2002-06-15 / Sports

Rocket’s Liftoff Could Spark Shea Showdown

Baseball Columnist
By Bryan Hoch
Rocket’s Liftoff Could Spark Shea Showdown By Bryan Hoch Baseball Columnist

Rocket’s Liftoff Could
Spark Shea Showdown
Baseball Columnist

If all goes according to plan, Saturday afternoon is shaping up to be one heck of a matchup for this season's first round of Subway Series action. New York Yankees righthander Roger Clemens is slated to take the mound, and subsequently bat, in the interleague game against the New York Mets at Shea Stadium.

Clemens, of course, has been persona non grata among all connected with the Mets since his actions during the 2000 season. In an interleague game at Yankee Stadium on July 8 of that year, Clemens drilled Piazza in the helmet with a 98-mph fastball at Yankee Stadium.

With few exceptions, Yankee Stadium was eerily silent for several minutes as Piazza lay lifelessly at home plate, his very livelihood hanging in the steamy midsummer air. As it turned out, Piazza was diagnosed with just a concussion after being helped off the diamond, but was forced to miss several games, including the All-Star Game.

When the Mets and Yankees eventually met in the World Series that same year, Clemens one-upped his display by hurling the jagged end of a shattered bat at Piazza after a foul ball in the first inning of Game Two.

Both benches promptly cleared, and Clemens claimed that he mistook the slender wooden barrel of the bat for the round leather ball and was simply throwing it out of play - naturally, at a high rate of velocity toward the Yankees dugout.

Inexplicably, home plate umpire Charlie Reliford bought Clemens' explanation, and the righthander stayed in the game to pitch the Yankees to their second victory in the eventual five-game Series win. The same could not be said for MLB discipline czar Frank Robinson, who later levied a hefty $50,000 fine on Clemens for his actions.

Clemens has never fared particularly well against the Mets, going 2-4 with a 7.75 earned run average in six regular season starts dating back to his days with the Toronto Blue Jays, but he has had the most trouble retiring Piazza legitimately. The Mets as a team have battered Clemens to a .321 clip, but Piazza leads the way with a 7-for-13 (.538) record against the righty, including three homers and nine runs batted in.

Although the Mets defeated Clemens both times they faced him in 1999 behind the strength of Piazza homeruns, the capper of Clemens' frustration facing the Mets' All-Star catcher came on June 9, 2000 at Yankee Stadium. In that game, Piazza thoroughly embarrassed the righthander by belting a grand slam in the third inning to kick off a 12-2 Mets rout of the Yankees in front of a home audience.

Leaving the field to vociferous boos from Yankee fans and venomous jeers from the Mets faithful, manager Joe Torre pulled Clemens after five innings, and it's safe to say that he swore some sort of revenge at that point.

Depending on whom you speak to, Clemens has long held a reputation as either the quintessential intimidator or as a ruthless headhunter on the mound. Even Torre, who became Clemens' biggest backer out of necessity since the Rocket donned pinstripes, fired verbal barbs at the righthander when, as a member of the Blue Jays, Clemens plunked Yankees stars Derek Jeter and Scott Brosius.

In fact, Clemens further exhibited his affinity for throwing inside this past weekend at Yankee Stadium, when he drilled the Giants' Barry Bonds on the protective gear that the slugger wears on his right arm.

The purpose pitch to Bonds came just days after Clemens boldly stated that he would "introduce myself pretty quick (to) that big old piece of plastic he has on his elbow." At press time, the matter was under investigation by MLB, with a fine but not a suspension likely.

The truth of the matter is that, like it or not, Clemens has secured his place as this generation's Bob Gibson. Along with at least two World Championships, five Cy Young Awards, an American League MVP (1986) and possibly 300 wins, that status puts him on the expressway to eventual baseball immortality in Cooperstown.

Clemens' track record of mound intimidation over a 17-year career will most certainly be the issue should the take the hill at Shea Stadium on Saturday, an assignment that Torre successfully helped him dodge while the Mets' hunger for retaliation was at its apex a season ago. Clemens did, in fact, bat in a National League park in Game Seven of last year's World Series against the Arizona Diamondbacks, but that was hardly the scenario for a bench-clearing melee stemming from a brushback pitch.

Not so for Saturday's anticipated contest, a highly charged meeting between the perennially cruising Yankees and the surprisingly struggling Mets in front of what figures to be a deafening and rowdy sellout crowd at Shea.

The question that needs to be asked is, should manager Bobby Valentine lend a few words of instruction into the ear of scheduled Mets starter Shawn Estes before the anticipated showdown? Will he?

Estes, a lefthander acquired this offseason from the San Francisco Giants for infielder Desi Relaford and outfielder Tsuyoshi Shinjo, has little personal reason to exact any venom on Clemens when he comes to the plate. When Clemens hurled balls and bats at the Mets two years ago, Estes was plying his trade pitching 3,000 miles away on the West Coast.

The cerebral baseball fan wants to see the Mets challenge Clemens using doubles to the gap, hit-and-run plays and a few of the monster home runs that the matchup's lengthy history entails. The fan with the professional wrestling mentality wants to see Estes buzz a fastball right under Clemens' chin the first time he steps into the batters box.

Even more unbelievably, still more fans would love to see Clemens unleash another scorching heater targeted at Piazza's skull.

Which of these displays will we get on Saturday, if any? That's all in the hands of Clemens, Torre, Valentine, Piazza and Estes. It's baseball drama at its highest, and sure to be an event that will be talked about for years, no matter its outcome.


Bryan Hoch regularly covers the New York Mets for MetsOnline.net. He may be contacted via e-mail at bryanhoch@metsonline.net.

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