Even as a minor leaguer, Roger Clemens was a man on a mission
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In the summer of 1983, there could be no greater baseball opposites than
Having signed for $121,000 with Boston shortly after winning the College World Series with Texas, Clemens was a Red Sox bonus baby, the highly touted prospect who -- with a mid-90s fastball and
Having signed for $4,000 with Detroit after going undrafted out of tiny Delta State (location: Cleveland, Mississippi), Davis was a Tigers nobody, a moderately competent first baseman who -- boasting a Swiss cheese bat and
The only thing the two men seemed to share was geography: On a July night in 1983 both ballplayers were standing inside Chain O' Lakes Park in Winter Haven, Fla., for a Florida State League game between the Class A Lakeland Tigers and the Winter Haven Red Sox.
Up until that evening Roger Clemens was everything the Boston franchise had dreamed of. He had joined Winter Haven in late June while the team was on a road trip to Fort Lauderdale, and after spending his first day becoming acquainted with his teammates, he had thrown a brief bullpen session. The performance was one that most of Winter Haven's players still remember.
Cliché be damned, the ball seemed to explode from Clemens' right hand like some sort of nuclear weapon. With each grunt and release, Clemens unleashed a bullet that slammed into catcher
Damn. He was even better.
Fastballs that hit 96 mph on the radar gun. Pinpoint control. A sadistic slider. "It was beyond belief," says
Clemens pitched just four games and 29 innings for the Class A Sox, compiling a 3-1 record with a 1.24 ERA and -- most amazing -- 36 strikeouts and zero walks. "Class A pitchers walk loads of people," says
Following his debut start, a five- inning, nine- strikeout, 3-0 cakewalk over St. Petersburg during which he fanned the first five hitters ("Besides having my first child," says Richardson, "my greatest thrill is having caught Roger's first pro start"), teammates began chalking a
Clemens stayed in a room with a kitchenette at the rickety Winter Haven Holiday Inn and was perpetually accompanied by a brown briefcase that contained scouting reports of opposing teams' hitters. He would eat a couple of meals with teammates at Sally's Shrimp Boat, where alligators would swim to the deck in search of food, and have an ice cream or two at Andy's Igloo. Otherwise -- yawn. "He kept to himself and was always respectful," says
Yet here Clemens stood, in the center of Chain O' Lakes Park, making his fourth start and focused on something beyond personal glory. Two days earlier, in a game against the Tigers on the road,
"So I made my body roll into second, and I took Brumley out really hard and flipped him over," he says. "I certainly wasn't trying to hurt the kid."
As he jogged off the field, Davis heard the jawing from the Winter Haven dugout. "You'll get yours, you son of a bitch!" Clemens screamed. "I'll see you in two f------ days!"
Now Clemens was pitching against the Tigers, anticipating his chance for revenge. In the first inning he struck out the leadoff hitter,
When Rollin was retired, Davis, a left- handed hitter, walked up to the plate, took a couple of practice cuts and dug in. Born and raised in tiny Laurel, Miss., Davis had long dreamed of escaping his small town to play professional baseball. "I loved the chance to meet the people from different countries -- the Dominicans, the Mexicans," he says. "People heard I was from Mississippi and they'd ask if we had paved roads." Though he was a good enough college player to be named a Division II All-American, Davis was more space filler than prospect. "I knew what I was," he says. "I had my limits."
As Davis looked out at Clemens, he wasn't thinking about getting beaned or having to duck or
Clemens wound up, unfolded his six- foot- four frame and let loose a fastball that traveled directly from his hand to the back of Davis' head.
When he finally rose, Davis tried charging the mound but was overcome with dizziness and dropped again. "I understood him throwing at me," says Davis. "I can respect standing up for a teammate. But he threw at my head.
Davis was taken to the nearby hospital. Clemens remained in the game and struck out 15 Tigers.
Following the game, one Winter Haven player after another approached Clemens' locker to shake his hand. He had defended a teammate -- the ultimate act of baseball decorum. "That's what you're supposed to do," says
Yet for a man who would go on to make a reputation off of brushing back opposing hitters, Clemens was surprisingly shaken. A couple of days after the game, Davis received a handwritten letter of apology, with Clemens (laughably) insisting that he had been aiming for the leg, not the skull.
"I never really forgave him, because I know it was 100 percent intentional," says Davis, who retired after the '84 season and now works as an electrical technician. "But, heck, I can always say I was the first professional baseball player Roger Clemens beaned."
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Although Clemens would spend the first 16 years of his major league career burdened by the dreaded "He's never won the big one" label, that was -- technically -- not the case.
In 1983, Clemens won the big one.
Granted, it was an Eastern League championship with Double A New Britain.
