Clemens gone, but Uehara remains

Clemens gone, but Uehara remains

SAN DIEGO -- Roger Clemens may have come and gone from the World Baseball Classic, but the guy he gave his glove to as a keepsake two years ago when the Major League Baseball All-Stars toured Japan remains.

Koji Uehara, one of Japan's most accomplished pitchers, is slated to start in a seminal semifinal game on Saturday night at PETCO Park against Korea, a rivalry which in the far east far exceeds New York Yankees-Boston Red Sox, particularly if one includes the kimchi, a pickled vegetable seasoned with garlic, red pepper, and ginger that is Korea's national dish.

When Clemens-san came off the field nearly two years ago in Osaka Dome after pitching what everyone thought at the time might be his final game as a professional, he gave Uehara his black fielding glove.

"I told him don't use it, put it in your trophy case," said Clemens, who happened to win his seventh Cy Young Award earlier that day as a member of the Houston Astros.

Uehara said on Friday after the Japanese practiced at PETCO Park that he heeded Clemens' advice.

"I have the glove and I'm keeping it safe at home," Uehara said.

Asked whether he thought the free-agent Clemens would pitch again this season, Uehara added:

"I don't believe he will retire. He keeps saying different things every day. I don't believe it."

On that 2004 eight-game trip that went from Tokyo to Fukuoka to Osaka to Sapporo to Nagoya and back to Tokyo, Clemens and Uehara forged a friendship. Neither spoke the other's language, but they were united by the common bond of baseball. Clemens ate dinner with Uehara one night and later took him through the paces of one of his famous off-day workouts.

That night in Osaka as he came out of the game, Clemens tipped his cap to the crowd of 46,000 and strode straight into the MLB dugout, where he autographed the glove with a gold ink pen. From there, Clemens went directly to Uehara and gave him the gift.

Uehara and Clemens faced each other in Game 1 of that series in Tokyo Dome, but neither one earned a decision in MLB's lopsided victory. But that's when the friendship began.

"I promised Uehara that I would pass along my game glove," Clemens said. "We also exchanged a number of gifts."

In Japan, Uehara can be compared to Clemens, although the former has played only seven seasons and the latter has toiled for 22. Both are right-handers. Both have won the championship playing for their nation's most dominant team -- Uehara with the Yomiuri Giants, Clemens with the Yankees. Uehara has also twice won the Sawamura Award -- comparable to Major League Baseball's Cy Young.

During the 2002 MLB All-Star tour, Uehara gained even more prominence when he struck out Barry Bonds with his trademark split-finger fastball three times in one game as the Nippon Professional Baseball stars defeated MLB in Tokyo Dome.

His 94-45 lifetime record includes 20 wins during his 1999 Rookie of the Year season and a 17-5 mark for the Giants in 2002, the year they swept the Seibu Lions in the Japan Series and Hideki Matsui left for the Yankees as a free agent.

Clemens may have ended his career again on Thursday night -- when the U.S. was eliminated by Mexico -- with 341 career wins and 4,502 strikeouts, second only on the whiff list to Nolan Ryan.

Of course, the American's loss was the Japanese's gain as they moved on to the semifinals.

Uehara has a chance to do what his teammate Shunsuke Watanabe hasn't been able to accomplish thus far in the tournament -- defeat the Koreans. And he'll have an expanded 95 pitches to try it. Uehara tossed 75 pitches against the U.S. on Sunday and left after five innings leading 3-1, having allowed the run on seven hits and striking out two. The U.S. came back and won the game, 4-3.

With Chiba Lotte's Watanabe starting against Korea, Japan lost 3-2 to its bitter rivals in Tokyo to close the first round, and 2-1 on Wednesday at Angel Stadium to end the second round.

For Japan, whose baseball history dates back to the 1870s, much pride is at stake on Saturday.

"This is the third time that our team faces the Korean team, but I never appeared in the past two games," Uehara said. "As you all know, our teammate Watanabe started both games, and he did great in both games, so I'd like to follow in his footsteps and try to do whatever he did in those two games."

He'd also like to do one better than his good friend the Rocket-san, who was the losing pitcher on Thursday in the 2-1 loss to Mexico.

After that game, Clemens said goodbye for now. Uehara would like to tell the Koreans sayonara for good.

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.