Wows the Gulf Troops (and Vice Versa)
By ERIC SCHMITT
© 2002 The New York Times Company
BOARD U.S.S. CONSTELLATION, in the Persian Gulf, Dec. 22 — Roger Clemens has pitched in front of 57,000 howling fans at Yankee Stadium. He has sat in the Oval Office. He has won six Cy Young awards.
But Clemens, a 40-year-old free-agent pitcher who spent the past four years with the Yankees, said that nothing prepared him for the primal roar that greeted him as he walked into the cavernous hangar bay of this aircraft carrier today, packed with 4,000 sailors and marines on a mission that may soon send them to war against Iraq.
could feel the energy. These guys are ready to jump in with both feet.
Now that it's kind of gone back to everyday life at home, people need
to realize it's intense over here."
Roger Clemens autographing the hat of an unidentified American during a visit to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan on Saturday.
Alan Hendricks, one of Clemens's agents, is a high school classmate of Myers's, and after Hendricks arranged to have Clemens and some of his Yankees teammates visit the Pentagon after the Sept. 11 attacks, the idea of joining Myers on a tour of troops overseas began to percolate.
Clemens's older brother, Richard, served in Vietnam, but Clemens said he had had no real exposure to the military before the trip and had traveled abroad to only Japan and Canada to play baseball.
For a future Hall of Famer who has dominated hitters for nearly 20 years with a searing fastball and intimidating intensity, Clemens said that meeting service members not much older than his oldest son in remote desert camps or on this floating behemoth was both inspiring and humbling.
"Each stop I was trying to get the feeling and the mind-set of a lot of the soldiers," he said. "I knew they were young. But I was thrown back by how young. Just them saying thank you for coming was kind of humbling.
"I would always anticipate who I was going to see, how many guys I was going to run into, and never know what they say to you, and then hope you have the right answer. Because these are kids that might not come home."
Clemens struck that thoughtful, appreciative tone repeatedly in remarks to forces throughout the region, playing the serious straight man to Carey's foul-mouthed cut-up. "I play a team sport, but you all are the ultimate team," Clemens told troops, who periodically punctuated his remarks with calls of "Stay in New York, Rocket!" a reminder of his unsettled contract negotiations.
Wearing an "FDNY" cap for the New York Fire Department, Clemens spoke movingly of being awakened at his apartment in Manhattan on Sept. 11; he was scheduled to start that night's game when friends called to alert him to the disaster. He raced to his rooftop and watched the World Trade Center towers fall.
He talked about being at Comiskey Park in Chicago when the Yankees resumed play a week later and listening to the national anthem that night and feeling a deeper meaning. He talked about feeling shock to look over to his "rock," his "field general" — Manager Joe Torre — only to see him fighting to compose himself during the singing of the anthem.
Clemens then spoke about starting the first game at Yankee Stadium after Sept. 11. When he barged out of the clubhouse to do a pregame workout, he was engulfed by about 200 New York City police officers and firefighters jammed in the tunnel. "I went to shake their hands, and they pulled me into big hugs," he said.
After his remarks here, Clemens posed for pictures, autographed hats and desert camouflage uniforms, and passed out 4,000 pictures that he had signed on the flight over. He chatted with troops who went to high schools near his in Houston, who attended his alma mater, the University of Texas, or whose families are Yankees season-ticket holders.
"I was just trying to tell them from the heart what it was like in the city and people," he said. "I told them be safe. They'd say to me, `Be safe and stay low.' I caught myself telling guys that later."
One morning in Qatar, Clemens said, he got up at 4:30 for his morning workout. "I was too pumped up to sleep," he said. A few minutes later, eight soldiers jogged by, and he invited them to join him for the rest of his workout.
Every now and then, someone has tossed Clemens a glove and asked him to play catch. At a logistics base in Qatar the other day, Clemens pawed at the imaginary pitcher's rubber in a gravel parking area, went into his windup and fired off fastballs to Senior Airman DeWayne Hogue, 35, a radioman from Chambersburg, Pa.
As a crowd gathered, snapping pictures, Hogue goaded Clemens to throw a little harder. Happy to oblige, Clemens cranked it up to about 85 miles an hour before his newfound catcher begged off. "That was awesome," Hogue said later, clutching an autographed picture and a sore hand.
Clemens's presence lifted morale wherever he went. "We're all out here in the middle of nowhere, and having an American icon like him come see us makes us feel like we're not forgotten," Sgt. First Class Shawn Adams, 37, of Fort Gordon, Ga., said after standing in a long line at Camp Doha, Kuwait, for Clemens's autograph.
For the Clemens family back in Houston, there was an unexpected benefit from the trip. "I probably got close to 40 e-mails to my foundation," Clemens said, referring to RogerClemensOnline.com. "My wife at home was able to keep track where I was when I couldn't call her."
The intensity of the troop visits obscured, at least for the moment, Clemens's future with the Yankees. He said repeatedly during the trip that he wanted to play one more season and end his career in pinstripes.
"I know what's important to me," he said in the interview. "I'm comfortable in the city."
For the moment, and probably through the holidays, Clemens said his focus would remain on his trip. "I've done a lot of things and met a lot of great people," he said. "By far, this is the most powerful thing I've gotten to do in my lifetime. And it makes me feel safe at home to know there are guys up there still hunting the bad guys who caused all this."