The last time Roger Clemens faced the Red Sox, in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS, he was leading a brigade of celebratory Yankees to center field, where they fed the Babe Chandon and toasted to another 365 days of silly baseball voodoo.
It was the Rocket's last laugh.
Well, maybe the whole negotiating with the Red Sox to finagle a $28 million payday out of the Yankees earlier this year was his final guffaw, but it probably ends there.
It's easy to forget sometimes that Clemens wasn't around in 2004 when the Red Sox made their comeback for the ages in the ALCS, following pal Andy Pettitte to the Astros. And one has to wonder whether things might have been different had New York been able to turn to one of them in a desperate stopper situation instead of the sure-bet disaster that was Kevin Brown.
Tonight, for the first time since they shellacked him on that October night in 2003 (six hits, four runs over three innings), the Red Sox will face Clemens -- their once and future nemesis. Boston needs a win to increase their lead back to eight games in the AL East, and certain members of the Red Sox front office would no doubt love to stick it to Clemens one (final?) time for playing them like a yo-yo for the last two seasons. At the very least, they'd like him to return the DVD.
And still No. 21 goes unclaimed, gathering dust deep somewhere in the Red Sox clubhouse. Jon Lester doesn't wear it. Clay Buchholz didn't get to choose it. Justin Masterson, in all likelihood, won't begin next season with it. Even if Josh Beckett (who goes up against his boyhood idol, Clemens, tonight) wins the Cy Young, he's not going to want it. No. 21 has been inactive for so long at this point that once someone claims it, that player risks being baseball's equivalent of the Phantom Menace.
Unless you were just beginning your extended summer vacation in Croatia, which was just about out of the range of Suzyn Waldman's May proclamation of Clemens's return, you know all about the cash that Clemens is making this season after his private and heartfelt conversation with George Steinbrenner during spring training. So far, Clemens hasn't exactly been worth the dollars, just 5-5 with a 4.34 ERA on the season. When he's been good, he's been reminiscent of his former self, sans double-digit strikeouts. He has allowed just one run in an outing four times this season. A few times he's looked like the guy who feasted on the inferior National League from 2004-06. Most times he's been particularly unspectacular.
In 2003, his last season in the AL before his much-ballyhooed, much lingering, and very annoying "will he or won't he" saga (which he pushed to the state of nausea in a Cingular ad), Clemens was just 2-3 against the Red Sox with a whopping 8.67 ERA.
For all the hype, bluster, and general substandard results of Clemens's 2007 season, tonight's matchup is truly an intriguing one, and not just because of the boyhood idol factor, which tends to be overplayed too often when one of these May-December, Cy Young-Cy Old showdowns takes place.
The Cy Young candidate Beckett has been at his best on the road, where he is 9-1 with a 1.90 ERA. Yankee Stadium has been the site of his highest moment. He pitched the Marlins to the 2003 World Series title over the Yankees with a complete-game masterpiece in Game 6. The Bronx has also been the spot of some of his lowest professional moments, including last summer's 1 1/3 inning stinker in which he surrendered seven earned runs, watching his ERA skyrocket from 4.46 to 5.27.
Clemens, meanwhile, has had no trouble fitting back into the Bronx, where he has enjoyed three of his five wins and a 2.79 ERA. Of the 18 runs scored against him at Yankee Stadium, eight came in an error-filled debacle vs. the White Sox earlier this month. He's been awful on the road (2-4, 5.93 ERA), and Beckett hasn't exactly reminded anyone of vintage Clemens at Fenway Park (7-4, 4.25). Which means if we do get the pleasure of watching them match up again in a few weeks 200 miles to the north, their splits suggest it won't be nearly as arresting as what could be on tap for tonight.
Almost four years after he nearly blew the season for the Yankees, then spent the wee hours of the morning taunting the legacy of his former team, Clemens is back in the Red Sox's lives for one more night, perhaps longer depending on how the rotations pan out (something tells me he won't get the standing ovation he received at Fenway on his last retirement tour in '03). Maybe even longer should these two meet in the playoffs.
For all that has happened in the 11 seasons since he took off that No. 21 jersey in Boston, the Red Sox have never actually gotten their comeuppance over Clemens, who rode his Yankees teammates to glory even after his ineffectiveness against the Sox in 1999 and '03. He used the Red Sox in negotiations in 2006 with the Astros, receiving the infamous DVD from the Boston brass. He did it with both Houston and Boston a year later, when everyone and their uncle should have known he'd never leave Pettitte's side.
Old friend Roger is back, four years after everyone thought he was gone for good. With a few more wins, head-to-head, and some cooperation from the Mariners and Tigers, the Red Sox might get to ensure that day finally comes.