The Fireball Express
That's Boston's Roger Clemens, whose overpowering fastball is making him a good bet for Cooperstown
By Bruce Newman
Issue date: June 6, 1988
Hard though it is to believe, there was actually a time when Boston's Roger Clemens felt he had to prove himself to people, to make them see in him what they could not see for themselves. He was better than they knew. He would show them.
"I don't think he was ever given anything," says his wife, Debbie. "If someone told him he couldn't do something, it just became more of a challenge to him. In high school he was always a good pitcher, but he was never considered the best. The thing was, though, he always felt he was the best."
Then one day Roger Clemens showed them. He threw a fastball 95 miles an hour for a strike, and then he threw another 96. Ninety-three, 97, 94 mph -- faster than you can say Nolan Ryan -- and everything for strikes. He had overcome the doubts others had about him, yet even today he seems to be trying to prove himself. "When people who don't have any idea what they're talking about say something bad about me, it just adds fuel to my fire," Clemens says.
"Everybody wants to win, but it burns much deeper in him than it does in other people," says Red Sox catcher Rich Gedman. "That's his edge. It's always like, 'I'll show you.' "
Clemens has showed them, all right. Since he emerged as the ace of the Red Sox staff at the start of the 1986 season, he has won 51 games while losing only 15, won two Cy Young awards and one MVP trophy, and struck out 601 batters -- an average of eight every time he takes the mound. "It's demoralizing psychologically to face a guy like that," says Red Sox first base coach Al Bumbry, a career .281 hitter in 14 seasons, mostly with Baltimore. "You go up there thinking you're going to get a hit, but most of the time you're glad if you get a pop fly rather than striking out. And if you do strike out, then you're just hoping you don't strike out twice. Pretty soon that's all you're thinking about."
Clemens tries not to let strikeouts become all he thinks about, although he obviously likes them well enough. When he and Debbie picked the name Coby out of a book for their first son (she is expecting another boy this month), "we changed the spelling to a K because of the strikeout thing," she says.
It is a measure of just how overpowering he has been that at the age of 25, Clemens has already pitched 11 games in which he has surrendered three hits or fewer, and for his career he has averaged only 2.5 walks per nine innings, compared with 4.9 for Nolan Ryan, the major leagues' alltime strikeout leader. But it is the strikeouts that have been Clemens's signature since 1986, when he tattooed himself into the national consciousness by fanning 20 batters in a 3-1 victory over the Seattle Mariners. It was the most strikeouts ever in a nine-inning game. Clemens was so overpowering that night that of the 97 strikes he threw to the Mariners, only 29 were even touched -- 19 of them fouled away and 10 put in play. Almost as impressive as the 20 strikeouts was the fact that he got them without issuing a single walk, thus displaying a combination of power and control that no pitcher in history has ever matched.
Clemens has been recognized as the game's dominant pitcher since that night, though he is always on guard lest something do him in. When his mother, Bess, read that some renovations to Fenway Park had made the old ball yard a hitter's park, she wrote him a letter from her home in Houston, in case her son became too anxious about the changes. "I wanted to remind him that even though they may have made it a hitter's park," she says, "those batters have got to see it before they can hit it."
Bess's belief in her son has never wavered, and he is completely devoted to her for that. "I wasn't a big mama's boy, but we were real close," he says. "I never had to prove myself to her." Bess moved with her family to Ohio when she was 16, and a year later she married Bill Clemens, who drove a truck for a chemical company in Dayton. Bill and Bess Clemens were married for 15 years, not many of them happy, and they produced five children, the last of whom, Roger, was eight weeks old when Bess gathered them all up one day and left her husband. "It was one of those impossible things," she says. "You couldn't live with him."
In 1964 she married Woody Booher, a tool- and diemaker 15 years her senior. "Everything was good with Woody," says Bess. "He provided well, and the kids could depend on him."
But Booher's health was less dependable. He had a heart attack five years into the marriage, and then in 1970 he suffered another one that killed him. Roger was eight. As for Bill Clemens, the family seldom spoke of him. "I'd become aware at about eight or nine that I had another father somewhere, but it had never been of any concern to me," Clemens says now. "When I got to be 12 or 13, I decided if he didn't suck it up enough to help Mom out, maybe he just didn't care enough." Bill Clemens called once when Roger was 10, but that was the only contact the two would have. Bill Clemens died in 1981.
So, in a sense, Roger lost two fathers. "When you have adversities in your life, you have to strive to overcome them," says Bess. "There were a lot of adjustments to be made. I'm sure it was hard on Roger, because Woody was the only father he ever knew. But if he had any problems, he never showed it."
