Clemens, (William) Roger

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CLEMENS, (William) Roger

(b. 4 August 1962 in Dayton, Ohio), baseball pitcher noted for his fastball and superb control who won the Cy Young Award six times.

Clemens was just a baby when his mother Bess Lee Clemens left Bill Clemens, his biological father, a truck driver, taking her family of four with her. Later she married a tool-and-die maker, Woody Booher, the man Clemens considers his actual father even though Booher died when Clemens was nine years old. About that same time, Clemens's eldest brother Randy noticed his younger brother's athletic potential. Randy was a star athlete with numerous awards and boxes full of press clippings, and he encouraged his little brother and arranged for him to play baseball against strong opponents. At one time, Clemens played in four different leagues with as many as ten games a week; he pitched in some and played infield in others.

In 1977, after his freshman year in high school, Clemens moved in with Randy and his wife at Houston, Texas, apparently to take advantage of the superior athletic programs offered by Spring Woods High School. Clemens was not the star of his high school team, but he showed a good fastball, a good curveball, and good control. After high school, Clemens attended San Jacinto Junior College for a year (1980–1981), where he sometimes dominated opposing hitting and caught the eyes of major league scouts. When the University of Texas offered him an athletic scholarship he accepted it happily, and there he became a star. His fastball was almost major league quality, and he had such good control of his pitches that he rarely walked anyone. He pitched the 1981 College World Series championship game, but despite a fine performance his team lost. Scouts complained that Clemens lacked stamina and maybe lacked heart, but Boston Red Sox scout Danny Doyle saw him differently. In 1982 baseball's free agent draft and the College World Series championship game fell on the same day; Clemens won the game against Alabama and was drafted by the Red Sox. The following year, Clemens married Debbie; they had four children.

Clemens moved up through the Red Sox farm system fairly quickly. Although the team management did not want to pressure a pitcher they saw as still growing, they needed help, and Clemens pitched twenty-one games for the major league club in 1984. He was six feet, four inches tall and weighed 220 pounds when he first joined the Red Sox (with his weight rising to 238 pounds by the end of the 2001 season); even though he was a fitness fanatic, Clemens always looked chubby. He did not exactly take the American League (AL) by storm, posting mediocre results in 1984 and 1985.

The 1986 season, however, was explosive for Clemens. He had one of the best fastballs in history, which he threw at a variety of speeds, as well as a sharp curveball and a split finger that would break abruptly down when it reached home plate. His fastball often zipped across the plate at well over ninety miles per hour (hence his nicknames "Rocket Man" and "Roger the Rocket"), and depending how he gripped it, could break right or left. In the mind game of batter versus pitcher, Clemens had a potent advantage—a batter guessing that he would receive an outside fastball risked being hit by a ninety-mile-an-hour fast-ball if the ball dodged inside, and this was something else for a hitter to think about while trying to hit the ball. Clemens's 1986 season with the Red Sox was one of the best seasons any pitcher ever had in baseball, resulting in 24 wins against only 4 losses, an .857 winning percentage. Clemens entered the record books by striking out twenty batters in a nine-inning game on 29 April 1986, thus tying a major league record. Clemens received both the AL Cy Young Award and AL Most Valuable Player award for the season. He would win the Cy Young Award twice more while pitching for the Red Sox, for the 1987 and 1991 seasons.

In the seasons from 1992 to 1996, Clemens's performance was worse than mediocre, as nagging injuries made him miss starts and affected his delivery. He had a last hurrah in 1996 in Boston, when he struck out twenty batters in a nine-inning game on 18 September, becoming the only pitcher to accomplish the feat twice. By the end of the 1996 season, Clemens was an unhappy man. He became a free agent in November, and instead of signing again with the Red Sox, he accepted a contract from the Toronto Blue Jays. This led to bitterness from Red Sox management, exacerbated by Clemens's own unpleasant remarks about how he felt he had been improperly treated in Boston.

Clemens was thirty-four years old when he signed with the Blue Jays and apparently losing his athletic skills. Yet he was rejuvenated in Toronto, winning 21 and losing 7 with a tiny earned run average (ERA) of 2.04. He received the AL Cy Young Award for the fourth time that season, and in 1998 won the Cy Young for an unprecedented fifth time, cementing his claim as one of the greatest pitchers in history.

Although in his late thirties, a period in which the careers of even the greatest ballplayers tend to be winding down, Clemens became a hot property when he declared free agency at the end of the 1996 season. The New York Yankees were the wealthiest team in baseball and could afford to sign any free agent they wanted; the Toronto Blue Jays were among the poorest teams in baseball and could not match the money other teams could offer Clemens. Clemens sold his services to the highest bidder, the Yankees, in 1998.

Clemens was plagued by wildness the following year, winning only fourteen and losing ten. In 2000 he recovered his control, throwing his still intimidating fastball and his curve consistently for strikes, but he won only 13 while losing 8 and had an ERA of 3.70, well above his norm. Yet he won some tough games for the Yankees and contributed to their playoff charges toward the World Series. In 2001 the powerhouse Yankee offense gave Clemens the support he needed, and he returned to his spectacular winning form, with twenty wins and only three losses in thirty-three starts. That year he won his sixth Cy Young award.

From his first minor league assignment through the majors, Clemens was always a disciplinary problem because he wanted to prepare himself for games his own way. The Red Sox even suspended him from 26 April through 3 May 1991. But teams had their best results with Clemens when they let him pursue his workouts in the fashion he preferred. His career records, as well as his six Cy Young Awards, make him a surefire Hall of Famer.

A number of books about Clemens have been published since the 1980s, most of them for young readers. Of these, Kevin Kernan, Roger Clemens: Rocket! (1999); Bill Morgan, Roger Clemens (1992); and John Devaney, Roger Clemens (1990); are among the most distinguished. Rocket Man: The Roger Clemens Story (1987), by Roger Clemens and Peter Gammons, is fascinating for revealing just how much Clemens had accomplished by 1987.

Kirk H. Beetz