“You can tell how passionate I am about this.” — pitcher Roger Clemens
The date: May 28, 2007
The place: PNC Field
The situation: Retirement didn’t quite suit one of the greatest right-handers in baseball history. And so, when the New York Yankees’ starting rotation struggled early in 2017, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner made a call that would go down in franchise lore.
He lured Roger Clemens — the famed Rocket, the 348-game winner in 23 big league seasons, the seven-time Cy Young Award winner and former American League Most Valuable Player — away from home and back to the Bronx. But first, he’d need some tune-ups. And one took him to the newly refurbished PNC Field, for an outing that became one of the most anticipated in Scranton/’Wilkes-Barre history.
The lead-in: Well, it all started on May 6, 2007, in the seventh-inning stretch of a 5-0 win over Seattle on a sunny Sunday afternoon in the Bronx when the Yankees improved their record to a uninspiring 15-16. On the video board at Yankee Stadium flashed a live look inside The Boss’ personal luxury suite. And standing there, unannounced, unspeculated about beforehand, was The Rocket.
Which, incidentally, led to…
(Come on…you know you were dying to hear that!)
When the excitement settled, the details became clear. Clemens would earn a prorated salary of $22 more than $28 million — he’d wind up making about $18.7 million — to bolster the Yankees’ slumping rotation for the rest of 2007. But the fact he came back without a spring training to get ready meant he’d need to spend a few weeks working his way back into shape at the Yankees’ minor league training complex in Tampa, along with some minor league rehab starts.
The first such outing came May 18 for Tampa, in which he threw four strong innings, allowing only one run on three hits, striking out two. A first-inning homer for Erik Lis was all the Miracle had to show for their chance to knock off a legend. Five days later, he struggled a bit against Double-A Portland in a start for Trenton, allowing three runs on six hits in 5 1/3 innings. Stunningly, he walked four while striking out five.
On May 25, the Yankees made final a decision area fans had been hoping for that entire month: Clemens would get the ball on Monday night, at PNC Field, against the Toledo Mud Hens. And, they hoped, it would be the last minor league start the icon ever had to make.
The moment: The question wasn’t how many tickets the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees could sell for that game. It’s how many they’d ultimately decide to sell. Because in became obvious in the hours after the Yankees’ announcement that seeing the 44-year-old Clemens would be the hottest ticket at this ballpark perhaps since opening night, 1989.
The ballpark held about 10,310 fans then. Officially, more than 11,310 attended, once standing-room-only tickets were doled out.
“We have added more security,” Mike Cummings, the longtime Red Barons and Yankees media relations director, said. “We had asked people to come early to avoid heavy traffic, and ticket requests have been enormous even though we’ve been sold out. We’ve had to turn a lot of people away.”
If it seems in the years since that the amount of fans who say they were at PNC Field that night exceeded the amount who actually could have been, there’s probably a reason for that. Many fans showed up early at the ballpark — it was Memorial Day, so most didn’t have work anyway — hoping to get a glimpse of Clemens or maybe score a ticket from a motivated hawker. Tickets were being scalped outside the stadium that afternoon for nearly $50 a pop.
Those who couldn’t get in made do anyway. Dozens of fans drove a bit up Montage Mountain and camped out in the parking lot at the Cinemark movie theater, high above the right field wall. Employees at the theater turned into baseball vendors for the evening, selling those watching the game from lawn chairs in their parking lot popcorn and Coca-Colas.
When Clemens finally took the mound for the bottom of the first inning against the Mud Hens, he did so to a rousing ovation from the fans he’d give the best of his three rehab outings. When he struck out veteran Timo Perez to end Clemens’ three-up, three-down top of the first inning, fans rose to their feet, screaming again.
Clemens would go on to strike out at least one batter in each of his first five innings on the mound, and the Mud Hens managed just two singles against him in a dominant performance. He struck out six, and with some solid relief from Edwar Ramirez and Jim Brower, Clemens picked up the win in a clean 2-0 shutout for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
“My arm feels great,” Clemens said after the game during a press conference in the Yankees batting tunnel. “I’ll have, hopefully, normal soreness tomorrow and just go from there. I don’t know what to tell you guys. I have to wait and hear from the guys who were watching, how they assess it and we’ll go from there.”
