Through the driver’s side window, drenched by a pouring rain, I could barely see the outline of Disch-Falk Field from the upper deck of I-35, headed south and home. A cold winter thunderstorm hovered over Austin, sunshine hidden by layers of heavy gray clouds.
Ready or not – and I am ready, considering the abrupt ending of the football season and the offensive meltdown of the UT basketball team – baseball season is here. Pitchers, catchers and bleacher bums like me will soon report. Squinting through the rain, I contemplated the sound of a fastball popping into catcher’s mitts across the country, and for whatever reason considered the plight of a former contemporary of mine: Roger Clemens.
We are contemporaries in age and school, and not much else. We attended UT at the same time, and I still remember him well, as much for his after-game interviews at his locker as for his pitching. He answered every question honestly, full of whatever emotion he happened to feel at that particular time: euphoria, intensity, humor, sarcasm, anger . . . whatever. It’s a well-known truth that while at Texas, Clemens wasn’t even the best pitcher on his own staff; that honor deservedly went to Calvin Schiraldi. I don’t remember Calvin as clearly.
Clemens was tall and more angular then (weren’t we all?), but he was clearly different than most. He threw hard often, and threw inside more often than not. I always thought he seemed to be waiting – hoping? – for someone to offend him. The chip on his shoulder was real and permanent, and he certainly had many reasons for them. By the time he arrived at UT, he had experienced a childhood more difficult than most, very little money, almost fatherless. He had good reasons for how he was.
It was clear even then that his drive and passion and determination greatly dwarfed those around him, practically engulfed them. He worked harder and was infinitely more stubborn.
He was also intensely loyal, and more than willing to go to bat – or take the mound – for his team. He took losing personally, and not well. He didn’t just need to win; he needed to dominate. And he did.
The Boston Red Sox drafted him, and in 1986, he led them to a World Series versus the New York Mets. Everyone knows how that turned out, but the dramatic loss did little to tarnish his reputation as the ultimate power pitcher.
And though he spent a good deal of his childhood in Ohio, he was the quintessential Texan. He walked with his head high and his chest out, and he preferred fastballs to sliders. His personal story had some heartaches, all of which he overcame to become a Hall of Fame-type pitcher. He earned multiple Cy Young Awards, once struck out 20 batters in a single game and won a World Series with the New York Yankees. At the end of his career, he came home and pitched for his – and your – Houston Astros.
Though now his baseball playing career is finished, his life is certainly enviable on many levels. He has piles of money, and he can spend his days playing golf, watching his sons play ball and shopping with his beautiful wife. He’s set.
And yet looking at his old ballpark through a rain-soaked window, I couldn’t help but wonder what has become of my classmate, Roger Clemens. By the time I reached south Austin, the rain had cleared and I warmed to the idea that maybe there would be a happy ending of some sort for Roger Clemens after all.
Without going full-Monty Ken Burns on you, the beginning of each baseball season does truly bring with it promise and hope, just as sure as there are bluebonnets on the Pedernales. Hell, the Cubs are tied for first! Maybe this year I’ll see Roger some afternoon along the first-base line somewhere, and we can talk. I’d like that.