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December 16 2000 : Think Back To March 30

This is the first of a series of “think backs” I plan to do, to assuage the withdrawal pangs of the offseason for myself and the many fanatics out there. I share your pain.

March 30th, 2000 found the Yankees at Enron Field in Houston, set to play the inaugural exhibition game at the new retractable-roof dome against the Astros. When the Astrodome first opened in 1965, the Astros had also faced the Yankees for an exhibition game to open their new stadium. That year the club finished 9th in the league with a .401 winning percentage, going 65-97, but back in the 60’s the ‘stros were perennially in the basement of the league.

In 2000, Astros were looking forward to a great season in their new home. Three years in a row they had walked away with the NL Central division championship, and in September 99 had racked up a thirteen-win streak. But though the loss of Mike Hampton and Carl Everett worried some fans, no one predicted that they would look anything like that team of ’65.

The Yankees were coming off a World Series win in ’99, but had their typically sputtery Spring Training, in which they won so few games they aren’t even worth mentioning. Torre was still tinkering with his lineup, juggling Roberto Kelly, Shane Spencer, and Ricky Ledee in the outfield, and depending on Jim Leyritz to be the team’s backup catcher. Ledee was coming off a great spring training in which he lead the team in home runs.

On the hill for the Yankees stood The Rocket, Roger Clemens, a Texas native who had reportedly bought two hundred tickets to the game for family and friends. Still fresh in many Yankee fans’ minds was his dominating performance in the World Series clincher against the Braves mere months before, the game that for many people, Clemens included, made him into a Yankee.

And starting for Houston, former Yankee Dwight “Doc” Gooden, one of the few pitchers to rival Clemens at one point in his career for the title of toughest strikeout artist.

Chuck Knoblauch led off the game with a walk, but Gooden cruised through five innings, striking out four and allowing only two hits.

Clemens didn’t have it quite as easy, though in his five innings he put up 5 K’s. Enron being a National League park, Clemens came up to bat in the third, causing speculation and nail-biting among Yankee-watchers that Clemens could potentially pull his hamstring if he had to run the bases. Having spent his entire career in the American League, Clemens was noticeably uncomfortable at the plate, but that didn’t stop him from swinging away, and getting a single in front of all his friends and family. All the excitement of being on base disrupted Clemens, though, and in the bottom of the inning the Astros touched him for a walk, a single, and a double to score two, though Clemens did strike out the side.

It being an exhibition game, one might have expected the starters to only go five innings, but Gooden went back out to pitch the sixth. Unfortunately for him, he was out of gas. The first batter he faced, Ricky Ledee pinch hitting for Clemens, promptly hit the first home run to leave Enron Field. Mickey Mantle had done the same in the Astrodome twenty five years before. Knoblauch and Jeter then singled, and with the two of them on and no one out, Paul O’Neill became the second man to hit a home run at Enron Field. When Bernie Williams then drew a walk, Gooden’s night was done. Having not recorded a single out in the inning, Gooden would earn five runs when relief pitcher Jose Cabrera allowed an RBI single to Shane Spencer, scoring Bernie. At the end of 5 and a half, it was 5-2 Yanks.

Todd Erdos got the ball for the Yankees in the sixth, and recorded three quick outs. The Astros countered with Yorqui Perez in the seventh, and though he walked two, he also struck out two and got a comebacker to the mound. Texan Jason Grimsley came on for the Yankees in the seventh and got three ground ball outs in a row. It was looking like maybe the Yankees were going to put another one in the W column that exhibition season.

But Grimsley didn’t have the same stuff in the eighth. He walked the leadoff batter, Roger Cedeno, and Jeff Bagwell doubled him in. Ken Caminiti grounded out, but Moises Alou got his first hit of the night, singling in Bagwell. Darryl Ward then became the first Astro to hit a home run in Enron Field, making the score 6-5 Astros. Grimsley got out of the inning without further damage, but in the top of the ninth, Houston’s Wagner faced Felix Jose, who struck out, Wilson Delgado,who flied to center, and Derek Jeter, who struck out to end the game.

Which just goes to show how poorly one exhibition game can augur the future. The losers went on to win the World Series, and the winners went on to compile a miserable season 72-90 season, finishing fourth in the NL Central. Ricky Ledee, if he is to follow in Mantle’s footsteps, will not be doing it in pinstripes, as he was traded mid-season to Cleveland (and then moved on to Texes from there). Doc Gooden, on the other hand, ended up in New York by way of Tampa Bay and a few weeks unemployed.

And Roger Clemens did not get to bat in the World Series, although he did handle one, at one point…

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