One small step for Rocket; one giant HR for teenager
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Johnny Drennen was California coolin' it two hours before stepping in against the first legend ever to play for the Lexington Legends, Mr. Roger Clemens.
"It's just like facing any other pitcher," the 19-year-old from San Diego said, sounding just cocky enough to believe his silly cliché. "Look fastball, hit fastball."
I rolled my eyes listening to the kid. Two hours later, I was pulling my chin up off my laptop keyboard.
Look fastball, hit fastball, watch fastball shockingly leave Applebee's Park and clatter forcefully off the Pepsi Party Deck in left field. Listen to the "whoooooo!" ripple through a beyond-packed house of 9,222. Watch a guy who was drafted out of high school at this time last year circle the bases on an icon who picks his teeth with hot-shot hitters. Watch a guy who was born two months before Clemens won the first of his seven Cy Youngs play Rocket Buster on the night labeled "Rocket Relaunch" by the giddy Legends.
Thanks to Clemens' careful scripting of his comeback from semi-retirement, Lexington lucked into the biggest event in the Class A franchise's five-year history. Much the way Drennen lucked into a hanging split-fingered fastball that allowed No. 22 for the Lake County Captains to take No. 22 for the Cooperstown Immortals deep.
"I was thinking that he had a great number, so I'd hang him a split," Clemens joked after step one in his comeback attempt to amaze America once more. "I hung it to him, and he did what you're supposed to do with it. ... I'll ask him how he liked the room service."
Score the entire evening a lovely event for Americana. Score it a lovely event for baseball, which had one of its most compelling and enduring figures bring the nation's media flocking to a stylish bandbox park far off the beaten big-league path. And score Drennen's blast a first-inning solo home run and a first-ballot Hall of Fame memory for a kid toiling in low-A ball.
Drennen was a first-round pick, 33rd overall, so he's not exactly a Bad News Bear. But given the layers currently separating him from The Show, and the stature of the guy he jacked, this shot was as stunning as the one Buster Douglas dropped on Mike Tyson in Tokyo.
This was a high-schooler dunking on Shaq. A club pro beating Tiger in a one-hole playoff. A D-II DB picking off Peyton and taking it to the house.
Johnny Drennen, your name shall be linked forever to Roger Clemens and Manny Ramirez. Drennen, an Indians prospect selected 33rd overall in last June's draft, homered off Clemens in the first inning of the Rocket's start for the Class A Lexington Legends on Tuesday night. Ramirez is one of 12 players who homered in their first major-league plate appearance vs. Clemens (April 21, 1996).
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If the kid goes hitless for the rest of his life and winds up selling insurance someday, he'll always have this AB.
"It's a pretty sweet feeling," Drennen admitted, dropping his pregame nonchalance a notch. "It'll be with me all my life."
All it took was one fat pitch from a rusty pitcher to make Drennen the answer to a trivia question. And to prove that even with the hysterical attention showered upon Clemens in the first outing of his $12 million attempt to save the Houston Astros' season, this gorgeous night in central Kentucky was more about the youngsters than the grand old man.
It may or may not have been the start of something big for 43-year-old Clemens. He looks splendidly fit and sounded pleased with his outing, especially the postgame throwing he did in the Legends' indoor cage.
But three innings, 62 pitches, six strikeouts, three hits and the one startling home run wasn't enough to pass a referendum on Clemens' readiness to dominate major leaguers one more time. That's a couple of weeks and a couple of rungs up the organizational ladder away.
"One step down," Clemens said. "Two to go."
This first step, and this night, was for the wide-eyed Legends who got to be teammates with the pitching legend for a few unforgettable days. Clemens delivered the youngsters a pep talk when he arrived in Lexington: you're the game's future.
"You're going to fail," Clemens told them. "A lot of people will doubt you. You might get traded, might never make it to the big leagues with the team that signed you. But you're doing what a lot of people want to do."
The very sight of Clemens on a Class A mound for the national anthem, flanked by the hokey-charming trappings of minor-league ball -- big-headed mascots and a tiny Little Leaguer -- was the stuff of scrapbooks. But it might not have been the nicest sight of the week for the Legends.
They piled off a bus after a weekend road trip to Hagerstown, Md., at 3 Monday morning and walked into Christmas in June. While they were gone Rocket had remodeled their clubhouse, spending $7,000 on plasma televisions, new couches and other touches. He went shopping Sunday and had a crew get everything installed that night, before the Legends came dragging home.
"Everyone was cranky, yelling at each other after trying to sleep in the coffins on the bus," shortstop Tommy Manzella said. "To have someone so nice to do something like that is amazing.
"We're far from the big leagues, but in his mind we're the same guys as he is: dedicating our lives to baseball. He respects that."
The Legend Clemens likes most, of course, is his 19-year-old son, Koby, who played third base in a priceless family moment. Clemens' two other sons served as bat boys, but it was Koby who supplied a comical pep talk to pops before his final inning of work.
Roger figured Koby was going to give him a scouting report on the next Lake County hitter. Wrong. His oldest boy pointed out that dad had four strikeouts to that point and needed to bear down and deliver a classic minor-league freebie.
"He told me, 'One more punchout and everyone in the stadium gets wiper fluid,' " Roger said. " He's a funny guy, isn't he?"
The funny guy apparently knows which buttons to push. Clemens punched out not one but two Captains to close his night's work.
"Shoulda told you that in the first inning," Koby chirped to his dad coming off the field.
One of the Rocket's final two punchout victims? Johnny Drennen, who waved weakly at a fastball away for strike three.
But you know what? The anonymous kid from Class A will take 1-for-2 against the Rocket. Take it and tuck it away in his memory for the rest of his life.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.