SITTING ON an offer of a prorated $18 million salary for Roger Clemens to pitch for the Red Sox, Randy and Alan Hendricks, the agents for Clemens, threw a number last Thursday at Yankees G.M. Brian Cashman that came in as high and as hard as any of the chin music for which Clemens himself is renowned: $28 million. By the time Clemens is actually ready to pitch in the big leagues at the end of this month, New York would be forking over $26 million ($18.6 million in salary and another $7.4 million in luxury tax) for 20 starts from a 44-year-old pitcher—more than the entire payroll of the Devil Rays, who led New York in the standings at the time.
Cashman and the Yankees did not so much as blink. Negotiate? Why bother? After all, back in March, before its pitching staff started popping hamstrings and tendons like banjo strings, New York had offered Clemens $25.5 million—$3.5 million more than his salary with the Astros last year. What's a few million bucks, especially, as Cashman pointed out, when "you're looking at [compensating for the cost of Clemens's] New York state tax and pulling him out of Houston"?
Within 24 hours of the Hendricks's latest offer, the Yankees gleefully said yes, and on Sunday afternoon Clemens was standing in owner George Steinbrenner's suite at Yankee Stadium, as if he were giving a papal blessing, announcing his return to the Yankees during the seventh inning stretch of a win over Seattle. The place was awash in sunshine and joy.
Even by the warp-speed standard of a New York minute, the Yankees had transformed themselves in record time. Only days earlier the tabloids had smelled blood in the office of manager Joe Torre and tasted it when strength coach Marty Miller got fired. The Yankees, assuming the look of an independent team staging open tryouts, were on their way to becoming the first team to use 10 starting pitchers in its first 30 games, including one, Chase Wright, who became the second pitcher ever to cough up four consecutive homers.
But last week the Yankees nearly threw two no hitters (by rookie Phil Hughes and Chien Ming Wang), won five of six and added by far the best available pitcher without giving up talent or draft picks, leaving Yankees fans to wonder not if Torre should be fired but how he should line up the postseason rotation. (Wang, Rocket booster Andy Pettitte, Mike Mussina and No. 4 starter Clemens? What about Pocket Rocket Hughes?)
The signing of Clemens was the latest reminder that New York's huge edge in available cash is the hammer it can swing at any time. Writing off the Yankees in April is like writing off Microsoft after a bad quarter. Sure, Cashman had advocated running a leaner organization, but is it wise to forfeit your greatest competitive advantage?
The Red Sox wanted Clemens so badly that they left it up to him whether the team would use a five- or six-man rotation. Yet Boston, stretched from a $103 million outlay on Daisuke Matsuzaka, decided $18 million was as high as it could go. Houston, stumbling in the NL Central, seemed fatigued by the Clemens-on-eBay serial.
The Yankees had the need and the cash. They needed Clemens even before Carl Pavano broke down again and the newly acquired Kei Igawa started getting shelled regularly. (Clemens will essentially replace Igawa, who was sent to the minors on Monday, meaning the Yankees will have sunk $56 million into one rotation spot this year alone.) To appease Clemens, New York even struck down a team rule prohibiting players from leaving the team at will for personal reasons. Torre had cleared the issue with captain Derek Jeter and other veterans in spring training—a waiver that would not have occurred with clubhouse brooders Randy Johnson and Gary Sheffield still in pinstripes. "Even if Roger gives you five innings," Torre said, "I think you don't realize how precious five good innings can be until you've gone through what we have."
Boston, according to a Sox source, was left to wonder "how much of [Clemens's decision] was the money and how much was it his desire to play for them." Both were strong factors. Clemens was flattered by the cash and New York's plaintive cry for help. (Boston pitchers Julian Tavarez and Curt Schilling downplayed the need for Clemens.) "We needed him now more than ever," Cashman said, "and maybe that's what he responded to the most—he kept hearing, 'We need your help.'"
Now Clemens can add to his 348 career wins, polish his application to go into the Hall of Fame as a Yankee, hang with Pettitte, mentor Hughes and, yes, afford his New York state taxes. And the Yankees can breathe a little easier, having wadded $26 million into their leaky roof.
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Faint Praise of the Week
FORMER NBA player John Amaechi (left) braced for a homophobic backlash when he came out of the closet in February. But he told the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay GOP group, that he was pleasantly surprised by the support he received. "I underestimated America," he said.
Rude Gesture of the Week
AFTER BEING plunked by the Pirates' Matt Capps last Saturday, the Brewers' Prince Fielder lay in the dirt and glared at the pitcher. On Sunday, Fielder got even, homering twice then pumping a fist at the Bucs' dugout after sliding home (left) with the go-ahead run. Catcher Ryan Doumit called it "bush league."
PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY JOHN UELAND
JEFF HANISCH/US PRESSWIRE (FIELDER)
DAVID ZALUBOWSKI/AP (AMAECHI)