Clemens thrives on confrontation
"I've heard people say that he pitches from anger. Whatever makes him tick, he has it down. It's within his own will. And it's pride," says Debbie Clemens, Roger's wife, on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.
Below the mid-90s fastball, the sturdy legs and precise mechanics is a pinch of madness that keeps everyone on edge. Baseball's only seven-time Cy Young Award winner doesn't deny that he is different.
"If someone met me on a game day," Roger Clemens said in 1990 while with Boston, "he wouldn't like me. The days in between, I'm the 'goodest' guy you can find."
Game day meant obsessive preparation and focus in a vacuum. The 6-foot-4, 230-pound righthander read his detailed journals on hitters and umpires, exercised and ran in the outfield. He didn't like to talk with anyone. A teammate posted a label over his locker: "Possessed Rebel."
"A lot of guys go out there and try to be mean," said former Yankees teammate Tino Martinez, "but it doesn't work because it's not their personality. Roger had it naturally." Occasionally, even in the spotlight of the postseason, Clemens lost it, rage spilling over and the madness breaking free. He was ejected for swearing at umpire Terry Cooney in a 1990 playoff game in Oakland; he tossed a broken bat toward Mike Piazza in the 2000 World Series, just 3½ months after hitting the Mets catcher in the head with a fastball.
When The Rocket struck out a major-league record 20 Mariners in 1986, he began by knocking down leadoff hitter Spike Owen, a friend and former University of Texas teammate. "When he's on the mound," Owen said, "he has no friends."
He also had few matches. On a Friday the 13th (in June 2003), Clemens reached two milestones: He became the 21st pitcher to win 300 games and the third to reach 4,000 strikeouts (joining Nolan Ryan [5,714] and Steve Carlton [4,136]).
In 20 years in the American League, Clemens compiled a 310-160 record and 3.19 ERA. He led the league in complete games three times, wins four times, strikeouts five times and ERA six times (second all-time to Lefty Grove's nine). During 2003, he announced he was retiring at the end of the year because he wanted to spend more time with his wife and their four sons in Houston, but in the offseason he changed his mind.
A free agent, Clemens signed with the hometown Astros in January 2004. He won his seventh Cy Young Award in his first season in the National League and the next year led the majors in ERA with a career-best 1.87. After another season with the Astros, the pitcher who had a 348-178 record (he was eighth all-time in victories and trailed only Warren Spahn (363) in the live-ball era) returned to the Yankees, signing with them as a free agent in May 2007.
William Roger Clemens was born Aug. 4, 1962 in Dayton, Ohio, to Bill and Bess Clemens. Six weeks later, his mother left his father. In 1965, she married Woody Booher, a tool-and-die worker who was devoted to her kids. Clemens adored Booher, who died when he was nine.
Roger, one of six children, enjoyed riding horses and dirt bikes as a youngster and played Little League baseball. His mother moved the family to the Houston area in 1977 when he was a teenager, and Clemens became a standout pitcher at Spring Woods High School. He went 19-5 over his two seasons, striking out 112 in 108 innings as a senior in 1980.
When he wasn't recruited by the Texas baseball team, he attended San Jacinto Junior College, where he struck out 85 in 82 2/3 innings as his fastball went from the mid-80s to about 90. Paul Miller, San Jacinto's assistant coach, told him he had "genius-level control - the perfection of coordination and mechanics."
Accepting a scholarship to Texas, Clemens helped the Longhorns to an NCAA runner-up finish as a sophomore in 1982 and the national title the next year when he beat Alabama 4-3 in the College World Series championship game. A junior, Clemens was drafted by Boston with the No. 19 overall pick and signed for $121,000. He rose rapidly through the minors and joined the Red Sox in May 1984.
(2) A span of seven superb seasons (1986-92) in which he averaged 19.4 wins with an ERA that ranged from 1.93 (1990) to 3.13 (1989).
(3) A downturn over his final four Red Sox years when he went 40-39 and included his only two losing seasons (1993 and 1996).
(4) A sensational two-year comeback with Toronto that twice brought Cy Young Awards and pitching "triple crowns" (league leader in wins, ERA and strikeouts).
(5) Up-and-down glory years with the Yankees that began in 1999 with his worst ERA (4.60) and featured a sixth Cy Young in a don't-count-me-out 20-3 season in 2001.
(6) Winning his seventh Cy Young Award with Houston in his first season in the National League.
Clemens became Boston's ace in 1986, his most celebrated season, when he won his first 14 decisions and finished 24-4. He led the league in wins and ERA (2.48), and was second in strikeouts (238) as he captured the league Cy Young and MVP prizes.
A power pitcher with a good breaking ball, Clemens dazzled National League batters in the All-Star Game, reaching 98 mph. He pitched three hitless innings in the 3-2 AL victory as he earned the game's MVP award. "What impressed me," San Diego's Tony Gwynn said, "was that he can take something off both his fastball and curveball and hit spots."
An inconsistent postseason performance that year set an unwanted tone for Clemens, who in time drew criticism for failing to win "the big game." He did beat California in the deciding seventh game of the playoffs and got Boston within six outs of a World Series championship in Game 6 before leaving with a blister on his finger. The Mets made an amazing rally to win the game and went on to the title.
Clemens, who was 8-6 with a 3.47 ERA in 26 postseason starts, won three Series games with the Yankees. The first was a clinching 4-1 victory against Atlanta in 1999. "I was so focused," he said. "Nothing existed for me that day but the mound and the plate."
Such tunnel vision elevated a career filled with similarly remarkable achievements. He pitched 30 consecutive scoreless innings during a two-week April span in 1991, his third Cy Young season. Embroiled in a contract dispute with Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette in 1996, Clemens struck out 20 Detroit batters in his next-to-last Boston start, a signal that he was far from finished.
Two months later, Duquette let the free agent leave for Toronto, wishing the 34-year-old pitcher well in the "twilight of his career."
The high intensity level, fueled by his desire to dominate, sometimes got him in trouble, as it did in 1990, when he swore at umpire Cooney and was tossed from Game 4 of the playoffs, and in that 2000 World Series game against the Mets. Piazza, who had accused Clemens of intentionally beaning him during the season, broke his bat on a pitch, and as he ran toward first, Clemens fielded the bat and heaved it in his direction. No intent, Clemens said.
No major league pitcher ever started a season 20-1 until Clemens accomplished the feat in 2001, his sixth 20-win campaign. He pitched two more years with the Yankees, compiling a 30-15 record, before jumping to the National League.
With the Astros in 2004, Clemens became -- at 42 -- the oldest pitcher to win the Cy Young Award and the first to gain the honor with four teams as he posted an 18-4 record with a 2.98 ERA. In 2005, he went 13-8, but led the majors with his 1.87 ERA and .198 batting average-against. He also became the second pitcher to reach 4,500 strikeouts. Unsure if he wanted to continue pitching in 2006, he didn't re-sign with Houston until June and made just 19 starts, going only 7-6 despite a 2.30 ERA.
"He is a freak of nature, the kind of pitcher who comes along once in a generation," said Bill Fischer, formerly Clemens' pitching coach in Boston.
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