TRENTON, N.J. -- When Roger Clemens joins the New Yankees' rotation, you can bet he'll never take the mound to begin his warmup throws and stop in his tracks as a Golden Retriever mascot with a bat in its mouth crosses his path in the opposite direction.
There's a natural charm in the minor leagues -- a sense of baseball in its purest form -- that's magnified when a visiting dignitary comes to town. The Trenton Thunder loaded up on extra hot dogs and Dippin' Dots at the concession stands Wednesday night, and a certain "Waiting for Guffman'' brand of anticipation filled the air as Clemens prepared to take the mound against the Portland Sea Dogs.
"I mean, it's Roger Clemens,'' Trenton catcher P.J. Pilittere said before the game. "The guy is a certain Hall of Famer, and he's one of the best pitchers, if not the best, in the history of the game. It's a pretty big deal.''
By the end of the night, when a Waterfront Park record crowd of 9,134 had hit the streets, the early anticipation had given way to mixed signals and uncertainty. Clemens, working his way toward a spot in the New York rotation, had just thrown 102 pitches in 5 1/3 innings and skated in and out of trouble all night in a 4-3, 10-inning victory over Portland.
After his postgame workout routine, Clemens entered a small interview room, clean-shaven beneath an orange Texas Longhorns cap, and pronounced himself pleased with the results. His legs are strong, he said. His wind is fine, and he feels rejuvenated after backing off his killer workout regimen for a few days to give his body a rest.
So what's the deal? Will Clemens begin earning his $18 million salary Monday or Tuesday in Toronto, or will he make another minor league start with Triple-A Scranton and postpone his return until the following trip around the rotation in Boston?
"That's something that the watchful eyes who were here will help decide,'' Clemens said. "All I can do is tell them how I felt and how I feel tomorrow, and we'll go from there. I'll be as honest as I can.''
Gene Michael, Yankees' vice president and special adviser, was in Trenton for a firsthand view of Clemens. If he saw the same Clemens that two scouts from different organizations were watching, the Rocket might be in for another tune-up start before he graduates to the varsity.
Clemens' fastball routinely hit 88-91 mph on the gun, and he threw more sliders and curveballs than usual. Late in the game he began relying more on his splitter, throwing eight splits over the final two innings.
Clemens' box score line was nothing special: He struck out five Sea Dogs and walked four, hit Portland catcher John Otness in the shoulder with a fastball, threw a wild pitch and allowed four extra-base hits.
"I don't think he's ready,'' one scout said. "His velocity is OK, but for me he needs to make one more start in the minors to get better command.''
Said the other scout, "Maybe he'd be OK against a team that just goes up there swinging, but I don't think Toronto is that team.''
While Yankees fans await Clemens' return with a sense of breathless anticipation, the Rocket's golden veneer has taken a few hits of late. First Yankees reliever Kyle Farnsworth went on a Chicago radio station and said the special arrangement that allows Clemens to spend time away from the team to be with his family could lead to friction in the clubhouse.
For those who consider Farnsworth's opinions insignificant because he has a 98 mph fastball and a 5.12 ERA, Hall of Famer Frank Robinson essentially agrees.
"I think it's wrong because if you sign a contract to play baseball and you are given a clause like that, I just don't think it's fair to your teammates,'' Robinson told ESPN. "Why should one person on your ballclub get special treatment?''
I don't think he's ready. His velocity is OK, but for me he needs to make one more start in the minors to get better command.
-- A scout on Roger Clemens
For what it's worth, Clemens' Trenton teammates couldn't care less that he was popping in for a day. Pilittere, who grew up in Southern California as a Dodgers fan, relinquished his No. 22 jersey for Clemens and wore No. 46 instead. He didn't even try to negotiate a free steak dinner out of it.
"Everybody jokes about the big league guys who switch numbers getting Rolexes,'' Pilittere said. "This was just something we could take care of and make it a little easier for him. I'm sure his clock is moving real fast right now.''
At 9˝ games behind Boston, the Yankees would prefer that Clemens rejoin the big club as quickly as possible. But if his second minor league start was any indication, he still has some rust to kick off.
Clemens labored through a 30-pitch first inning (16 balls, 14 strikes) and walked the bases loaded before retiring center fielder Bryan Pritz on a long fly ball to left field.
Clemens allowed an Iggy Suarez triple in the second inning, a Jed Lowrie double in the third, a Scott Youngbauer double in the fourth and another Lowrie double in the fifth, but all that traffic on the basepaths produced a mere one run.
When the Rocket waved to the crowd and tugged his cap in acknowledgement on his way to the dugout, the fans figured he was done after five innings. They figured wrong. The Rocket returned for one more inning only to get knocked around in the sixth.
Clemens' 5.06 Eastern League ERA pales, of course, next to the future considerations. When will the tune-ups cease and the real games begin for him?
"I'll keep it in house,'' Clemens said.
It won't remain a secret for long. He is, after all, Roger Clemens.