Will Clemens Make Middle-Age Mercenaries a Common Sight?

Three decades following the demise of baseball's reviled reserve clause, Roger Clemens has extended the logic of free agency into a new dimension of semi-retired influence, to say nothing of affl

May 9, 2007 at 2:06 pm
Jerry Dowling

Three decades following the demise of baseball's reviled reserve clause, Roger Clemens has extended the logic of free agency into a new dimension of semi-retired influence, to say nothing of affluence. Some time next month, when Clemens toes the mound at Yankee Stadium, perhaps he will usher in a new breed of mercenary middle-aged athlete, changing forever the dynamics of a baseball season.

Clemens announced to the Yankee Stadium crowd on May 6, from George Steinbrenner's private box, that he's returning to pinstripes this summer. Hearts in Houston and Boston might be heavy and angry over the ancient right-hander's decision, but New Yorkers saw in those words new hope for their season. One wonders if useful ballplayers in their forties, if not their agents, saw a new entry to middle age.

Without trying to identify heroes in this naked grab for power and money, anyone disinterested in the Yankees, Boston Red Sox or Houston Astros ought to understand that the Yankees and the 45-year-old Clemens are back together for the right reasons.

Painfully in need of pitching, the Yankees hit enough to make it worthwhile for Clemens. At the same time, the Red Sox don't really need Clemens, except to keep him from the Yankees, and the Astros can't do any good with him, or for him, because they simply don't hit.

Saturday afternoon, as Fox televised the Yankees and Seattle Mariners from Yankee Stadium, Ken Rosenthal, the network's baseball reporter, breathlessly told of the challenge in front of Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman, who was as desperate for a pitcher as any man has ever been. A day later, the Yankees papered over despair with money, giving Clemens a pro-rated $28 million contract, which will pay him $18 million total or $4.5 million per month.

The pro-rated contract is a common practice put to uncommon use for Clemens during the past two years. The origins of its new manifestation lie in the final months of the 2005 season, when the grind of an entire schedule acted out on a 43-year-old Clemens with injury problems by September.

Understanding that an athlete well into his forties might not last nine months but maybe could handle five, the Astros and Clemens agreed last year to a partial-season contract with productive results.

Clemens' 2006 contract, a pro-rated $22,000,022 that commenced in June, walked and talked like a hometown arrangement, very much in the spirit of the contracts Clemens signed with the Astros in 2004 and 2005. But when he signed with the Yankees, which really shouldn't have surprised anyone around the Astros, the partial-season contract illuminated a whole new set of possibilities.

As much as we see athletes still playing into their forties, let's not lose track of reality. It's hard work for athletes to play into their forties. It gets old.

Even when they're as well conditioned as Clemens, their bodies are much more susceptible to aches and pains. It's just the natural course of aging, which can be deferred but not denied.

But it's not ridiculous to assume that a good many athletes would keep playing if they needed to last only half of a season. Maybe a guy who can't hack nine months can hack five months. And maybe he can extend his career by trading two full seasons at the end for five partial seasons.

In the Yankees' case, Cashman stood no chance of trading for a pitcher, no matter how badly he needed it, so long as it's too early for any club to give up on a playoff spot. Though the Yankees are well known to pay top dollar, we can assume they gave up $28 million for Clemens out of pure despair.

Of course, Clemens is only one guy. But what if a shadow market of five or 10 good ballplayers in their forties were lying in wait about this time every year, guys who could produce for four or five months and be strong at the end but couldn't play from wire to wire without tiring at decision time?

Need a bat? It's June. Call Fred McGriff. Maybe Jeff Bagwell can patch up his shoulder and wheel it for a couple months.

Need a pitcher? Maybe you can't get the Rocket, but can Kevin Brown heave it for a month or two? The examples here are just names pulled from the recently retired, and no one's claiming these guys could actually do it — but you get the idea.

Consider the questions athletes face as they near the end. They still love to play, but they can't summon the physical strength or speed to be at their best over the entire haul of a preseason, season and postseason. They wonder if they can make themselves go through the nine months of travel, all the training, all the practice. Can they do it all one more time?

Now they don't have to. They can play the amount of a season they want to and can play effectively.

And no one should suppose for a minute that teams won't put up with it. On the contrary, they'll pay top dollar as needs arise. The skills are too valuable for ideals to interfere. That's why sports teams repeatedly give chances to players with drug problems.

A key semi-retired player in his forties not only could name his price for the club that needs his skills in June but could also pick out the most competitive situation. Obviously, the players must stay in reasonably good shape so they can tighten up for game time, but that's hardly asking for miracles.

Clubs might even like the way it works out. How much can it hurt to sign a veteran talent in June, then send him through the minor league circuit for a month of preparation, as the Astros did with Clemens last year? It's good for player development. Clubs might even cut costs by paying for a half-year of an older player rather than a full year.

Is the mercenary middle-aged player a future commonality? With Roger Clemens going back to Yankee Stadium, it's already becoming a present-day commonality.