The Rocket has still got it

Originally Published: March 10, 2006
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- So you play on a team with a bunch of Lexus-driving, Italian-suit wearing millionaires, and you've just pounded a bunch of high schoolers and washed-out minor leaguers by a score of 17-0 before a sellout crowd and a national TV audience.

What's next: a gold medal in the lint-flicking Olympics?

Under typical circumstances, the Team USA players would have regarded their blowout win over South Africa on Friday with more sheepishness than satisfaction. But consider the alternative: After losing to Canada earlier in the week, the Americans spent a day on the verge of being eliminated from the World Baseball Classic just as it was beginning.

Team USA
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesProud to represent: Team USA has new life in the World Baseball Classic.
It took a Mexico victory over Canada followed by a win over South Africa for the Americans to advance to the second round of the tournament. They've bonded through a shared sense of anxiety, and now they can exhale en masse.

"I'm telling you, it was horrible waiting around," said Cubs first baseman Derrek Lee. "I didn't want to go home. I told my agent, 'If we lose, I'm moving out of the country.' "

As the Americans prepare to face Japan in the opener of Round 2 on Sunday in Anaheim, certain truths are self-evident. For starters, the USA players here really care about representing their country well and putting on a good show. But while the Dominicans, Venezuelans and other WBC competitors are looking sharp in the aftermath of winter ball, many of the American players are in typical spring training mode.

Arm strength is evolving. Bat speed is a work in progress. And the body just isn't ready to do what the mind and the instincts tell it to do.

"These guys are nowhere close to where they're going to be by midseason," South Africa pitching coach Lee Smith said of the Americans. "I watched [Alex Rodriguez] run, and he looked like me running the bases. I thought, 'Damn, he's hurting, man, but he's going out there.' That showed me something."

Friday's game promised to be the mother of all mismatches. The South African squad, made up almost entirely of amateurs, represents everything that's heartwarming and wholesome about baseball on the international stage. Baseball doesn't compare with cricket or soccer in Cape Town and Johannesburg, and the South Africans have grown accustomed to the role of scrappy underdogs. Manager Rick Magnante prepped his club for the big tilt with Team USA by showing the inspirational hockey movie "Miracle" in the clubhouse.

"You can be in awe," Magnante said, "and to a degree our guys probably were. They haven't seen as talented a team as this in their lives, and they probably never will again."

The running joke was that the South Africans had to be prepped on proper baseball etiquette before facing Team USA. They were warned about dawdling as they stepped in the batter's box against USA starter Roger Clemens, and told to refrain from autograph hunting at the park.

Every Clemens appearance is thoroughly scrutinized these days, given the persistent doubts about his post-WBC agenda. Nobody knows for sure if the Rocket will pitch in the majors in 2006, and if so, where he'll sign and when he'll decide. Just to add to the suspense, Clemens paid a visit to the Texas Rangers camp in Surprise, Ariz., on Thursday.

The South Africa game did prove one thing: The Rocket is still adept at pitching with a lead.

South Africa's outfielders play so deep, they could have walked to Mesa. And the American lineup spent the better part of two hours either dumping balls in front of them or hitting it where no one could reach it.

In the first inning, Lee hit a wind-driven homer and Team USA took a 4-0 lead. In the second inning, Ken Griffey Jr. hit a monster homer and the Americans extended their advantage to 10-0. Griffey finished with seven RBI on the day.

Fast-forward through the gory details, and Team USA did enough hacking off four South Africa pitchers to force the five-inning, 15-run mercy rule to go into effect.

Clemens pitched with admirable precision against the inexperienced South Africa lineup. He spotted his fastball, mixed in some crisp splitters, and exhibited superb control. He struck out six batters, didn't walk a man and churned through 4 1/3 innings in a mere 58 pitches.

South Africa's only hit was a single up the middle by Nick Dempsey, a 6-6, 260-pound first baseman who advanced to high Class A ball with the Indians organization before injuries sent him home to Johannesburg. He's now working toward an economics degree and coaching baseball in an attempt to help promote the game in his homeland.

Before Friday's game, Dempsey's most memorable hit was a homer against Korea in the Olympics. The shame of it is, no one bothered to retrieve the baseball from his single against Clemens.

"I was a bit shy to ask for it," Dempsey said. "And I just wanted to make sure I touched first base."

The best and most insightful Clemens testimonials these days come from former teammates who remember him as a 25-year-old pup with the Red Sox. Smith, baseball's career saves leader, played with Clemens in Boston in the late 1980s, and he still regards Clemens and Cal Ripken Jr. as the hardest-working teammates he ever had.

It's the same old thing with Rocket. Hitting the corners. Punching guys out. Being hard on himself when he misses by a little bit. You'll see the guy make a perfect pitch and he's like, 'Man, I want to make a better pitch.' He's never satisfied.
South African pitching coach Lee Smith
Watching from the South Africa dugout, Smith took note how Clemens still slaps his glove in agitation on the mound when things don't work out according to the master plan.

"It's the same old thing with Rocket," Smith said. "Hitting the corners. Punching guys out. Being hard on himself when he misses by a little bit. You'll see the guy make a perfect pitch and he's like, 'Man, I want to make a better pitch.' He's never satisfied."

Former Red Sox starter Bruce Hurst, now pitching coach for the Chinese National team, was in the stands at Scottsdale Stadium and marveled at how Clemens maintains his competitive drive at age 43.

"You looked at Roger then and you knew he was special," Hurst said. "But it's hard to imagine a [341-game winner] with more than 4,500 strikeouts. You're probably looking at one of the two or three greatest pitchers in the history of the game."

When Clemens walked off the mound after his 4 1/3 innings, the crowd of 11,975 stood and cheered, and the Rocket removed his cap and waved it in acknowledgement.

In light of the competition, the performance doesn't exactly rank at the top of the Clemens career highlight reel. The good news is, the Rocket has some baseball in front of him. He's not the only one who's grateful for that.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN Insider. His book "License To Deal" has been published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer