Clemens, Roger

views updated May 23 2018

Roger Clemens


American baseball player

His native talents alone would have been enough to make Roger Clemens one of baseball's greats. His six foot four, two hundred and twenty-pound frame is capable of hurling a baseball at speeds approaching one hundred miles per hour. His split-finger fastballonly eight miles per hourdives away as it reaches the plate, confounding the baseball's best hitters. Oakland Athletics outfielder Rickey Henderson described the experience of facing Roger Clemens's fastball to the Providence Journal as being, "as difficult to hit as a marble shot out of a cannon." But add to these natural gifts a phenomenal work ethic, obsessive drive, and profound focus, and Roger Clemens may just possess the combination of qualities to propel him to the top as the greatest pitcher in baseball history.

Child of the Heartland

Clemens was born in Dayton, Ohio, the youngest of Bill and Bess Clemens's five children. Clemens never knew his father. When he was eight weeks old, Clemens's mother left his father, a truck driver. This lack of a father figure would always haunt Clemens. Two years later, his mother married Woody Booher, a tool-and-die maker fifteen years her senior, only to have him die five years later of a heart attack. "I'm sure [his death] was hard on Roger, because Woody was the only father he ever knew," Bess Booher told Sports Illustrated. "But if he had any problems, he never showed it. When you have adversities in your life, you have to strive to overcome them."

Early Prodigy

Clemens's prodigious baseball talents showed themselves early. By seven he was the star pitcher in a league of nine- and ten-year-olds and by adolescence he was

dominating his peer group to the point where his parents felt the need to seek a more competitive environment for him to develop in. His parents shipped him off to live with his brother Randy, in suburban Houston, home of one of Texas's top high school baseball programs. The transition from being the big fish in a small pond to having to prove himself was instrumental in forming Clemens's character. "It was very intimidating for me," Clemens told the Boston Globe. "I was the best player I knew in Dayton. And then suddenly I was just the third-best pitcher in the rotation. But I decided I wanted to make it to the top and I set certain rules to follow, and discipline just became a habit."

Despite his talent, Clemens did not get the University of Texas scholarship he had dreamed of upon finishing high school in 1980, nor was he drafted by any major league team, though the Minnesota Twins offered him a contract.

Work Ethic

Clemens, thinking he could do better than the Twins, enrolled at San Jacinto Junior College instead and set about building the body he would need to reach his goals. At age 18 he was six-foot two and 220 pounds, and not in good enough shape to achieve the velocity he needed to be truly competitive. Clemens put himself on a rigorous conditioning and weight training program and lost fifteen pounds. The conditioning program did the trick, pushing the velocity on his fastball from eighty-six miles per hour to the ninety plus miles per hour he would need to succeed in the pros.

He played well enough as a freshman (with a 9-2 won-loss record) for the New York Mets to pick him in round twelve of the 1981 draft with a $30,000 signing bonus. Just as he was considering the New York deal, the University of Texas finally came through with its scholarship offer to Clemens. Clemens, who was close to signing with the Mets, decided that playing with the powerhouse Longhorns was the better strategy. There he would have several more years to develop fully under the tutelage of Longhorns' legendary pitching guru, coach Cliff Gustafson.

Choosing the Longhorns turned out to be the winning strategy. In his first two years for the Longhorns, Clemens won twenty-five games, and lost just seven, striking out 241 batters in 275 innings, while walking just fifty-six. In June of 1983, he was the winning pitcher in the final game of the College World Series, giving Texas the national college title.

"He was an excellent pitcher in college, improving every year," college and pro teammate Spike Owen told Sports Illustrated. "But I don't think anybody could have looked at him then and known what was in store."


