Clement not sore over success of peers
Overshadowed by bigger stars, former No. 3 pick stays positive
BRADENTON, Fla. -- There have been a few things sore about Jeff Clement since the Seattle Mariners made him the third selection in the 2005 First-Year Player Draft -- his left elbow and his left knee several times, among them -- but the Draft apparently isn't one of them.
Bring up that 2005 Draft, in which he was circled by a current A list of Major Leaguers, and Clement instantly grins, as if an itch he feels daily had been scratched.
"Oh, yeah," Clement said with a laugh, "I'm so much on a different plane of my career than where they are right now. I'm happy for those guys. They're great players, they've proven that."
Justin Upton and Alex Gordon were drafted before Clement, and Ryan Zimmerman and Ryan Braun immediately followed him. All-Stars who have made it and have it made, with long-term contract security, some into the next decade.
It is wonderful company, to which Clement's invitation got lost in the mail. They are stars, he has scars, and is once again in the Pirates' Spring Training camp with a Minor League contract.
The still-young, onetime catcher and newbie first baseman could be bitter and resentful. Some might say he should hold those grudges.
Only if they do not know him.
"I won't say it haunts me. Or even that it's a carrot for me. I'd love to be in that position. They've earned where they are. I'm still trying to earn mine," Clement said.
Clement was on a faster track than any of them, and that became part of his derailment. He and the Mariners both were too eager. The team accelerated his development, jetting him through its ranks. Clement refused to allow pain to backtrack him, so he played through it.
"My first spring after signing , I broke camp and started out in Double-A, for a month. Then I got hurt and had surgery, and came off the DL into Triple-A, within a year of when I signed," said Clement who, when asked whether things might have turned out differently had he not been rushed, added: "That's so hard to say. At the time, I loved it.
"When you play, you want to be at the highest level. It's so hard to say what would've happened if things were different. And I should've been smarter than trying to play through some pain. If I'd been a little older, I would've known my body's limitations better. When you're young, you feel like you can't get hurt, so you try to grind through too many things."
Clement's left knee took most of the grinding, pulling the plug on his catching career. He has had three operations on it, the most recent one in late 2010 limiting him to rehab work in 2011 with the exception of the final month of Indianapolis' Triple-A season.
So while Braun was enjoying his MVP season and other peers were putting up All-Star numbers, Clement's world consisted of Pirate City and drudgery. And he starts off this year in the same location where he had spent most of last. Symbolism for a career that has gone nowhere.
Yet all the work Clement has put into coming back, yet again, may not go unrewarded. That it shouldn't go unrewarded is the prevalent sentiment among everybody in camp pulling for him.
"I'm happy for him that all the hard work and perseverance has paid off," manager Clint Hurdle said, referring to Clement's health. "We'll see where the spring takes it, because he has value in depth. He's had some tremendous challenges in the past, but he has had some [Major League] success, is well thought of and has a good skill set."
"If you work hard and try to get the most out of your abilities, people will respect that," Clement said. "I think I've got that and I'm not going to change. I will continue to work hard to show I'm still capable of producing at the Major League level."
He faces long odds against doing it for the Pirates, in addition to the obstacle of not being on the 40-man roster. His adaptation to first base is a reflection of the perseverance others admire, but the Bucs are loaded at that position.
Clement's left-handed bat that drilled 46 home runs in 636 at-bats in the rarefied college air of USC appeals to Hurdle. Yet in addition to the lead entry of Casey McGehee and Garrett Jones, he also has veteran Nick Evans and rookie Matt Hague to consider at first base.
When he began the transition to first base soon after the Pirates acquired him in the mid-2009 deal as a key part of Seattle's package for Jack Wilson and Ian Snell, there were adjustments to be made.
"I hadn't taken a ground ball since high school. It was a tough learning curve, but now I feel like it's my natural position," Clement said. "The way the knee's been, catching would be out of the question, anyway."
He isn't in headlines. Not like Braun, Zimmerman and all those other guys. But he is in a baseball uniform, and just maybe in a place to better appreciate that simple joy.
"I'm just happy to have a jersey on my back and be playing baseball. It's what I love," Clement said on his way out of the clubhouse and onto the field, to resume the search for the end of his rainbow.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.