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Roger, Over and Out

May 13, 1991
May 13, 1991

Table of Contents
May 13, 1991

Books
Television
Kentucky Derby
NBA Playoffs
Roger Clemens
Nolan Ryan
John MacLeod
Lisa Olson
Alexander Karelin
Bruce McNall
Point After

Roger, Over and Out

This season, a game is as good as over the moment that Roger Clemens steps out on the mound

William Roger Clemens is not the offspring, fictional or otherwise, of Samuel Langhorne Clemens. But as with everybody in baseball, there is a book on the Boston Red Sox righthander, and it is at once a short story and a tall tale.

This is an article from the May 13, 1991 issue Original Layout

This is the book on baseball's best pitcher: If he isn't being rained out or out being arraigned or in some other way prevented from pitching, you can consider the game over before the first out has been made. That is the order of things these days. Roger, over and out.

Clemens dispatched the Chicago White Sox last Friday at 4:42 p.m. when he arrived in the visitors clubhouse at Comiskcy Park wearing a brown leather jacket, blue jeans and cowboy boots. He may as well have burst through a pair of swinging saloon doors, returning, as he was, to the Red Sox from Texas, where he had just served a five-game suspension. Remember? It was the same much-delayed suspension that was handed down last November, along with a $10,000 fine, for his behavior in Oakland in Game 4 of the American League playoffs, when he allegedly cursed plate umpire Terry Cooney and shoved crew chief Jim Evans after being ejected.

On Friday evening—with Cooney standing behind him, looking on from his umpiring post at first base—Clemens allowed the first three Chicago batters to get on base. In the first inning that he'd pitched in nine days, Clemens spotted the White Sox a two-run lead. "Then, he shut 'em down," says Boston manager Joe Morgan. "That was the end of the ball game. Even with that two-run deficit, the game was over."

Over and over, Clemens' games this season have been over before they've been over. He retired 24 of the final 27 batters he faced on Friday, as the Red Sox won 7-2. That put him at 5-0 in five starts. His ERA—0.66—gets you half a gallon of gas.

Clemens has almost single-handedly pushed his team—which was hitting a meager .233 as of Sunday—to the top of the American League East. He is, at this early date, the only candidate for the Cy Young, MVP and Vezina trophies. And if the last award traditionally goes to the best goaltender in the NHL, consider this: Clemens has won games by scores of 1-0, 3-0 and 4-0. Going into Friday's game, he hadn't been scored on in 30 innings. "The ERA and results are great, but I've got a lot of work to do," says Clemens with a straight face.

Perhaps he is a Twain character after all, an unreal, overdrawn caricature of a Texas flamethrower. "Sometimes I face him when he's just throwing BP pitches," says Boston reserve catcher John Marzano. "He's throwing 50 or 75 percent, and he's blowing the ball by me. In a game, when he's working in and out, how can you hit that?"

You can't, and Clemens knows it, and who can blame him if even he isn't always convinced that he is real. "When he throws one bad pitch, he acts like he's thrown four straight bad pitches," says Red Sox pitching coach Bill Fischer. "Sometimes he forgets that he's a human being. I have to remind him that even a pitching machine throws out a bad one every once in a while."

We know he is not a pitching machine, because we know machinery can fail. Ask White Sox manager Jeff Torborg, who was told that Clemens was clocked at "90-plus" on Friday night. "That gun must have been slow," said Torborg. "Maybe it needed oiling."

Clemens is coming off his second-best season, one exceeded only by his Cy Young-and-MVP performance of five years ago. "Now," ventured a Boston Globe writer the other day, a bit hyperbolically, "if the Red Sox can keep the highest-paid player in baseball out of prison, he might be on his way to surpassing feats of 1986 and last season."

This is where the story becomes so implausible that one day it will almost certainly become the basis for a network television show. Clemens has attended to two distinct callings this year. He has carved up the league like a Christmas roast, even as he pursues his legal and quasi-legal concerns, at times with the zeal of a prison lawyer.

Having been fined and suspended last fall by American League president Dr. Bobby Brown for his transgressions in Oakland, Clemens returned to the doctor for a second opinion. After a hearing, Clemens' appeal was denied on April 2. He then took his case to commissioner Fay Vincent, who granted him a five-hour hearing. Clemens brought along a hearing-impaired lip-reader, who testified that videotape of last October's playoff game does not necessarily show that Clemens swore at Cooney. For all the lip-reader knew, the Rocket might have been saying, "No new taxes." Unswayed, the commish kiboshed the second appeal on April 26 and ruled that the five-game suspension would begin immediately-meaning, in effect, that Clemens would miss one scheduled start.

Clemens' legal entanglements didn't end there, though. Jim Palmer hasn't appeared in as many briefs. Clemens is now marshaling his forensic forces for defense of a misdemeanor charge of hindering apprehension. Originally, he had faced a felony charge of aggravated assault on a police officer, which was brought on Jan. 19 after an incident at a joint in Houston called Bayou Mama's Swamp Bar. And if that doesn't make for enough criminal confusion, Clemens has recently developed an 87-mph split-finger fastball that Kirby Puckett of the Minnesota Twins says "should be illegal."

How has Clemens stayed focused afield while tending to these other matters? Hasn't double duty as a power-pitching paralegal made life logistically unmanageable? "It's been tough," he says, his jaw set firm as always. "Not so much the shuttling back and forth, but it's been a little tougher to do things with the family."