1962Born August 4 in Dayton Ohio
1976Moves to Houston to join his older brother Randy
1980Graduates from Spring Woods High School in Houston
1981Turns down Minnesota Twins offer and attends San Jacinto Junior College, Pasadena, Texas; drafted by New York Mets.
1982Attends University of Texas; winning pitcher in College World Series final game
1983Drafted by the Boston Red Sox; marries wife, Debbie
1984Major league debut against Cleveland Indians
1984-96Plays for the Boston Red Sox
1997Signs with the Toronto Blue Jays
1999Signs with the New York Yankees and wins first World Series game and title
2000Wins second World Series title
2002Turns down Yankees contract option and declares free agency, but finally resigns with Yankees

Boston Bound

In 1983, Roger Clemens's hard work and foresight paid off when the Boston Red Sox selected him in the first round of the draft. Clemens had a meteoric rise through the Red Sox farm system. Rac Slider, manager of the Red Sox's AA New Britain team declared to the Boston Globe, "I haven't seen anyone at the same stage who's got what he's got." Fully grown at 6'4" and 220 pounds, Clemens had the unique combination of one of baseball's best fastballs paired with pinpoint control. Joining the Red Sox midway through the 1984 season, he won nine games and lost four.

The Red Sox, plagued by disappointing pitching, and having not won a World Series since 1918, expected the 21-year old Clemens to become even more that a star; in Clemens they saw a savior.

Career Crisis

Midway through the 1985 season, however, Clemens's career was already in danger of being derailed. His shoulder began hurting so much that he could barely lift his pitching arm. Clemens underwent surgery, removing cartilage near his rotator cuff. While some feared that his career might be over, others, like Red Sox pitching coach Bill Fischer speculated that the injury might actually have been a blessing in disguise, scaring Clemens into focusing and working even harder. Fischer told Newsday "Maybe it's that arm injury that left him so determined to get the best out of himself. Maybe it scared him to work even harder. A lot of people have athletic ability. But very few make use of every ounce of it the way he does."

Cy Young and MVP

Clemens didn't have to wait long for redemption. In 1986, he roared back to lead the American League in wins (twenty-four with just four losses), winning percentage (.857) and ERA (2.48). He started and won the All-Star game. One memorable night against the Seattle Mariners in May of that year, Clemens struck out twenty batters. No pitcher in 111 years of major league history had ever done that before. "It puts me in the Hall of Fame, at least in one sense," he told the Boston Globe. "Nobody can take that away from me. I just hope people don't think it's a misprint." He won the Cy Young Award as the American League's best pitcher and was voted Most Valuable Player as the Red Sox won the pennant for the first time in eleven seasons. He pitched in two World Series games that October, but won neither.

In the 1987 season, Clemens had another Cy Young-quality season, winning twenty games, striking out 256 batters, and posting a 2.97 ERA, good enough to beat the jinx that traditionally plagues Cy Young winners and giving him his second consecutive awarda feat achieved by only four other pitchers, Sandy Koufax , Denny McLain, Jim Palmer, and Greg Maddux .

With great achievement and fame comes the potential for great controversy and in this category too Clemens has always been a leader. In 1988 Clemens left training camp in a salary dispute. He criticized team management for its treatment of players and their families, criticism that was largely interpreted as complaints about New England and its baseball fans. Clemens drew the ire of Red Sox fans and heard boos for the first time.

Career Statistics

BOS: Boston Red Sox; NYY: New York Yankees; TOR: Toronto Blue Jays.

In 1988 and 1989, Clemens was bothered by a strained back which limited his effectiveness. In 1988, won 18 games, lost 12, led the majors strikeouts and shutouts, and had an ERA of 3.13. Boston won the American League East title but was swept in the American League championship series by Oakland. In 1989, he was again off his usual pace, winning only seventeen games, and striking out 231. In 1990, Clemens regained his top-of-the-game form, winning twenty-one games, losing just six, and posting a league-leading 1.93 ERA. A performance brilliant enough to inspire Sports Illustrated 's Leigh Montville to rhapsodize, "When he is pitching well, when the control is good, when the speed is up, he is almost untouchable. The best pitcher in baseball. No debate. The evening sports news will be a collage of strikeouts, batters swinging at air, batters frozen in place, looking at pitches they can't see."

