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Friday, June 14, 2002
Updated: June 19, 2:06 PM ET
The Headhunter vs. The Armadillo

By Jim Caple
Page 2 columnist

Last week, Roger Clemens said that when he finally faced Barry Bonds, he just might "introduce myself" by hitting him on his elbow guard. And sure enough, when he pitched against Bonds last weekend, Clemens hit him right on the elbow guard.

Roger Clemens
Roger Clemens: Clearly a man who needs no introduction.
While there are more painful introductions -- "Hello, my name is Bob and I was wondering whether I might step inside for a few minutes to discuss whole life protection for your family" -- a firm handshake or a name tag might have been more appropriate. With manners like that, we can just be glad Clemens doesn't write an advice column on etiquette.

Anyway, baseball spent part of this week considering whether to suspend the best pitcher of our era for intentionally hitting the best hitter of our era. Baseball eventually decided no punishment was necessary, which was the correct choice. Clemens, after all, had maintained all along that he was just as innocent as when he let those pieces of Mike Piazza's splintered bat accidentally (wink, wink) slip out of his hands.

The Mets, however, suggested Clemens purposely hit Bonds in hopes that the league would suspend him, thus providing him a convenient excuse for not pitching in Shea Stadium (again) this weekend. That's the sort of self-involved thinking that makes New Yorkers so endearing, the way they always assume that everyone else's actions must relate to them somehow. It's also ludicrous, because it would require a certain degree of cognitive thinking by The Rocket, who is usually hard-pressed to put together any thought more abstract than, "Fire bad.''

Or perhaps they were just trying to get under his skin so he'll be sure to pitch this weekend. Not that Clemens needs much challenging. He is a headhunter who uses intimidation as much as his fastball. Not even the Durham Bulls mascot is safe when Rocket takes the mound looking like Billy Bob Thornton in "Sling Blade" and muttering, "I reckon I could use some more of that chewing tobacky, mm-hmm.''

The real issue isn't Clemens, though. The issues are Bonds and body armor.

Barry Bonds
Barry Bonds wouldn't be so brave with a "no bruise, no base" rule in baseball.
In recent years, Bonds and players such as Mo Vaughn have started wearing so much padding for their at-bats that they look like the Michelin Man. They crowd over the plate, let pitches ricochet off their armor without so much as flinching and calmly stroll to first base. And then they have the gall to complain about getting hit.

Baseball supposedly decreed that excessive armor would be banned this season, but for some reason, Bonds still steps into the box with what looks like an armadillo strapped to his right arm, daring anyone to give him a free base by nicking him on the armor. He allegedly has a medical dispensation for the padding, but I don't see why. If his arm is healthy enough to hit 73 home runs, it's healthy enough to go up there unprotected. And if it isn't, tough. That's what the disabled list is for.

Body armor is an unfair advantage for hitters, who certainly don't need any more help. It allows increasingly large batters to crowd the plate and easily reach what were once effective pitches on the corner with no fear that they'll get hit by a pitch. That's because they know that if they are hit, they won't feel it under all the padding.

Seattle's terrific pitching coach, Bryan Price, has a solution for that. Don't award a batter first base when he gets hit by a pitch unless it really hurts him.

"It should have to break the skin,'' Price joked. "If it bleeds, you get first base. And if it really, really hurts, you get second base. But you have to get a note from your mother first.''

Actually, I have a simpler solution for Bonds. If he doesn't want to get hit by Clemens or anyone else, next time he should get out of the way.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at cuffscaple@hotmail.com.