The Roger Clemens trial has officially begun. The first step, jury selection (update: mistrial). Clemens is charged with "six felony counts of perjury, false statements and obstruction of Congress." The former big leaguer has said many times he is innocent and his name will be cleared after the trial. I am not so sure. But, really, that doesn't matter. At least to me.
Whenever his name comes up -- in good or bad context, mostly bad these days -- I am forced to think of the time I was hit in the face with a fastball my junior year of high school. I ended up getting knocked out and having seizure on the field. A brief hospital stay was required. Ultimately, I was fine. But that wasn't clear the day my dad ran into Clemens at the Merit Club in Libertyville, Illinois. Clemens was in town with the Yankees, who were set to face the White Sox, and wanted to play a quick round of golf before the series started later that night.
My father told Clemens what happened to me. He told my dad that I "needed to get back on the horse" and invited me, my father, brother and baseball mentor to Cellular Field for a game the next day. He also expressed that I should throw a bullpen for him to see "what I [had]." My dad and Clemens exchanged cell numbers and the plans were set.
All previous rumors and rants from "baseball guys" about Clemens were negative (the MM's whitewashing aside). That he was a "bad guy." An "egomaniac." Therefore, I thought so too. My opinion quickly changed. Needless to say, a 17-year-old me was more than ecstatic to throw a pen with Roger Clemens and the Yankees. I knew at the time this experience would be as close as I would ever get to actually playing on a major league field. That wasn't lost on me. The night previous and day of, I seemed to go through a mix of excitement, nerves and confusion. It seemed too easy. Too instant. Too perfect?
On the drive down to The Cell, Clemens called my dad to ensure we were on the way. He told us to meet him next to the Yankees dugout. Everybody in the car was obnoxiously excited. School boy excited. Looking back, it was kind of disgusting. Two giddy high schoolers and two even giddier grown men to see another grown man -- their junior, mind you -- isn't exactly becoming. But at the time, I wasn't thinking about that. I was just nervous. I played with my mitt incessantly, spinning the webbing around my finger, readjusting the leather and pounding the pocket with my fist. I hadn't brought it to a major league game since I was about eight, thinking it nerdy. I actually felt cool I needed it.
The Cell's parking lot is about a 1/4 of a mile from the White Sox main offices (we were supposed to meet a Sox employee to get led to where we needed to go). The walk gave me time to go over what I would say to Clemens. What my routine would be getting loose. What he would think of the pitch I invented (kind of a modified sidearm screwball). What would Roger say to me. "Keep your front side closed longer." "I like the run on your 2-seamer." "Have you ever heard of anabolic steroids?" The possibilities and daydreaming were endless.
We met a man in a black and white White Sox polo at the front office lobby. I don't recall his name, but he was pleasant enough, escorting us through the office entrance to the stadium. We followed him through the concourse and down the flight of stairs to Section 127, just north of the Yankees dugouts on the first base side. The Sox employee called for a guy in a Yankees polo. They exchanged a few words and he left to find Clemens.
It is hard to express just how massive Clemens is in person. Every part of him is somehow disproportionally larger than the last. He approached slowly, but with a hurriedness of a man going through a divorce he "just wants to be done with." I didn't feel like a guest of Clemens, but a nuisance. He extended his hand. I took it. It easily wrapped around mine and then some.
"Hey, Zach. I'm Roger."
"Hi, Roger. Nice to meet you."
He introduced himself to my dad, brother and coach. Clemens handed me an autographed picture that read "Roger Clemens #22" with "The Rocket" below and right of his signature. We all talked for a few awkward moments. He asked me how I was doing. That sort of thing. Then the bad news.
"Listen, Zach," Clemens said. "I talked to security and they can't let you into the bullpen. I'm sorry."
I don't remember exactly what I said, something along the lines of "That's fine" or "I understand." After all, it was a post-9/11 world, I guess.
Regardless, there I stood in front of the giant of a man, -- of the game -- my face still swollen, my jaw still sore, a seam-shaped-cut clotting in the humid Chicago night. My daydreaming seemed stupid. Kid-like. Unrealistic. My new found "liking" of Clemens, shattered. I was let down. The Yankees won. I didn't care.
But maybe that's Roger Clemens. And maybe my experience is similar to most of America's. Maybe he has convinced himself that he did nothing wrong, like he believed he could get me in the bullpen. We naively believed he was that good without any "help," like I naively believed I would get to throw a pen at Cellular Field. Or maybe he's just a liar. Maybe he can't tell the difference between lies and truths. Maybe he's pathological. Maybe every word that spews from his seemingly perpetually Gatorade-red-chapped-lips is false. Or not. Who cares. America has moved on. All I know is that I didn't get to pitch at Cellular Field and, in all of this, isn't that the real tragedy?
I still have that autographed picture. I found it not too long ago during my parents move from the suburbs to the city -- as so many empty nesters do. Somehow it got mixed into some old documents and is now bent and wrinkled. "The Rocket" is hard to read now. Contorted into something else. I've tried to flatten out the picture, make it presentable, but as hard as I -- as he -- might, it will never read "The Rocket" again.