If it’s 90 degrees with 80 percent humidity, Roger is able to say, ‘so what, I’ve trained in that. I’ve trained for that.’ Actually, his program is harder than the games themselves. – Yankees Strength Coach, Jeff Mangold
Few pitchers have been as lauded during their careers like Roger Clemens. One of the hardest working players you will ever find, the most remarkable thing about him is not how well he has performed but how long he has managed to maintain that level of performance. As so many of his peers faded towards the end of their careers, Clemens has remained one of the best into his forties and is among the career leaders in almost every statistical category that a pitcher could hope to be measured by.
Among his many accomplishments are seven Cy Young Awards (a record), an MVP, second place on the all time strikeout list (4672), the record for strikeouts in one game (20 – recorded twice), two pitching Triple Crowns, 354 wins, two World Series winners rings and has given his name to the award given to the top rated college pitcher each year. However, it hasn’t all been praise – Clemens has also been accused of taking performance enhancing drugs, declared a ‘head-hunter’ and labeled a prima donna.
The Rise And Fall Of The Red Sox Rocket
A first round choice by Boston in 1983, Clemens made his first appearance for the Red Sox a year later, but it wasn’t until 1986 that he would really establish himself as a permanent member of the rotation. With his blazing high-90’s fastball (earning him the nickname ‘Rocket’), Roger Clemens would start etching his name into the record books.
It didn’t take him long to get going, striking out 20 Seattle Mariners on April 29th to set the record for strikeouts in a nine inning game. He continued to dominate the American League, winning 24 games with an ERA of 2.48 and allowing just 179 hits in 254 innings, winning an MVP award and his first Cy Young and setting the Red Sox on the road to the World Series.
This would also be the first year that he would pitch for a losing World Series side. In fact there is still some confusion with regards to game 6 of that series with Clemens leaving the game in the 7th and ahead in a game that could have won the Red Sox a title for the first time in 68 years. John McNamara, Boston’s manager at the time, claimed that Clemens took himself out of the game due to blister problems on his hand but Clemens always denied this.
Despite such disappointments for his team, between 1986 and 1992, Clemens truly was an elite pitcher in the regular season and a hero to baseball fans in Boston. During that period he would strike out at least 208 hitters each year, win two more Cy Young Awards and accumulate 136 wins with only one year where his ERA was above 3.00. However he would continue to have indifferent results in the playoffs. This came to a head in the 1990 ALCS when, in the fourth game of what would be a sweep for the Oakland A’s, he was tossed from the game for arguing with the umpire. He did it so vehemently that the league suspended him for the first five games of the next season and fined him $10,000.
It didn’t take long for things to sour further for Rocket and the Red Sox. Between ‘93 and ‘96 he would average 10 wins a season and almost the same amount of losses. He would once again have a 20 strikeout game (against Detroit on September 18th, 1996) but that was far from the norm for Clemens.
When his contract came up for renewal, Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette decided not make an offer to Clemens and his time as a Red Sox player was over. Duquette thought that Clemens’ best years were long behind him but The Rocket would win back to back Triple Crowns and Cy Young Awards as a member of the Toronto Blue Jays in his first two years away from Boston. In later years this sudden upturn would be attributed to substance abuse as Clemens’ name was brought up in the publication of Jose Canseco and in the Jason Grimsley investigation. No concrete proof has ever been presented but hitters from the time were more concerned with the forkball he had just added to his arsenal and the slight refinement to his already immaculate pitching mechanics.
Glory in Pinstripes
Frustrated with a lack of exposure in Canada and the desire to win an elusive World Series ring, Clemens asked to be traded to a contender. The New York Yankees came calling on the back of two World Series wins in three years as well as an epic 114 season, and with Clemens on board they would win back-to-back titles. Even in the losing series in 2001, he would do a lot to exorcise his reputation as someone unable to perform in the playoffs.
Long seen as a fierce competitor who was not afraid to come inside and hit a batter if he needed to – some would suggest he would only do this because he was in the American League, where pitchers don’t hit. Earlier on in the year he had done this very thing to Mike Piazza, one of the top hitters in the game and someone who had a history of hitting Clemens well. Clemens caused a great furore by hitting him in the head but this was amplified in the 2000 World Series. Even before the series began there was great anticipation of the first match up between the two but no one could have predicted what would happen.
Piazza’s bat broke swinging at a Clemens pitch in his first at bat of the game, sending the barrel of the bat towards the Yankee pitcher, who picked it up and threw it in the direction of Piazza causing both benches to clear but unbelievably Clemens was not ejected from the game and he dominated the Mets as the Yankees went on to win. This was also after Clemens gave similar treatment to Seattle’s Alex Rodriguez in the previous round of the playoffs. The Mariners star hitter was twice knocked to the ground by high and tight pitches from Clemens.
2001 would be a quieter year for Clemens as he became the first pitcher to ever start a season with a 20-1 record on his way to winning his sixth Cy Young. This was done even though his team-mate Mike Mussina had better statistics across the board aside from run support and, subsequently, wins.
In 2003 Clemens would become just the third pitcher to record 4000 strikeouts, doing so in the game where he registered his 300th win. He would also announce his intention to retire at the end of the year with the hope of being inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame as a member of the New York Yankees.
The rest of the season became almost like the Roger Clemens retirement tour as fans gave him standing ovations every time it looked like it would be his last appearance at that ground. Even in Boston, where he was representing their hated rivals The Yankees, they gave him a big send off (a feat repeated in the playoffs when they were matched up against each other).
In what was supposed to be the last game of his career in the World Series, as he left the mound in Florida the fans and the players all applauded him as he left the field. A final fitting tribute to one of the games greats.
He would be back next year with Houston.
The Retirement Years
Given the opportunity to pitch closer to his Texan home and be closer to his family, Clemens followed his friend and team-mate from New York, Andy Pettitte, to Houston to play for The Astros on a one year deal.
He would move into second place on the all time strikeout list, win his seventh Cy Young Award and retire for the second time before coming back in 2005 on a one year contract worth over $18m, a record sum for a pitcher. His 1.87 ERA, aged 42 was the best for his career and the lowest by any pitcher since Greg Maddux posted a 1.60 ERA in 1995 but, like Maddux, received negligible run support, leading to just 13 wins on the year. His season would end with further disappointment as his Astros were swept by The White Sox in the World Series and, in his only start, Clemens lasted just two innings.
With the inaugural World Baseball Classic (the baseball equivalent of the football World Cup) due in the spring of 2006, Clemens decided to make himself available so he could represent his country and implied that he would retire after that tournament. Many teams would register their interest in signing the veteran but ultimately he would return midseason to play once more for the Astros, although he averaged less than six innings per start in his shortened season.
After another off-season of speculation, Clemens would make one more return, this time back with The Yankees but the results were not as impressive. The Yankees made it to the postseason on the back of a powerful hitting line-up and not through The Rocket’s pitching (6-6, 4.33 ERA). Struggling with a sore hamstring and no longer able to reach the mid-90‘s with his fastball, Clemens left the mound after 2 1/3 innings. He struck out the last batter he faced.
He may retire – only he knows.