Roger Clemens hadn’t decided whether to pitch at the University of Texas or sign with the New York Mets when he attended a 1981 workout at the Houston Astrodome.
“I turned around and on the railing staring at me was Joe Torre and Bob Gibson,” Clemens said. “I started to sweat pretty hard.”
Clemens opted against signing with the Mets, who had drafted him out of junior college, despite the attention from Torre, a former MVP infielder and the Mets’ manager, and Gibson, a legendary ex-Cardinals pitcher then working as Torre’s pitching coach.
Clemens learned to embrace the scrutiny and eventually advanced to a major-league career in which he won 354 games, ninth on the career list. At 54, he’s headlining the roster for the Kansas Stars, who debut in the National Baseball Congress World Series against the Xpress from Sterling, Colo., at 9:30 p.m. Saturday at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium.
The Stars’ opponents will, like Clemens in ’81, receive more attention than ever from some of baseball’s past stars. The Stars’ 25 former major-league players had to wait until they reached the big leagues to play against All-Stars and legends, and would have welcomed the opportunity to do so before then.
“Absolutely. When I was in junior college, and even when I was at Auburn, if you had the chance to play some guys like that,” said Tim Hudson, a pitcher who won 222 games before retiring after last season. “It’s the same thing as when you’re in big-league camp in spring training and you have to go down to the minor-league side to get some innings in.
“Those kids down there in the minors, they are fighting to get to the bat rack to hit off of you. They want to hit off you. They want to say they got a base hit off of Tim Hudson or Roy Oswalt or Roger Clemens. To say they have that notch on their belt. Everybody in that (NBC) tournament is going to be the same way.”
Some of the Xpress’ players have said they welcome the opportunity to someday say, maybe, that they got a hit against Brad Penny or Josh Beckett, two World Series winners scheduled to pitch Saturday.
Former Wichita State infielder Koyie Hill, who became a professional catcher and played 11 major-league seasons, said he had similar experiences even after he reached the big leagues.
“Any competition that you feel like pushes you above your level or maybe at a level you haven’t achieved yet, it’s always great,” Hill said. “I always loved when I had teammates that were better than me, and they pushed me, and I had some experience to draw off of. It’ll help you, because you’ll see some of that stuff that you can’t get any other place. It’s experience that you can’t manufacture.”
The experience is what may push the Stars past teams with youth the Stars can no longer claim. The Stars pitchers may have diminished velocity or less sharpness on off-speed pitches, but they built long careers out of intuitively knowing how to get hitters out.
The hitters may not have the bat speed – or the speed in general – that highlighted their prime years. But they can probably still hit a mistake pitch or feast on fastballs from college pitchers.
“From a talent standpoint, I don’t think there’s going to be a team out there that’s going to be able to compare,” said the 41-year-old Hudson. “There might be 15 or 20 years of younger talent than we have. But at the same time, the experience hopefully can carry us through some of the gray hairs we’re going to be growing out there.”
Stars players have been self-deprecating throughout the weeks before the tournament. Their prior stardom, they feel, has little bearing on future performance because they have done little to maintain skills since retirement.
The names — Clemens, Beckett, Oswalt, J.D. Drew, Hudson, Penny, Adam LaRoche, Dan Uggla, etc. — would suggest domination over the next week. The minds of those players aren’t so sure.
“They have high expectations for us? A bunch of has-beens?” Beckett said. “We’re literally there just to have a good time and hopefully win some baseball games.”