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The Fireball Express
Bruce Newman
June 06, 1988
That's Boston's Roger Clemens, whose overpowering fastball is making him a good bet for Cooperstown
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June 06, 1988

The Fireball Express

That's Boston's Roger Clemens, whose overpowering fastball is making him a good bet for Cooperstown

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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."

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