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BASEBALL: Clemens, Lidge will speak at banquet

Joe Hettler | Tuesday, January 25, 2005

In the middle of December, Roger Clemens and his wife were getting ready to have dinner with President Bush and wife, Laura Bush. But before the seven-time Cy Young award winner left to meet the Bush’s, he made a phone call.

Needless to say, Irish baseball coach Paul Mainieri was a bit surprised when arguably the greatest pitcher of all time dialed his cell phone number.

“I said to him ‘Where are you Roger, in Houston?’ And Roger said ‘I’m in Washington D.C., my wife and I are getting ready to have dinner with the President and his wife but I wanted to call you first,'” Maineri recalled. “I said ‘Well I’m glad you have your priorities straight.'”

Clemens called to confirm his appearance at Notre Dame’s fourth annual baseball Opening Night Banquet. He is scheduled to speak with former Notre Dame pitcher and current Houston Astros closer Brad Lidge at the Feb. 10 event in the Joyce Center.

“We’re very fortunate to have two people of the stature of Brad Lidge and Roger Clemens come to Notre Dame and help us kickoff our season,” Mainieri said.

The dinner will feature classic ballpark foods, such as hot dogs and nachos, to complement guest speakers and player introductions. This year’s banquet is sold out, with over 1,700 tickets going in just two weeks. The event sold out in six weeks last year.

At the 2004 dinner, best-selling author and baseball fan John Grisham gave a speech to the audience. Former Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy LaSorda spoke in 2002 and Chicago Cubs general manager Jim Hendry did the same a year later.

Lidge was the 1998 Big East Pitcher of the Year before being selected 17th overall by the Astros in the draft. He made his Major League debut in 2002, but only pitched in six games that season. Lidge had an impressive 2003, going 6-3 with 3.60 ERA, and he became one of the top relief pitchers in baseball midway through the 2004 season when Houston dealt then-closer Octavio Dotel to the Oakland Athletics – ultimately making Lidge the new closer. He didn’t disappoint, saving 29 games and tallying a miniscule 1.90 ERA. Lidge also broke the National League record for most strikeouts in a season by a relief pitcher with 157 in 94 2/3 innings of work.

In the playoffs, Lidge completely dominated the opposition and was a major part of Houston’s ride into the National League Championship Series against the St. Louis Cardinals. In 12 1/3 innings, Lidge allowed just one run and struck out 20 while walking only three.

“I think Brad, in his own right, would have been a good enough headliner for us to get a great crowd and have a great evening. But to bring Roger Clemens in is something that’s going to make the evening extra special,” Mainieri said.

Clemens, who recently signed a one-year, $18 million contract with Houston, is considered among the best pitchers ever to play the game. In his career, he has accumulated a remarkable number of awards and accolades. Clemens has 328 wins, a career ERA of just 3.18, 4,317 strikeouts and has pitched nearly 4,500 innings during his 20-year career. At the age of 42 last season, Clemens went 18-4 with a 2.98 ERA and won his record seventh Cy Young Award, which goes to the league’s best pitcher. He has pitched for the Boston Red Sox, Toronto Blue Jays, New York Yankees and now the Astros.

Mainieri asked Lidge to return to Notre Dame, where the pitcher hadn’t been since 1998 and speak at the dinner, and the pitcher quickly accepted. Then Mainieri had an idea.

“We [were] going to send a plane [to Houston] to pick up Lidge,” Mainieri said. “So I started thinking wouldn’t it be something if we could bring Roger Clemens up too. I knew he was a big Notre Dame football fan because I’ve seen him on the sidelines a couple of times during my 10 years here.”

Mainieri contacted a Notre Dame graduate who lives in the Texas area and is a close friend of Clemens. Soon enough, Clemens was asked and accepted the invitation.

Now the only problem for the Notre Dame baseball program is finding someone to top Clemens for next season’s dinner.

“This might have to be the last time we do it,” Mainieri joked.