The night ofTuesday, April 29, 1986, did not arrive with great anticipation at Fenway Park.The Boston weather was cool, and local interest was focused elsewhere.Twenty-three-year-old righthander Roger Clemens took the mound before abundled-up crowd of 13,414 customers sprinkled around the ballpark. There wasno reason to think that anything special would happen.
"Look at that," one Red Sox official, pointing at the photographers'well on the first base side, remarked in the press box as the game began."There's only one photographer down there." The lone man with thecamera was Jerry Buckley, the team's photographer.
Earlier that afternoon the New England Patriots, losers to the Chicago Bears inSuper Bowl XX in January, had selected SMU running back Reggie Dupard withtheir first pick in the NFL draft. That same night Larry Bird's Boston Celtics,in the early stages of a march to the NBA title, were facing the Atlanta Hawksat Boston Garden in Game 2 of their second-round playoff series. The Red Soxwere such an afterthought that their broadcast was moved to WPLM on the FM dialfrom its normal spot on WRKO-AM to make way for the Celtics. What did itmatter? The light-hitting Seattle Mariners were the opposition and this was the18th game of a 162-game season.
Clemens himself was something of a question mark, coming off right-shouldersurgery after going 16--9 with a 3.88 ERA over his first two major leagueseasons. But the young flamethrower struck out the first three batters hefaced, all swinging, and then fanned two of three in the second inning. In hisfourth start since his surgery, Clemens was establishing early that on thisnight he would be virtually unhittable.
The Red Sox didnot own a radar gun, but a scout for the Toronto Blue Jays reported that heclocked one Clemens strike at 97 mph. Almost every pitch was a fastball, andeach seemed faster than the last. Catcher Rich Gedman simply put his glove inthe proper location and held it there until the pitch arrived. As the nightwent on, an odd sort of drama evolved, one in which strikeouts mattered morethan anything else. Each batter represented a new challenge. A simple out wasno longer good enough; K's were the necessary result.
The Mariners, oncourse to set the American League record for team strikeouts in a season,appeared helpless. After shortstop Spike Owen singled to right to open thefourth inning, Clemens struck out eight straight batters to tie a league mark.News of what he was doing--14 K's in six innings--began to spread around town.The major league record for strikeouts in a nine-inning game was 19, held byfour pitchers in the 111-year history of the sport. The math was easy: Clemensclearly had a shot at 20.
Some college kidsfrom nearby Newton, who two years earlier had started the practice of hanging a2x3 cardboard sign with a painted red k from the bleachers to mark each Clemensstrikeout, rushed to the ballpark. By the sixth inning k's were strung allalong the rightfield wall. The Celtics posted running counts of Clemens'sstrikeout total on the message boards at each end of the Garden. The onlypeople who seemed unaware of the potential for history to be made were theparticipants.
Gedman, now themanager of the Worcester Tornadoes of the independent Canadian-American League,wondered why the fans were cheering so loudly after each out. Home plate umpireVic Voltaggio, who retired in 1996 and now works as an umpiring instructor, wassimilarly perplexed, though he knew something memorable was happening. He tolda batboy after the seventh inning, "This is the best pitching performanceI've ever seen." Clemens, who went to the clubhouse between innings as heusually did, heard something on TV about the eight strikeouts in a row tying arecord, but didn't give any other record a thought until he prepared to go tothe mound for the ninth.
Fellow Red Soxstarter Al Nipper, who would become the team's bullpen coach in 2006, toldClemens the news: He had 18 strikeouts and needed one to tie the record, two tobreak it. "I had to do it," Nipper told The Boston Globe afterward."Wouldn't it be a shame if a guy had a chance for something like that anddidn't try for it? I wanted him to know. He's not the type of guy who would beaffected by knowing."
Owen, who was acollege teammate of Clemens at Texas, whiffed for number 19. Phil Bradley wascalled out looking for the record 20th. Third baseman Wade Boggs ran to themound to shake Clemens's hand. The Newton kids had run out of room inrightfield, so they put their 20th sign atop the row of 19. One outremained.
"We shouldget the ball to save it," trainer Charlie Moss suggested in the dugout.
"You don'thave to," said lefthander Bruce Hurst, charting the game (he's now thepitching coach for the Chinese national team). "That ball ain't goinganywhere." True enough. Ken Phelps grounded out to short to end it.
Clemens wouldmatch the feat 10 years later against the Detroit Tigers. Kerry Wood of theChicago Cubs (1998) and Randy Johnson of the Arizona Diamondbacks (2001) arethe only others to strike out 20 in a game.
But it was onthat April night in '86 that the legend of the Rocket was born. And the onlygood photo of his 20th strikeout was taken by a fan behind home plate. He soldit to SPORTS ILLUSTRATED.
An update on the 10 Mariners who batted against Clemens
SPIKE OWEN, SS
1 FOR 4, two strikeouts
Third base coach for the Round Rock Express, the Astros' Triple A affiliate
PHIL BRADLEY, LF
0 FOR 4, four strikeouts
Special assistant to the executive director, MLB Players Association
KEN PHELPS, 1B
0 FOR 4, three strikeouts
Part-time TV analyst for Diamondbacks' broadcasts
GORMAN THOMAS, DH
1 FOR 3, HR, one strikeout
Frequents Gorman's Corner, a barbecue stand at Milwaukee's Miller Park
JIM PRESLEY, 3B
0 FOR 3, two strikeouts
Former Diamondbacks hitting coach has same job with Marlins this season
IVAN CALDERON, RF
0 FOR 3, three strikeouts
Shot and killed in a Loiza, Puerto Rico, bar on Dec. 27, 2003; he was 41
DANNY TARTABULL, 2B
1 FOR 3, one strikeout
Last reported to be in the real estate business in Malibu, Calif.
DAVE HENDERSON, CF
0 FOR 3, three strikeouts
In his ninth season as a TV and radio color analyst for the Mariners
STEVE YEAGER, C
0 FOR 2, one strikeout
Third base coach for the Las Vegas 51s, the Dodgers' Triple A affiliate
AL COWENS, PH
0 FOR 1, no strikeouts
Former scout for the Royals died of a heart attack in 2002, at age 50