It is easy to see how you could earn the nickname "The Rocket" when your right arm has the power to release pitches that explode with fire behind them. But Roger Clemens embodies his nickname in many more ways.
Maybe it is living up to the hype, maybe art was imitating his life, a person high up in the stratosphere in talent and in perspective. But one thing is for sure, he is his name.
I didn't have any official at-bats against Clemens even though my entire career folded neatly inside of his career. I faced him in a couple of spring training contests, which gave me a good sense of his ability to control speeds, get you to chase pitches out of the zone or even hit the little guy in the lineup just to send a message.
He always seemed to live by his own rules, matching the satellite orbiting the Earth with different gravitational rules to follow, or maybe bouncing on the moon with no sense of his true weight here on our planet.
He lived by intimidation on the mound, brushing back anyone who dared challenge him with the brawn side of the equation, but was equally cerebral, having complex signs with his catcher, who needed a calculator to translate the signals he was giving so the runner at second base couldn't steal them.
In recent years, we have seen the Rocket land on Earth. Dealing with the very earthly world of criticism and question marks, as we witness his stark discomfort in dealing with the idea that he cannot make his own laws or get the unpredictability of humanity to chase his slider out of the zone.
His past caught up to him, and, whether we believe it was a cheater revealed or a chain of unlikely conspiracies weighing down his orbit, he was on the other side of his career. He had become unable to place one key thing: how to control the fire that propelled his life. He was brushing people back in court, staring down facts, hoping they would just go away while looking for the instant results a player would come to expect from a life in the game.
He is the most visible example of the challenge of hypercompetitive players trying to find their path at home. The shock that you no longer can soar in space while on the ground. You must follow the rules on Earth or get burned. Congress and public opinion are immune to pitch counts, a splitter on the black or a shard of broken bat that you throw at them. Once your last pitch is thrown, your legacy is an unpredictable knuckleball, floating through the air, crafted by forces beyond your control. It could be unfair -- like a solid player such as Bill Buckner being summed up in an error that happens every single day in the big leagues -- or it could be a platoon-player-turned legend such as Tom Lawless, whose home run enshrines him among the best in St. Louis Cardinals history.
Clemens still wants to shape history, to be like those before him who were the first into space. To show he had and still has the right stuff to be the heroic astronaut returning to Earth after walking on the moon. And, like most players, he is delusional in his transition, a rocket holed up in some rusty hangar doing everything he can to keep competing while he fights to make sure people remember the importance of space travel.
So now he makes his comeback at 50 years old. He wants to compete, and he most likely has the political agenda of pushing time back. Giving voters a longer look at his career, more time to digest that he is not guilty, but not necessarily innocent, either. After all, time will heal, just as time is different in outer space. A year on Mars is nearly twice as long as one here on Earth, where Clemens believes he can control time with the right pitch sequence. People forget. But the only problem is, they might forget the good aspects of his work, too. And all he might have is one appearance as a Houston Astro in a 10-year period with possible asterisks attached to his record by the time the Hall of Fame votes come in. It could go a lot of ways.
But such is egomania, the high ego required to be the best in baseball. You have to be delusional, have to believe in the impossible when staring down Albert Pujols or hitting against Justin Verlander. The longer you play the game, the more impossible it is for you to ever know how to embrace reality. For too long, you could will yourself through everything or could at least find a magic solution to be able to compete one more time. It does not end, it just continues on in an endless orbit around everyone else's reality. And actually, you are just orbiting yourself.
The Rocket is doing what every player does when he leaves the game: seeking a sense of control. Looking back is scary because that control is gone. You are 50, and you see the world question your work, given that, in your mind, you were always running the show, shaking off the wrong pitch, the wrong opinion. Now you are at the mercy of time or of the fickleness of a sound bite and a good closing argument. It makes high-flying competitors pull their hair out to be called on the carpet by non-legends, by the kind of hitter who hit only .220 lifetime with a hole down and away -- hitters who typically were scorched by the flames that propelled your career.
Now Clemens will have to wait. Maybe he can buy himself five more years, hope his Jedi mind trick will work on whoever has doubted him or believes Brian McNamee more than him. Sports writers might ease up in that time; science might tell us that whatever he was accused of using to fuel his flight path was normal and is now available over the counter.
But, like anything tossed into space, opinion will be thrown into the great unknown. It could come down to the tie he wears in an interview or the charitable work he has done in his life. He does not know any more than the rest of us, and that makes him as frustrated as any baseball player who could be reduced to one moment, one court scene.
Regardless, he will keep going. Running his campaign. Super PAC-ing his way to what he believes is his right to immortality. Powering his way until he either gets unattainable satisfaction or crashes into Earth at full speed, leaving a crater as wide as his belief in himself.