Clemens had to learn to be adaptable in other ways, for over a period of seven years, starting at the age of 13, he attended six different schools in three cities. He left Ohio in the middle of his freshman year in high school and took up residence in Houston with his brother Randy. As if to counteract the turmoil of his life, Clemens sought consistency in his physical drives. He would put himself through exhausting workouts of weightlifting and calisthenics, then run home from school, trying to drain himself. "I had certain rules to follow when I was young, and discipline just became a habit," he says. "I always wanted to be strong -- not just mentally but physically. I spent many Friday nights when I was at Spring Woods High School running and working out while my friends were out partying and getting drunk." Even now, when Clemens considers all the pleasures his life confers upon him, he says the blind, numb emptiness that follows total exhaustion is "the best feeling there is."
Clemens was the No. 2 pitcher on the Spring Woods staff. "They said I didn't throw hard enough. And it's true, I didn't throw very hard, but I had great control. I could always throw the ball where I wanted to."
It was during this period that others failed to see the athletic potential he saw in himself. "I don't think anybody could have looked at him then and known what was in store," says Red Sox shortstop Spike Owen, who played with Clemens at the University of Texas.
Clemens wasn't drafted by any major league team when he finished high school, but a scout from the Minnesota Twins did offer him a contract. The scout told Clemens that if he didn't sign then, he would never get another chance. "When he said, 'You'll never get the opportunity to play again,' it was pretty tough," says Clemens. "When somebody tells you you'll never get a chance to do what you've always dreamed of doing.... Well, it was a time I was pretty mixed up in my life." Shaken, Clemens sought once again to drain himself of feeling by running down to the school's baseball field that night. When he got there, he lay down on the pitcher's mound in the dark and stared up at the stars, wondering what was to become of him.
Clemens refused to sign with the Twins, and that fall -- it was 1980 -- enrolled at San Jacinto Junior College. He was taken by the New York Mets on the 12th round of the 1981 draft, but his tryout with the team in the Houston Astrodome didn't go the way he had imagined it would. Given the onceover by Mets coach Bob Gibson and manager Joe Torre, he was offered $30,000 for signing. Roger, deciding that wasn't enough, decided instead to go to Texas, where he spent two seasons and pitched the Longhorns to the NCAA championship in his second year. He was signed by the Red Sox shortly after that, although it did not escape Clemens's notice that he was the 19th player taken in the draft.
In 1984, his first season in Boston, his record was a modest 9-4, but he struck out 126 in 133 innings. He was still so unsure of himself as a rookie that after one loss to the Mariners, he phoned Debbie from Seattle and talked to her for four hours.
Those disappointments prefigured the disastrous year that was to follow. Clemens's right shoulder began to hurt early in the '85 season, and though he continued to pitch in great pain, he could no longer blow the ball by hitters. He began to think that for him to survive, he would have to become, as he says derisively, "a junk-baller." He started coming to the ballpark earlier than ever, running in the Fens between starts, sometimes even running after games if he still felt he needed to drain himself. "I do it to release all the tension and energy I have built up inside me," he says.
Warming up for a game in Anaheim in July, he realized he couldn't pitch anymore, and as he walked up the runway to the clubhouse, he peeled off his uniform piece by piece, then finally dissolved in tears because he could not understand why this was happening to him.
Clemens underwent surgery for the removal of damaged cartilage from his shoulder late in the '85 season, and he began his rehabilitation exercises the day after the operation. When his arm was strong enough to throw, he took Debbie out in the backyard and pitched to her. "He felt like he hadn't been able to show what he could do yet, and he wanted to accomplish so much," she says. "Up to that point everything seemed to be setback, setback, setback."
The following spring, Clemens was still nursing his shoulder along slowly. "He got knocked around some in spring training, and I think he was wondering if he was ever going to start getting people out again," says Gedman. "I told him he was getting better, but he wants to do so damn well all the time that he was pretty hard on himself. I think there was definitely some fear on his part it might be all over."
"He didn't think his fastball was any good," says Bill Fischer, Boston's pitching coach. "He was throwing forkballs, sliders, curves. I asked him how hard he thought he was throwing his fastball, and he said the low 80's. I finally had to show him on the radar gun that he was throwing 90's."
In spring training, Clemens's workouts became more frenzied than ever. "He had good work habits before, but he was like a man possessed after that," Gedman says. "It seemed like he felt, Here's my second chance, and I'm not going to let it slip away. He doesn't just want to be the best he can be, he wants to be the best ever."
Taking awesome advantage of that second chance, Clemens won his first 14 decisions of '86 without a loss, and on April 29 he pitched his 20-strikeout masterpiece. When they returned home after the game that night, Roger and Debbie pulled the mattress off their bed and dragged it into the living room, where they stayed up all night watching every news show on TV and taking phone calls from well-wishers like Teddy Kennedy and Tip O'Neill. It was heady stuff, and Clemens was only 23. "After that our whole life changed," Debbie says. "When you're on top, everybody is waiting for you to fall."
But Clemens remained on top, and he seemed to elevate the whole Boston pitching staff. Pitching had long been a cross to bear for the hitting-rich Red Sox, and at Fenway, it was a sort of local joke at which nobody was laughing anymore. "If we lost, it was always: 'If Boston just had some pitching, they'd win every year,' " says Red Sox pitcher Bruce Hurst. "It got old, always bearing the brunt of the criticism."
