So I guess I have to talk about Roger Clemens. He is a complex subject. I wish he wasn’t. I wish we could just celebrate his greatness.
And we could have.
But now we can’t. And here we are.
It is no accident that I have this specific card to represent his greatness. The 1987 Topps Card celebrates his 20 strikeout masterpiece from April 1986. To paraphrase Nuke LaLoosh, that’s when he announced his presence with authority. Oh sure, William Roger Clemens was a top prospect from the University of Texas and had some success in his rookie year of 1984. But this was his coming out party.
The Red Sox I grew up watching (from 1979 to 1985) could always hit with the best of them. But they lacked the lockdown ace. OK, fine. Dennis Eckersley was an All Star Starter but the Red Sox starting staff always was lacking.
When Clemens took the mound on April 29, 1986, as most of Boston was paying attention to the Celtics in the playoffs, he dominated the Mariners like noone else did. Striking out batter after batter, walking none. First baseman Don Baylor dropped a foul pop at one point, making the batter return to the plate only to be struck out.
At that moment, the Red Sox became a contender. And let me explain to you what that meant for your pal Sully. At age 14, I finally had hope as a baseball fan. Oh yeah sure, the Red Sox kind of contended for a while in 1982 but by September it was a Milwaukee/Baltimore race.
In 1986, Clemens looked like the man who was finally going to deliver a title to Fenway. That whole season, he just dominated when he was on the mound. It became an event when it was his turn.
Normally when I was growing up, Red Sox teams played well until around August then they faded. Keep in mind, my following the Red Sox day in and day out started in 1979. So by the time I was 14 years old, I had NEVER seen them in the post season. (I was too young to remember 1975.)
So when the Red Sox finally won the Division and had a stud starter (plus Bruce Hurst and Oil Can Boyd to round out the rotation) I had hope.
Sure, Clemens had a rough Game 1 and the bullpen blew his 9th inning Game 4 lead. But Clemens won the Game 7 clincher against California in the ALCS. And Clemens was on the mound with a lead in Game 6, a potential World Series clincher.
He got a blister, was lifted for pinch hitter Mike Greenwell and, well, we all know what happened in Game 6.
Even after the disastrous ending of the 1986 World Series, there was hope as a Red Sox fan. The hope was the solid foundation of the team and the great arm of their ace.
Hoping for a World Series title no longer seemed like a far fetched idea. Clemens could lead the way. He won the Cy Young Award in 1987 and would have made it 3 in a row in 1988 if not for one bad month.
Arguably he was AL MVP in 1990 as he almost single handedly pitched the Red Sox into the playoffs for the third time in five seasons. He won the Cy Young in 1991, probably should have won it again in 1992 and led the league in strikeouts in 1996, when he matched his feat of 20 strikeouts in a game.
But the Red Sox DIDN’T win it all. In fact when they made the post season in 1988, 1990 and 1995, they were swept out of October without a single win each time. Clemens’ biggest highlight was being thrown out of Game 4 of the 1990 ALCS. Clemens had the regular season numbers but Dave Stewart would best him in the post season.
All the while, he remained my favorite player in baseball and the symbol of Red Sox hope. But then came his contract dispute with Dan Duquette and being declared a star at the end of his career.
The Red Sox did not sign him after the 1996 season and off he went to Toronto. How big a Clemens fan was I then? I wore a Blue Jays cap the days he started. My loyalty remained with him.
And of course Clemens won the Cy Young Award both years he was in Toronto, putting up some of the best numbers of his career. It was almost as if he had a boost.
After the 1998 Cy Young season, Roger Clemens became a Yankee. Now it is hard for me to logically say I was mad at Roger. After all, the Red Sox all but let him go. But the Yankees were unstoppable and I had found a new hope.
Pedro Martinez had arrived in Boston and with his right arm lay all the hopes, wishes and prayers of New England. And suddenly Roger was the enemy.
It felt wrong. But I loved Pedro so much that somehow, it got me wired to see a Red Sox/Yankees collision in October. Sure, I knew in my heart of hearts the Yankees were better. But Pedro made me believe in a way that I hadn’t felt since Roger’s prime.
When Roger and Pedro faced off in the 1999 ALCS, it was no contest. Pedro was unstoppable and Clemens was bombed out of the game, much to the delight of Red Sox fans. Of course, the Red Sox lost ALL the other games of the series, but those are just details.
The Yankees won the 1999 World Series and Clemens pitched well in the clincher. Like when Boggs won with the Yankees in 1996, I felt some conflicting emotions. Yeah sure, it pissed me off that the Yankees won yet another World Series.
But part of me felt good for Roger Clemens. He deserved a World Series ring in 1986 and now he had one. Now his ring in 2000 was overkill, especially since it involved throwing the bat at Mike Piazza.
Now he had gone full villain and became almost impossible to root for. The player who at one point was my favorite player OF ALL TIME became the subject of ire for me.
I hated his crazy glove he wore trying to get his 300th win and was glad it didn’t happen against the Red Sox. I loved that the Red Sox bombed him in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS only to be furious that Grady Little spoiled the “Pedro beating Roger” storyline by not going to the pen quick enough.
Then Roger retired… or did he? When he signed with the Astros, I felt oddly compelled to root for him again. He got another Cy Young and I remembered why I loved him as a Red Sox pitcher.
I almost can’t equate Roger the Yankee and Roger the Astro to Roger the Red Sox ace. I was 14 and just learning to root for a team in the playoffs when he was a star. I was married with twin boys when he pitched in the 2005 World Series.
Then he came back to the Yankees after retiring again, but this point he was done and he got bombed in his final ever appearance.
And of course he was on roids. Ergo, he couldn’t get in on the first ballot. And he had a relationship with a girl that was at best really really creepy. The parties involved say it didn’t get intimate until she was 21… yikes, that’s the BEST case scenario.
I wish we could just celebrate his 7 Cy Youngs and 20 plus seasons of excellence. Of course we can’t. Of course it has to be more complex.
But my love for THIS image of Roger Clemens will never be complex. It is clear as a New England autumn sky. He gave me hope as a Red Sox fan and I can never let go of that.