Theater of the awkward
Mike Piazza and Roger Clemens makes a great subplot, but there won't be any All-Star fireworks in Houston.
NEW YORK -- There's no better way to induce a thousand-yard stare from Mike Piazza than to ask The Question about That Pitcher. Mention his past history with Roger Clemens, and Piazza's eyes glaze, his voice becomes as flat and slow as the month of August while he retreats to the safety of The Usual Answer:
It's over, he says.
That's the company line, even as the entire baseball industry remains obsessed with these star-crossed All-Stars. Will Clemens and Piazza peacefully co-exist Tuesday night, or will they stick to the battles lines drawn in a cold war which has lasted four years?
In an otherwise slick and perfectly packaged media event, Clemens-Piazza is reality TV -- raw and unpredictable. Even Piazza's teammates admit they're fascinated at how the fates have these brought these two enemies together again. Like it or not, and neither one does, Clemens and Piazza has no choice but to forge an in-game truce.
But that's not to say the lingering questions from 2000 will ever be answered. No one knows if Clemens intentionally threw at Piazza's head in that summer, resulting in a concussion and forcing him to miss that year's All-Star Game. And who's to say whether that broken bat-barrel Clemens hurled at Piazza in the 2000 World Series was meant to injure him. Each man blames the other for escalating the feud, and time hasn't softened their differences.
But for one night, forced into each other's lives for at least three innings, Clemens and Piazza will communicate in a barest possible baseball-shorthand. It won't be warm, but neither man expects problems.
"I'm not going to lie to you and say it's not going to be awkward," Piazza told Newsday recently. "It's going to be one for fastball, two for [slider], wiggle for split, and let's go get 'em. Personally, I think it's his moment, and I don't want to detract from that."
Clemens agreed, saying that anyone hoping for a breakthrough moment during the All-Star Game festivities -- an argument, or conversely, a handshake of peace -- will be disappointed. After the National League's squad was officially announced, Clemens said the inevitable reunion with Piazza is, "not that big a deal. It's definitely not larger than the game, unless you all make it that. I'm not too concerned about that. I'm professional about my work and so is Mike."
Beneath this stoicism are the irrefutable events of July 8, 2000, when Clemens' knockdown pitch of Piazza deflected off the catcher's forearm and struck him in the head. While no Yankees believed the Rocket meant to injure Piazza, few were surprised by the incident. Prior to the game, teammates said, Clemens had vowed to move Piazza off the plate, since he'd gone into the game with seven hits in 12 at-bats against the Rocket, including three homers and nine RBI. If necessary, Clemens promised, he would knock Piazza off his feet.
What happened after the catcher was struck is still open to dispute, however. Piazza's allies, including then-manager Bobby Valentine, say Clemens could have prevented any further hostility had he approached the fallen catcher at home plate, if not to apologize then at least to check on his condition.
Clemens, however, remained in the mound, following baseball's protocol. Nevertheless, he called the Mets' trainer's room after the game, and said it was Piazza who ratcheted up the animosity by refusing to come to the phone.
The next day the Mets were still in an angry mood, kicking out Yankee players who were using Shea Stadium's weight room. The front office sought to portray Clemens as the villain by giving maximum exposure for Piazza's side of the story, hustling him into an interview room to meet the press.
That decision only drove a deeper wedge between Clemens and Piazza. In an interview with the New York Times last year, the pitcher bitterly recalled, "so many guys have been hit in baseball, and we only know of one that held a press conference. So I think that made everybody upset about it, including myself."
It didn't help matters when Piazza subsequently told reporters, "I try to think of Roger Clemens as a great pitcher, but I really can't say I have respect for him now."
Hours later, as the final game of that summer's Subway Series was about to begin, Valentine weighed whether Mike Hampton should to throw at Bernie Williams or Derek Jeter in retaliation. The Mets' calculation was as cold as it was obvious: a star for a star.
The debate lasted in the Mets' dugout until the final seconds before Hampton took the mound. Valentine ultimately chose not return fire, but the Clemens-Piazza dispute never entirely evaporated, even after the two faced each other without incident in 2002 at Shea Stadium.
Then again, the fact that a Clemens-Piazza collision has already occurred might explain why the two men are calmer in 2004. Piazza himself is so worn out by questions about Clemens, it appears he's made peace with the events of the past.
He and the Rocket will never be friends. It's likely they'll never speak to each other again after the third inning on Tuesday. But the war from 60 feet, six inches appears to be over.
"I'm a professional, and I'm going to do the best job I can if this happens," Piazza said. "I don't think you have to be on the best of terms. I wasn't always on the best of terms with all my teammates."
Bob Klapisch of The Record (Bergen County, N.J.) covers baseball for ESPN.com.
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