Clemens threw 89 pitches and, on a day when the Yankees were drubbed by Toronto, 7-2– their fourth of five consecutive losses — the Rocket declared himself ready to return to the big leagues.
“You saw it tonight. This was the step that he needed,” then-Yankees vice president of player personnel Billy Connors said after the game. “He’s ready to go.”
HISTORY BEHIND THE MOMENT
After the game, Clemens’ appearance took a rather strange turn during his postgame press conference.
In what turned out to be the last question of an extensive interview session, Clemens was asked by Brian Fees — the sports editor of the Towanda Daily Review who also was a former sports copy editor at The Times-Tribune — about his reaction to minor-league crowds, which typically don’t bear some of the negative attitudes toward players fans in bigger cities tend to harbor.
In a rambling response that wound up airing on ESPN and being reported on in national newspaper like USA Today and throughout New York City television networks and publications, Clemens sent a message.
The question: “For some of the negative things you’re heard nationally, how nice is it to get to some of these places and getting the reaction you’ve been getting in Tampa and Trenton and then here today?”
Indeed, that pounding of the fist on the table put a period on Clemens’ minor-league days. He returned to the Yankees on June 9 against Pittsburgh, allowing three runs in six innings while fanning seven on the way to a 9-3 win. He’d lose his next three decisions, but the Yankees did turn things around with the help of his leadership. They wound up winning 97 games and earning the American League Wild Card.
Clemens finished with a 6-6 record and pitched…OK. He battled hamstring issues down the stretch and didn’t make a regular season appearance allowing one run in six innings against the Red Sox on Sept. 16 in what would wind up being his last-ever regular-season start. He returned to make a start against Cleveland in Game 3 of the American League Division Series on Oct. 7, While the Yankees won, 8-4, Clemens allowed three runs and got pulled after 2 1/3 innings due to hamstring issues. The Yankees would go on to lose the series, and Clemens went back into retirement after the season.
That night at PNC Field, fans felt they were watching a sure-fire Hall of Famer. But, Clemens hasn’t quite made it to Cooperstown. Despite an impeccable record and historic statistical resume, Clemens has failed on seven consecutive ballots from the Baseball Writers Association of America to garner entrance into the hallowed Hall. Having been named in the Mitchell Report as a suspected user of performance enhancing drugs has made Clemens one of the players punished most by speculation in regard to the steroids era.
In the franchise’s 30 years, there remains no players who have worn the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre uniform who have gained entry into Cooperstown. (Though, that certainly will change in 2020. More on that later in the countdown.)
On June 23, 2017, Clemens returned to PNC Field as part of the Yankees Legends Series, helping the RailRiders to unveil a giant bobblehead that stands now in the stadium to commemorate that night 10 years earlier when he captured the region’s attention.
“It’s unbelievable, the improvements they’ve done to this stadium,” Clemens looked around, recalling that night. “That’s the first thing I noticed when I came in. … It was a lot of fun. It was a lot of work to get back. I just wanted to get through that start unhurt and ready to go.”
Rehab appearances are often the highlights of the Triple-A season for fans, and that has been true for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre since the team’s debut in 1989, when pitchers Marvin Freeman and Steve Ontiveros joined catcher Tom Nieto as the first Phillies to join the Red Barons on the rehab trail.
Phillies legends like Terry Mulholland (1990), Darren Daulton (1991), Lenny Dykstra (1994), John Kruk (1994), Curt Schilling (1994, 1996 and 2000), Randy Wolf (2001) and Dave Hollins (2002) were among the players who drew big crowds to Lackawanna County Stadium during the Red Barons years. Once the Yankees came to town, so did Jason Giambi (2007), Chien-Ming Wang (2009), Curtis Granderson (2010), Brett Gardner (2012), Andy Pettitte (2012), Masahiro Tanaka (2015) and Alex Rodriguez (2011 and 2013), just to name a few.
But to that point, Clemens’ game rated as the biggest of them all.
“This is a special event,” said Allan Burke, a Dunmore fan who watched Clemens’ PNC Field outing from the theater parking lot. “I guess the only thing that could match it is if (Yankees shortstop Derek) Jeter came here.”
Give it time.