era, it was this one: it’s a sad day when your hero rejects you, and this, whatever our indiscriminate GM said, felt like rejection. A couple of Cy Youngs and an embarrassing disclosure of an illegal and tacit side-clause later, in 1999 Clemens still found a way to do something else unthinkable: he engineered a deal to the Yankees.
We have to admit that Roger’s Yankee day are a bit of a blur to us. This is embarrassing, as we have lived in New York since 1994 and spent nearly every day of Roger’s tenure a mere four miles from Yankee Stadium. We remember him winning the Cy Young, we remember him finally winning a World Series (and feeling that no matter what uniform he was wearing he absolutely, positively, deserved it), we remember him getting torched on a Saturday in the playoffs against Pedro, and we remember him throwing a bat at Mike Piazza, a despicable deed that was never explained sufficiently nor punished properly. We also remember him retiring, taking a Hummer with him on his way out of town. This blur of memory was partly by design. Though we detest the uniform, the player who wore the uniform was still a hero to us. He was the link to our early days as a Sox fan. We overlooked the egotism and the greed intentionally; Clemens was still, in the end, ours. He grew up in the Sox’ system. He won his first Cy Young with Boston. He signed the biggest contract ever for a starting pitcher with the Sox. He took us to the World Series and should have owned a ring after that magical 1986 season. He carried the Sox for the better part of 10 years. He was still, no matter the later accomplishments, going into the Hall as a Sox, he would forever be remembered for throwing that first 20K game against the Mariners with a Sox hat on. Same with the second. Wherever he sold himself, wherever he emerged out of retirement, Roger was still, to us, a Sox.
So today’s announcement stings. The baseball romantic (yes, we are, at heart, a romantic) in us dreamt of Roger coming back to Boston. We saw the song and dance with the Hendricks ending in a return to the Fens in home whites, #21 on the back of the jersey, as familiar as ever. We hoped that in the end, history would trump dollar signs, legacy would trump friendships, and we were wrong. We thought Roger would honor his beginnings and come back to Boston to heal wounds, and we thought that time did, in fact, cure everything. But we made a major misjudgment: the romance with which we watch the game is still somewhat untainted by the business that impacts players. It’s possible (check that, probable), that Roger felt no sense of historical responsibility the the city he had long since left. It’s probable that Clemens felt no desire or need for closure, he got it when he left, that this sense of incompleteness was all the fans’ and not his. It’s likely that Clemens and Boston was a story long since ended, and whatever coda we thought could be written this year was mere fantasy. Tonight there are many Sox fans relieved that they won’t have to cheer on the hated pitcher had he taken the mound for our team: these are the pragmatic folks who got it early, who understood Clemens (and, by extension, most modern players) for what he is. But we held out. Until today, we still see Gedman fielding Stanley cleanly. We still imagine Grady pulling Pedro before that fateful inning. We will forever envision Pokey Reese tossing it to Doug. We saw the fantastic. But now we know the reality: Clemens and Boston are done.
There’s no anger, though, just the sadness that we won’t get that fantastical closure for ourselves, cheering Roger as he strides off the mound and into that first base dugout, looking to right field while envisioning a "21" up there with 1, 4, 8, 9, 27, and 42. This is a sad day for at least one Red Sox fan.