Saturday, January 17, 2004
When Roger Clemens came out of a retirement the length of some pop singer's recent marriage to sign with the Houston Astros, he did it, apparently, for the environment.
The environment should be beneficial to extending the career of an aging player. The deal was set up so the Texan wouldn't have to travel as much as a normal player, not going on road series where he would not be starting. This would give him a small, partial step into retirement that would afford him a physically easier summer (the man is a work-out demon, but he is getting to that age where slowing down is something that tends to happen to you, not something you choose). And the Astros have stated he wouldn't pitch every fifth start, but get a little easier schedule.
He would get to stay home with his family, enjoy his well-earned money, and the team is counting on his noteworthy work ethic and competitiveness to keep him sharp enough in this part-time role. Both the team's vision and Clemens' vision are clever. It could work. But it's an experiment with a lot of unknowns, and a handful of knowns that can work against its success. In all cases, the environment, which played a part in Clemens' decision to unretire, is also a factor that could hammer him into mediocrity.
The first unknowable factor is this half-retirement lifestyle. Most managers don't have the privilege of half-retirement, but executives frequently do in public companies and family-owned for-profits. The drive that makes an executive seem successful to the outside world, a relentless quest for more, mirrors the major league player's intensity for better. People who get to these rarified positions almost always have that relentless, focused desire for that one thing they pursue. The ones that don't have this imblanaced perception fo the world rarey acheive, in observers' eyes, at the same level. Readers of Michael Lewis' Moneyball know Oakland GM Billy Beane was, as a player, considered to have all the necessary tools to play at a very high level. And he did play in the majors. While that is a very high level, a remarkable achievement (yes it's remarkable...about 1 in 100,000 people, the top .001 percentile, who aspires to play major league baseball ever do), he would not be said to have had a successful baseball career. Because, in the end, he didn't have the ability to ignore everything else in his life. The same happens beyond baseball. The half-retired exec makes mistakes he wouldn't make if he worked full time. Emotionally, it can be difficult watching others make decisions he wouldn't and not interfere. He's not marinating in the day-to-day minutaie that color decisionmaking.
Clemens could be (unknowable, but the pattern is there) in the same situation. He's been doing this intense job for 20 years in the majors, building up regular routines and regimens. Maybe he doesn't have the Mike Hargrove before every pitch rituals, but he's got it down from his food to his exercise and stretching to his pre-game scouting. And the routine of being with the guys and horsing around and the ballplayer-on-the-road socializing, which is every bit as much habitual as the game preparation part. These human factors are now-ingrained habits as well.
And the very intensity of purpose, hyperfocus, that allows a player or exec to get to that level, can disable his ability to refocus or kick back in a half-retirement.
And what if he does relax a little, and redistribute his focus? Will a 41 year old guy whose very fuel is intensity be able to pull a Tom Seaver and use his intellectual capacity to find a zen-like balance point? I don't know Clemens personally, but nothing I've seen or read him saying leads me to believe his intellect is a major talent in his quiver.
Either way, the environment of half-retirement, while looking good on the physical side, is an unknowable factor that can affect the outcome of this experiment in many ways, mostly to the detriment of his pitching performance.
Houston's home park, Enron Field, is not a typical environment, and this will play a more important role in Clemens' performance than it would for an average Astro hurler, because they're going to use him more at home than on the road (if they stick with the plan). It promotes offense for both right-handed and, especially, left-handed hitters. [snip here -- there was a false assertion here I made because I mis-read my print outs. I was corrected by "Jeff" on Baseball Primer; Thanks Jeff].
Clemens' home-road splits were really pronounced last year, too. (ERA = 5.22 at Yankee, 2.53 away; his three-year ERA splits were not very different, so perhaps that was just an artifact of a relatively small sample). But if his age 40 season indicated some actual changes/evolution in his pitching, that could bode very poorly for him, too, because Yankee Stadium, like Enron, rewards left-handed home run hitting, and that pushes a pitcher to modify in some cases his pitch selection. I'm suggesting he might find himself making the same adjustments to his choices that lead to his relatively poorer performance in Yankee Stadium last year.
NATIONAL LEAGUE: VICTIMIZE AT YOUR OWN RISK
In the American League environment he's always played in, Clemens doesn't have to hit. Meaning if he intimidates batters by throwing inside or plunking them or just glaring at them, he's unlikely to be the recipient of physiocal-style revenge. In the National, as a batter, he isn't protected. I'm not convinced this will be a major factor, but many observers do. Jayson Stark for example suggests:
Health will be one issue. One long-time Clemens watcher predicts he will pull a quad muscle running down to first base some night. But the bigger question will be how Clemens' high-and-tight style will play out in a league where he has to bring his bat to the plate 60 to 70 times a year.
"He's already issued a challenge by saying it's not going to change his style," says one NL scout. "And I know that's part of his greatness. But he'd better expect some consequences. When guys with his control pitch that way, everybody knows it's intentional. I can see him getting knocked on his butt. And him being the competitor he is, I don't know what the reaction will be. It'll be fun to watch. I know that."
Environmentally, Clemens is pushed into a position where he's at marginally-greater physical risk, and he'll need to adjust his mental and emotional settings accordingly. Another environmental challenge with unknowable results.
This is not doom and gloom. Many execs retire from, for example, a hard-hitting business career and make the transtition to a part-time position in a non-profit organization. But most fail.
Is this a new beginning for Clemens, or the Rocket's Red Flame out?
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