Man of Controversy

It was also a performance that helped propel the 1990 Red Sox to the American League East title and a shot at making the World Series. Only the Oakland Athletics stood in their way. The series did not go well for Boston or Clemens. Boston lost the first three games. Clemens started the must-win fourth game. Down 2-0, in the second inning, Clemens was thrown out of the game by home plate umpire Gerry Cooney, after Cooney claimed that Clemens swore at him. In front of a national television audience Clemens lost his temper, had to be restrained, and was carried off the field. The Red Sox went on to lose the game and Clemens received a five-game suspension and a $10,000 fine. The incident only added to Clemens's growing legend as a fierce competitor to some, and spoiled prima donna to others. "Who is Roger Clemensa hothead who boiled over in the playoffs or an overgrown kid driven by obsessions?" asked Sports Illustrated 's previously enraptured Leigh Montville.

Third Time Cy Young Charm

Whatever the answer, the Red Sox certainly forgave Clemens. Before the 1991 season, the Red Sox signed Clemens to a four-year, $21 million deal confirming Clemens's status at the top of his profession. Clemens returned the confidence in him by winning his third Cy Young award, posting an 18-11 record, leading the majors in strikeouts with 241 and innings pitched (271), as well as the American League in ERA (3.62). The 1992 season saw Clemens turn in another successful 18-11 performance, leading the majors in shutouts with five and the American League in ERA (2.41).

A New Start North of the Border

Clemens's performance in 1992 didn't help the fortunes of his team. The Red Sox slid to the bottom of the American League East with a dismal record of seventy-three victories. Clemens's fortunes also slid the following year when, bothered once again by shoulder and arm injuries, he suffered his first losing season (11-14). The infamous strike-shortened 1994 season saw Boston still foundering and Clemens posting a 9-7 record. These were not good times for Clemens. Over the next two seasons, he continued to struggle with a groin injury and tendonitis, as well as the knowledge that the Red Sox were no nearer to winning a World Series than when his career had begun. With Clemens and the Red Sox slumping and Clemens becoming a free agent, the big market, big league rumor mill started. Would the Red Sox trade Clemens for new blood or hang on to him? Would Clemens jump to another team for a big payday and the opportunity to pitch for a World Series ring?

The answer came in a $24.75 million, three-year contract to play for the Toronto Blue Jays, who outbid the Texas Rangers and the New York Yankees. This contract made Clemens the highest paid pitcher of the moment. The Blue Jays were counting on Clemens turning around his sub par performances of the past several years and making them a contender. Clemens delivered, turning in a stellar 1997 season where he was easily the most dominating pitcher in baseball, putting together a league leading 21-7 record, 2.05 ERA, and a career-best 297 strikeouts The Rocket was back! Clemens also collected his fourth Cy Young award. Sports Magazine named him one of the ten most dominant athletes of 1997, along with Michael Jordan, Pete Sampras, Martina Hingis , and Tiger Woods .

Awards and Accomplishments

1986All-Star game MVP
1986-87, 1991, 1997-98, 2001Cy Young Award
1986, 1988, 1990-92, 1997-98, 2001Made All-Star Team
1996Strikes out 20 in one game for the second time in his career
19983,000th strikeout
1999First World Series title
2000Second World Series title
2001Oldest starting pitcher in All-Star game in baseball history

Roger, Over and Out?

Clemens does not accept the idea that he is in some sort of irreversible decline. He argues instead that, with a few runs here and there, everything could have turned out much differently in 1999. "Six games could've gone either way," he says. "I could easily have been a twenty-game winner. And if I did that, there wouldn't be any talk about how I'm losing it." It's true that the Yankees supported him with a mere fifteen runs in his ten losses last year, but how many times did they score by the bushel-load to dig him out of a hole? He just as easily could have been a fifteen-game loser. "Listen, the only downer last season was that I hurt my hamstring and couldn't hold on to some four-to-nothing leads." He hints that for most of season, he pitched while he was in pain. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner had theorized this over the winter. "I was in a defensive mode after the hamstring injury, trying to protect it, trying not to reinjure it," Clemens says. "I didn't want to miss more time. I wanted to answer the bell."

