Clemens turns average night into great theater

TAMPA -- Whatever you think of Roger Clemens -- selfish, arrogant, spoiled or spectacular -- the one thing even the most ardent Clemens haters must admit is that nobody in baseball puts on a show quite like him.

Only Clemens could bring the drama, national TV cameras and owner George Steinbrenner to his latest staged comeback, which began Friday night with a minor-league start for Class A Tampa.

Only Clemens could turn a 4-year-old into a household name. Nicholas Ketterer accompanied Clemens to the mound during introductions. After the national anthem, Clemens let Ketterer put rosin on his pitching hand and hugged the little guy in what was an absolutely perfect photo op.

Bravo, Roger, bravo.

Only Clemens could turn a typical Tampa evening into a nationally-televised sporting event. He wasn't that good, and was about where you would expect him to be in the early stages of his comeback with the Yankees. But he deserves an A-plus for the theater that was created.

Only this 44-year-old could pitch four innings, throw 58 pitches, give up a home run to a ninth-round pick, strike out a couple of guys who probably still haven't earned their driver's license, and make it akin to climbing Mount Everest with Crocs on.

"Hopefully, the next four or five days I'll be able to step back and grasp on everything," Clemens said. "I pushed my body to the point, the last three weeks, where hopefully I'll start trying to retain some energy and get a little better result when I get off the mound as far as feel."

Not that it was that hard for Clemens to hog the spotlight -- locally or nationally. Given a choice between Clemens and Brutus "The Barber" Beefcake -- it was "Legends of Wrestling" night at the Devil Rays-Marlins game some 20 miles away at Tropicana Field -- a record crowd followed Clemens, who drew 10,257 fans. The Marlins-Devil Rays barely out-did him, drawing 13,003.

Only Clemens could give ascending minor leaguer Erik Lis his defining career moment at age 23 -- which came when Lis rocketed (pun intended) a Clemens fastball over the right-field fence in the first inning.

"After I hit it, I was in complete shock," Lis gushed. "As soon as I hit home plate, I was just like, 'Wows.' I could only look at the dugout. I didn't even look at him. That was the worse thing I could have done."

Love or hate him, only Clemens does this to people, to organizations and aspiring major leaguers.

Yankees reliever Kyle Farnsworth was the latest major leaguer to criticize Clemens' contract, which pays him a pro-rated $18.5 million for this year and allows him to leave the team when he isn't pitching.

"I'm not even going to comment about it," Clemens said. "We've got far more serious issues to worry about that."

But the market, the Red Sox's growing lead over the Yankees, and our thirst for entertainment has created this opportunity for Clemens.

You can argue about whether it is or isn't appropriate for Clemens to take advantage of those factors, but Friday night only shows that the price for Clemens is appropriate. Whether New York catches Boston or not.

Even if Clemens stinks and the Yankees become even bigger sellouts than they already are, baseball isn't baseball unless the Yankees are the center of attention. And having Clemens ensures they'll be there.

Clemens presents a real dilemma to sports fans, forcing us to decide whether the entertainment or the ideals are most important. It's never a good thing when a baseball player is paid $18 million for part-time work and is afforded special treatment that no other professional athlete could get. He's a mercenary, the Larry Brown of Major League Baseball, and he likely won't save the Yankees.

But damn if it's not worth watching anyway.

Page 2 columnist Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com.