Clemens went home to Houston that July as the starting pitcher in the All- Star Game and threw three perfect innings (25 pitches, 21 strikes), winning the game's MVP award. By the end of season, Clemens was 24-4, had struck out 238 and had a 2.48 ERA. He won both the Cy Young Award and the MVP for the American League. The only blight on an otherwise glittering year was that he did not pitch well in the postseason, at least not Cy Young well. He was bombed by the Angels in the first game of the championship series, and then took two no-decisions against the Mets as the Red Sox lost the World Series to New York in seven games. "I think if the truth were known, by the time the World Series came along, Roger was just tired," says Debbie.
When his contract came up for renewal after the '86 season, Clemens expected the Red Sox to pay him for being the best pitcher in baseball, but instead, he says, the team used the fact that he couldn't go to arbitration to "pound on me." When Clemens realized the team wasn't going to hand the money over to him, he walked out of spring training, convinced that collusion among the owners was causing the Red Sox to make an example of him. "If they beat on a guy who was 24-4, won the Cy Young and the MVP, if another guy comes in and asks for a raise they can just dog-whip 'em," Clemens says.
When he did come back at the end of spring training, it was with a contract loaded with incentive clauses. He started off 4-6, which kept him from making the All-Star team and earning a $300,000 bonus. "The biggest problem the first month of the season was the contract," he says. "I had to come back under adverse conditions. I didn't like that crap." But he went 16-3 in his last 23 starts, and won his 20th game on Oct. 4 -- a two-hitter against Milwaukee -- and his second consecutive Cy Young Award. Clemens is still bitter that the incentive clauses forced him to pitch in Boston's October chill just to win the Cy Young -- and a $300,000 bonus.
"It was just something else to prove," he says. "Basically I had to go out there and earn something that should have been in the contract in the first place. We're 20 games out, and I'm out there pitching meaningless games to try to win some individual awards so I can get paid what I deserve."
Clemens says he has tried not to vent his frustrations on the mound. "I'm not a guy who's going to glare at you and then come in and crop-dust you," Clemens said one day a few weeks ago. However, the next night, when he faced the Chicago White Sox, his first two pitches to catcher Carlton Fisk came hissing in right under Fisk's chin. Sitting directly behind the screen in back of home plate, Debbie Clemens nodded approvingly. "Roger told me he was going to do that," she said. "He doesn't like the way Fisk crowds the plate, so he said he was going to crop-dust him." Fisk walked his first time up, then struck out in his other two at bats against Clemens.
Clemens looks down at hitters from his pitching promontory with the imperious air of a young liege lord inspecting his vassals. He is their master, they are there to do his bidding; when they fail to understand their role, he must rebuke them sharply. Two years ago Bill Buckner, then the Boston first baseman, told The Chicago Tribune, "If someone takes a good swing against him, he'll yell, 'Swing a little harder!' I've heard him do it four or five times. He's being sarcastic. He's challenging the hitter."
Clemens challenged Kansas City Royals outfielder Willie Wilson three weeks ago during the ninth inning of a 16-strikeout, 3-hit smoke job that the Red Sox won 2-0. Clemens suspected that Wilson, on second base, was stealing signs from catcher Rick Cerone and relaying them to George Brett at the plate. He stepped off the rubber toward second and began hollering at Wilson.
"Who does he think he is?" Wilson said later. "He struts around out there like: Hey, man, I'm God. I'm Roger God Clemens, and nobody's going to hit me. Well, bleep him."
Clemens seems to cling to the familiarity of his routine on the four days when he is not pitching, as if to husband his strength for the fifth. "His routine is like clockwork," says Fischer. "You know exactly where he's going to be every hour of every day." Clemens appraises a batting order as if it were a checklist, each name a chore to be taken care of, an obstacle to be eliminated. "You look at him, he's got the eyes of a shark out there," says Gedman. "He knows he's going to have two or three rough spots in every game, that he's going to have to pick it up then. And he's prepared for those times. Most pitchers aren't."
If he continues at his current 1988 pace (7-2, 1.80 ERA, 107 strikeouts and only 20 walks), Clemens may well wind up with a third Cy Young. And he should certainly get what he deserves at the bargaining table when his present contract expires at the end of this season. Money is one way of gauging his worth, but as always Clemens also wants respect. He performs in one of the few positions in sports that requires a gun to be pointed at him at all times, and though it is only a radar gun, Clemens seems to feel himself under its following eye wherever he goes. Even when he is talking about himself, he frequently goes pinwheeling from one subject to another so quickly that he seems about to go out of control. But finally he gathers himself, adjusts and sets his eye on the target. Then: "I want to go to the Hall of Fame, where the immortals are."
Even though he is only 25, he is probably halfway there.
Issue date: June 6, 1988