Source: Michael P. Geffner, Texas Monthly, August 2000, p. 120.

Roger, Meet George

The 1998 season with the Blue Jays was equally productive with Clemens adding his 3,000th strikeout and becoming the only pitcher in history to win a fifth Cy Young award. Clemens could have easily stayed where he was, collecting his third year of guaranteed money and forcing an optional fourth year, but whereas Clemens was at the top of his game, Toronto wasn't. Clemens, realizing that the Blue Jays weren't going to

be contenders, exercised an option in his contract that put him again on the open market.

George Steinbrenner and the Yankees came calling, trading their star pitcher David Wells, reliever Graeme Lloyd, and second baseman Homer Bush for Clemens. The deal rocked the baseball world. Steinbrenner took a lot of heat for trading hometown hero Wells, who had come off of a great year, as well as having pitched a perfect game, but as Yankee pitcher and Wells's best friend David Cone told Newsweek :" When you add the best pitcher in the game, how could it not be a good deal?"

At first it looked like Steinbrenner's bet on Clemens was not going to pay off. Clemens stumbled badly through the 1999 year, leaving many to wonder, especially in the media glare of New York's number one media market, how a five-time Cy Young winner, 41-13 in the past two seasons with the Blue Jays, could be struggling to keep his ERA under 5.00? With Clemens's regular season record being a mediocre 14-10, all the usual questions about Clemens's age and durability surfaced. But Clemens pitched brilliantly in the postseason, helping the Yankees win his first World Series game and his first World Series ring by winning Game Four of the Yankees shocking 4-0 sweep of the Atlanta Braves.

The 2000 season followed pretty much the same pattern with Clemens barely doing better than a .500 winning percentage. But his postseason was brilliant. First he helped shut down the Mariners with a one-hit, 15-strikeout masterpiece in Game 4 of the American League Championship Series. Then in Game 2 of the Subway Series with the New York Mets, Clemens faced Mike Piazza , the popular Mets catcher and slugger. What followed was an incident that will be forever replayed in the annals of World Series history. Piazza's bat shattered on one of Clemens's fastballs. Clemens fielded one of the shards and hurled it back towards the first-base sideline missing Piazza by less than a foot. The resulting face-off between Piazza and Clemens emptied the benches, though without incident. On the next pitch, Clemens retired Piazza on a grounder. After that the Mets went down meekly and the Yankees went on to win the game and subsequently the Series in five games.

Still Top of the World

The 2001 season saw Clemens at thirty-nine, long after fastball pitchers are supposed to be spent, reassert his dominance at the top of the game with his sixth Cy Young and a 20-3 record. Even with a heartbreaking loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks in the World Series, Clemens had a year that led Sports Illustrated to declare: "Today Woody Booher's son is as close to an unbeatable pitcher as there has ever been in baseball."

The 2002 season was less successful with the Yankees bowing out early in the playoffs to the Anaheim Angels (who went on to beat the San Francisco Giants for the World Series crown) and Clemens posting mediocre stats: 13-6 record; 4.35 ERA, and only 192 strikeouts. Nonetheless Clemens initially felt confident enough in his value to turn down his $10.3 million option with the Yankees, go free agent, and entertain offers from other teams. However, he eventually re-signed with the Yankees.

With his conditioning program, his iron discipline, his fierce competitiveness, a fastball that still pops at ninety-eight miles per hour, and a "splitter" that is still unhittable, who knows how long Roger Clemens can continue to playand win.


Address: Roger Clemens, c/o Major League Baseball, 75 Ninth Ave., New York, NY 10011. Fax: (212) 485-3456. Phone: (212) 485-3182.


(With Peter Gammons) Rocket Man: The Roger Clemens Story, S. Greene Press, 1987.



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Sketch by Gordon Churchwell