It is appropriate that Roger Clemens is back wearing No. 21, because from all angles, this comeback is essentially a game of blackjack.
It certainly isn't poker, because his hand is written clearly upon his face. In even a house game of Hold 'Em, he'd be broke and fetching drinks within an hour. No; Clemens is sitting at what he alone sees as a high-stakes blackjack table, his primary opponent the voice within his mind.
You know that voice; we all have it. It's that internal Walter Mitty, forever telling us we're important, central to events and lives upon which our impact is usually tangential at best. It's telling Clemens that he can still be a top-level pitcher at age 50. It whispers that a major-league return will buy him five years in which voter ennui might earn him his perceived Cooperstown due. It's pushing him back to the one place in life where he might still possess power, and the means to wield it, after years of being publicly emasculated in courtrooms. It has him convinced that his crusade for public respect and acclaim is just and fair, and within reach.
What he cannot accept, what the voice will never say, is that none of this matters to anyone but him.
Clearly, Roger Clemens is possessed by election to the Hall of Fame, and I can't say I wouldn't feel the same if I were him. If he honestly played clean, then he performed brilliantly against an industry of track-marked goons. Perhaps he thinks he can prove this by pitching effectively in this age of heightened testing.
If he WAS using, then he probably feels he was simply leveling the playing field with his peers, following which he then dominated them anyway. Either way, in his mind, the Hall is his just reward. He obviously wants the rest of us to view him with the prestige he feels the Hall provides.
The problem for Clemens is that for most of us, it now requires a child's view of the world to sustain outrage or interest in chemical turpitude in baseball. We know that at least the past 40 seasons have been played beneath a dome of increasingly sophisticated substances. We see the hypocrisy of PED violators being given multiple re-entries to the sport while a single gambling offense can earn players a lifetime ban.
The Hall's voters have elected known alcoholics, racists and philanderers while denying the heroic Ron Santo for decades, relenting only upon his death (a career move which has not yet worked for the equally deserving Buck O'Neil). For those with clear eyes, the Hall of Fame should be viewed only as one of baseball's revenue streams and a museum of mostly whitewashed portions of its history.
For Clemens, however, it is likely the final public achievement available to him, and he sees it fading, deservedly or not. It's why he sits alone at the blackjack table in his mind, hitting on 16, trying like a child to get us to pay attention to him one more time.
And this is not a high-stakes table, at least not for us. We're just watching a man play, and only as an occasional, momentary distraction from whatever else might be on TV. The comitragedy of it—because this is simultaneously hilarious and terribly sad—is that a 50-year-old father, a man of rare achievement and outsized financial success, clearly lacks any bedrock sense of fulfillment. He's a modern-day Sisyphus, pushing boulders next all the Favres and Jordans and Bondses for whom everything will never be enough.
Perhaps one day he'll stand at the podium in Cooperstown, eyes rimmed with tears, giving a speech about hard work, determination and pride. But I suspect that later that night he'll be sitting alone, watching highlights of himself on ESPN and wondering how he can put his money on the table one more time...just one more time...
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