Upon his arrival in Connecticut, Clemens entered the clubhouse of Beehive Field and was warmly greeted by
Before Clemens' arrival, Slider had been briefed on what was at stake here: namely, the future of the Red Sox. Slider was not to over work Clemens. The pitcher was never to throw more than 100 pitches or enter a game in relief. Slider's job title was officially "manager," but in this case he was primarily a caretaker. Nurture the kid, teach him a few things -- and, by the grace of God, don't screw anything up.
Knowing that Clemens was being babied, it would have been easy -- expected, even -- for New Britain's other players to loathe the kid. To some extent, they did. "Roger was nice enough," says
Any resentment, however, was dulled by the unassailable truth that Clemens was brilliant. For the other New Britain pitchers -- a highly regarded group that included future big leaguers Ellsworth (who had also been promoted) and
"Catching Roger was as easy as drinking a glass of water," says
As was the case in Winter Haven, Clemens largely kept to himself in New Britain, preferring a bucket filled with quarters at the local video arcade to nights out with teammates. At the tail end of an era when ballplayers lived hard and played harder, Clemens merely played hard. "He didn't drink, didn't smoke, didn't swear," says Hall. "He wasn't a loner, but he didn't buddy up to people. He was there to pitch."
In seven starts Clemens went 4-1 with a 1.38 ERA. He struck out 59 over 52 innings, walking just 12. With a 72-67 record, New Britain charged into the Eastern League playoffs intent on winning a title. "He was going to be brought to me for the final month," says
The Sox faced the Reading Phillies in the best-of-three first-round series, and Slider named Clemens his opening game starter. As opposed to the riffraff he had faced at Winter Haven, Reading's lineup was stocked with future big leaguers like
As Clemens warmed up to start the game, he was approached by the home plate umpire and told that his glove was illegal. Reading manager
Clemens agreed to switch gloves but wanted first to complete his warmups. With Slider and the New Britain bench ripping into him, the umpire lost his cool. "You change that glove when I tell you, you little f---!" he screamed. Slider charged the umpire. Clemens charged the umpire. Dancy, grinning ear to ear, was euphoric. His plan had worked -- another top prospect was about to unfold under the stress of the postseason.
Clemens, however, was no ordinary phenom. He cooled down, borrowed teammate
New Britain defeated the Phillies in three games, and Clemens' final Double A start came eight days later, when he faced the Lynn Pirates for the Eastern League title. The Sox led the best-of-five series two games to one, and Slider was happy to give Clemens the chance to finish things off. In a game that was never close, Clemens threw a three- hitter, striking out 10 Pirates in a 6-0 rout.
Within a span of three months Clemens had won two titles. Though he had been with New Britain for less than five weeks, Clemens soaked in the postgame champagne, giddy over the completion of a memorable first season.
As if Clemens' life weren't enough of a fairy tale, in the aftermath of New Britain's championship he was pulled aside by Slider and told that the organization would like him to spend some time in Boston.
Cocksure on the mound, Clemens could be equally reticent off of it. As he tiptoed into Fenway Park on a late summer day, his eyes the size of Oreos, the kid from Butler Township, Ohio, had made it. He took in the thick grass, the rows upon rows of seats, the Green Monster. Clemens had been to the Astrodome numerous times as a teen, but this -- Fenway -- was
Entering the small, no frills Red Sox clubhouse, Clemens was flabbergasted to see that he had been issued a locker (well, he shared a stall with a batboy named
In his weeklong visit to Boston, Clemens the baseball phenomenon was treated like a clubhouse boy. Few players spoke with him, acknowledged him, engaged him in so much as prolonged eye contact. During games he sat in the press box. "Back then the Red Sox veterans treated young guys like we weren't even there," says
In the major leagues it was nothing special to see a guy throwing 94 mph with pinpoint control. This was the terrain of
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In January 1984, while home in Houston, Roger ran into an old Spring Woods High classmate named
Her family lived in the rundown Victorian Village apartment complex across the street from the high school, though Debbie's optimistic confidence concealed any despondency. "We have a lot in common," Debbie once said. "We both grew up knowing hard times. My mother was divorced. We didn't have much."
Although Roger and Debbie were friendly in high school, it had been primarily a "Hi!"-and-"Bye!" relationship as they passed each other in the hallway. Debbie had dated one of Roger's baseball teammates, a kid he didn't particularly care for. Now, in the early winter of 1984, Roger and Debbie were brought back together. A mutual friend had arranged an encounter, telling Roger it was a blind date and Debbie that it was merely a gathering of long lost chums. "My first impression of Roger was 'What a tall, handsome man!' " she said. "More than that, he seemed responsible. He always did everything he said he was going to do. And he was sweet. He wanted only to talk about what I was doing. We met on the 10th. Our first kiss was on the 19th."