That concern was eased a bit when he spent five days of his forced vacation with his wife and their two sons in Katy, Texas. "You know," Clemens says, "I had a pretty enjoyable time at home." He maintained his regular workout schedule, slipping into biking shorts and a tank top to throw—he won't say where—in the 90° heat. He tended to "some business away from the field"—he won't say what—in Texas as well. Clemens is building a new house in Katy, and he wants to make certain that civic officials allow the address to end in his uniform number, 21.

The Rocket unofficially returned to the Red Sox on May 1, when he checked into the Westin Hotel in Chicago and waited for the team to arrive from Minneapolis. In his room Clemens caught the final two innings of Nolan Ryan's no-hitter on ESPN. The no-no, Clemens knew, was never in doubt. When it was over, the TV blinked off and Clemens closed his eyes. His sleep, it can be assumed, went undisturbed on the night that the six-month ordeal surrounding the suspension finally came to an end.

The ludicrously long—and often plain ludicrous—appeals process was never a distraction, he maintains. Remember, he pursued it himself, and with gusto, enlisting Major League Baseball Players Association attorney Gene Orza, who deluged the commissioner with 600 pages of testimony. "There is no distraction in taking care of something you feel strongly about," says Clemens. "There were things [people got] wrong about the entire situation [in the playoff game], things that were said and written that weren't right. It doesn't do any good to talk about them now. But you try to right those things and go in to the commissioner to express your feelings. Whether it was going to make me look good or not to the public, I couldn't care less about. Looking good to the public is the last thing I think about as a player."

The second to last thing may be appearing in public at all. "He's quiet," says Fischer, who adds that he knows Clemens as well as anybody. "You don't see pictures of him hanging in nightclubs. When the game is over, he's a homebody. He goes home to spend time with his family."

Nevertheless, on Jan. 18, Clemens and his brother Gary, 39, attended an Andrew Dice Clay performance at the Houston Summit and then repaired to Bayou Mama's. There, Roger allegedly scuffled with a policeman who was attempting to arrest Gary, who had become involved in a disturbance at a nearby table. Roger spent 12 hours in jail that night. The Houston case has not yet been assigned a court date, which will probably be scheduled for the off-season.

"I come into play because of who I am or what my name is," says Clemens. "For basically being a public figure. But my situation there [with the nightclub allegations] doesn't need to be talked about, either. Because, like I said, it's overblown. What was reported that happened never did happen. We'll take care of that as it comes. But I won't make it a distraction to my teammates."

"One thing he cares about is the Red Sox," says Marzano, perhaps Clemens' closest friend on the team. "He isn't going to let all the stuff affect the way he is on the field. He knows he's the man."

Everyone else knows it, too. Everywhere he goes, Clemens is the $25 million man, baseball's alltime highest-paid player, and a man so physically imposing he would attract attention even in a place where he was unknown. Not that there is such a place. "People think he's no good," says Marzano. "It'd be different if they knew him personally, if they knew him as a friend. Everywhere he goes, people are always on him. I've been in malls with him, and he honestly can't stop to look in a window. How would you like that?"

You wouldn't. You might stop going to malls. Clemens won't stop. He says he won't change. There are things he would like to improve in his life, but, he says, those things "are all on the field."

Tony Pena, Boston's starting catcher, says Clemens has changed since he served his suspension. "He was different," Pena said after the Rocket's Friday night performance. "He threw harder."

Thirty minutes before Saturday night's second Battle of the Soxes, in which Cooney would work the plate and Clemens would merely spectate, the Rocket allowed a trace of relief that the "situation" that began last October had finally come to a close. "I'm happy it's over," he said. "I'm happy it's behind me and we can go on and worry about the season at hand."

Worry?

There were initial fears that vengeful umpires might squeeze Clemens like so much Charmin this season, but it hasn't happened. At week's end, he had walked only seven batters in 41 innings. At Comiskey on Friday night Clemens and Cooney tended to their work as if nothing had happened between them. "Terry's and my situation is pretty much behind us," said Clemens. "We've exchanged our thoughts on that a long time ago. Him making calls at first base has nothing to do with what I'm doing out there."

There are always concerns that Clemens' back and right shoulder, both of which have caused him trouble, stay sound. Those concerns, however, seem preposterous at this point. After pitching the complete game Friday night, Clemens ran a mile at the ballpark. "He's as strong as a bull," says Fischer. "If you had to fight him, you'd have to kill him to win."

But what if you only had to hit against him? Then what would you do? You would consider yourself a bit player in history during your brief residency in the batter's box. "I was warming him up last night," said Marzano on Saturday, "and I was actually thinking that I could be catching the guy who will one day be called the greatest righthander ever to play the game."

It is at least conceivable that Clemens will become the greatest righthander ever to play the game because of, and not in spite of, all that has happened to him away from the game. They say a starter pitches on four days' rest, but in Clemens' case the term rest really doesn't apply. "My hardest days are my days between starts," he says. "When I go out there to pitch, that's my easiest day, really. That's when I feel most in control—when I got the ball in my hand."

PHOTOMIKE KULLENIn powering his way to a 5-0 record, Clemens took the many off-field distractions in stride.PHOTOJOHN IACONOAfter reflecting on his run-in with Cooney in last season's American League playoffs (below), Clemens tried in vain to have his suspension nullified.PHOTOV.J. LOVERO[See caption above.]PHOTOBILL SMITHHis banishment over, Clemens snuffed the White Sox, after which he took a one-mile run.