In Debbie, Roger found not merely a lover but a sports fanatic and workout partner. In the midst of auditioning for the Dallas Cowboys' cheerleading squad for a second straight year (she failed to survive the final cut), Debbie was obsessed with fitness and righteous eating. In Roger, Debbie found a man who held doors open and answered every one with "Yes, sir" and "Yes, ma'am." He was a kid in a giant's body, a surprisingly affectionate lug who treated his mother like a queen and placed family above all else. If there was an arrogant side to Roger, Debbie sure didn't see it. Plus, unlike the vast majority of Texas baseball players, Roger chewed tobacco but once a year, when he went on his annual hunting trip. His teeth were as white as whole milk.
On April 10, 1984, Debbie was working out when she fell and fractured her elbow. Roger asked the Red Sox whether he could fly to Houston to be with her. They denied his request, but he went anyhow. "That blew my mind," he said. "The Red Sox got sticky about it because we weren't officially engaged yet."
At age 21, Debbie considered her defining life moment to be Nov. 22, 1963, when -- as a young child -- she had been with her mother near the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas when John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
Soon, there would be two new ones. In May, after asking the permission of her mother and stepfather, Roger proposed to Debbie. By year's end, they were married.
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Clemens reported to spring training in Winter Haven in February 1984 , convinced that he would make the Red Sox starting rotation. If anyone doubted his intentions they needed only to view the rear of his black GMC truck, which featured a customized
Like anyone coming off of two championships, a 9-2 professional record and a buffet of experts proclaiming him "The next . . ." [fill in the blank with Nolan Ryan,
If Clemens was struck by one thing during that initial spring, it wasn't
An exasperated Clemens developed his own program, drawing scorn from a handful of Red Sox veterans. With each extra sprint, each additional pushup, Clemens was putting the other players to shame.
"If anyone felt threatened, they probably needed to look in the mirror," says McDougal. "Roger did what he knew -- busted his rear."
Though his numbers were not impressive (1-2 with a 6.60 ERA), Clemens showed enough to make the big league roster. "He's got good poise -- there's no question about that," Houk said in late March. "It's not like he's 18 years old. He's been pitching against good competition for a long time." Despite the praise, the ace in training had no chance of sticking. Had the Red Sox begun the season with Clemens on the roster, he would have been eligible for arbitration after two years. What was the rush? "I knew he had a good spring, but we had some good young pitchers that year," Houk said. "I felt going down for a month wouldn't hurt him."
On March 26, one day after Clemens was charged with six runs on eight hits in three innings against Pittsburgh, Houk called the 21-year-old into his office and told him that he would begin the season at Triple A Pawtucket. "But don't get too comfortable," Houk told his despondent pitcher. "I have a feeling you won't be there for long." Clemens was upset, but he refused to show others his true emotions. After retreating to the corner of the locker room for a brief cry, he reported to Torchia, the Pawtucket manager. His new skipper was immediately impressed. "I've always had this small method to learn about a guy," says Torchia. "It was Roger's second day in minor league camp, and we were getting ready to play a spring training game in which he wasn't pitching. So I said, 'Roger, would you mind being a batboy?' "
"Sure, Skip," Clemens said. "I'd be happy to!"
"So that was his role for the afternoon," says Torchia. "And he did a helluva job. I'll never forgot that."
Any remorse over the demotion dissipated when Clemens relocated to Pawtucket, R.I., and found, to his surprise, bliss. This wasn't Winter Haven. This wasn't New Britain. This was a vibrant small city with a die hard Red Sox fan base and a nice ballpark, McCoy Stadium. Most of the team lived within walking distance of the park and after games would usually retreat to the local bar, My Brother's Pub, for beers, wings and conversation.
As he had in the two previous minor league stops, Clemens quickly adjusted to a new league. In seven games and 46 2D 3 innings with Pawtucket, he went 2-3 with a 1.93 ERA and 50 strikeouts. He struck out 11 and allowed just three hits in a 16-0 win against Syracuse. He tossed a four-hitter, fanning nine, versus Columbus. "The games Roger lost were all close," says Torchia. "With him, there was no such thing as a terrible performance."
One month into their season, the Boston Red Sox had an off day, which gave pitching coach
That night, fighting sporadic rain and temperatures in the low 50s, Clemens struck out nine batters in a 3-0 loss to the Tides. It wasn't Clemens' best start for Pawtucket. "But," says Torchia, "a picture is worth a thousand words. Roger's picture was worth even more."
Following the game, Stange pulled Clemens aside. "I don't have the final say, so this isn't official," he said. "But I believe you just made your last minor league start."
The next morning, May 11, 1984, the news was official.
Roger Clemens was coming to Boston.