My bosses at Page 2 gave me a simple assignment this week: “Please explain
to the world why Boston fans believe that Roger Clemens might be the
Even the most ardent Rocket-hater would concede that Clemens built a Hall of
Fame resumé over the years. He certainly won enough games — 265 and
counting, including five different 20-win seasons. He rang up enough K’s over
that time — 3,575 and counting, not to mention all of his children who have
names starting with the letter “K” (Koby, Kody, Kodachrome, Kornonthekob and
so on). He has more than enough Cy Young trophies (an astounding five), World
Series rings (two and counting) and records (including the hallowed “Only Guy
to Strike Out 20 Batters Twice” mark). He made enough money over the course of
his career to fund a Michael Bay movie — $60 to $70 million at least, not
including endorsements and other goodies. Yup, all the elements are there … except one.
He doesn’t have any.
And that’s what makes Clemens so unique, the fact that he keeps chugging
along in his late-30s, pitching as well as ever … and yet nobody cares
about him. He’s like the Wolf in “Pulp Fiction” — no attachment to anyone or
anything, a hired gun, a means to an end. Red Sox fans loathe him. Blue Jays
fans despise him. Yankees fans tolerate him, but they haven’t embraced him and
never will, not with his Boston connections.
Who else is left? Can you remember any other superstar athlete squandering
his emotional connection to every possible city? Think about it. Name a
superstar over the past 30 years; within a nano-second, you instinctively
link that athlete to a particular place. Rose? Cincinnati. Aikman? Dallas.
Reggie? New York. Rice? San Fran. Isiah? Detroit. The list goes on and on. In
every case, the superstar enjoyed his prime years in a particular city and
still reaps the benefits of that relationship to this day. And yet Clemens
drifts along, the hired hitman, the superstar who sold out
his fans for a few extra bucks. Instead of a team logo, the cap on his Hall
of Fame statue should simply feature a dollar sign.
Of course, the general public associates Clemens with the city of Boston,
regardless of his current Yankees affiliation and enough bad blood over the
past few years to rival the Overlook Hotel’s main elevator at the end of “The
Shining.” The prevailing feeling seems to be that Boston fans will soften
during the twilight of Clemens’ career — when he enters that cuddly “aging
and vulnerable” stage that turns everyone nostalgic — and we’ll collectively
bury the hatchet with him, forgive his sins and accept him back in our good
graces. And then the Rocket will retire, and he’ll make the Hall of Fame, and
heck, he might even wear a Red Sox cap as a gesture
of good will.
Well, I’m here to tell you … this will never happen. Sometimes
relationships pass a point where they can be salvaged, as Ike & Tina, Nicole
& OJ and Sam & Diane all proved over the years. In the Rocket’s case, too
much has happened. We can’t let it go. We won’t let it go. When you give your
heart to someone and they basically drop it on the ground, stomp on it a few
times, then ask, “What did I do?” … well, you don’t forget something like
In footsteps of Orr, Bird
Clemens splashed onto the Boston sports scene in the mid-’80s — the zenith
of the Larry Bird Era — causing everyone to mistakenly assume that the
Rocket would follow the footsteps of Bird and Bobby Orr and become our next
local sports legend. Orr rejuvenated the Boston hockey scene during the ’70s;
Bird did the same for basketball in the ’80s; Clemens would carry the torch
for baseball into the late-’80s and beyond.
Orr … Bird … Clemens. That’s how we were thinking — this is going to
happen. Everything felt right about it. And over the next seven years from
’86 to ’92, the Rocket played his part reasonably well — 136 wins, three Cy
Youngs, three playoff
appearances and one World Series trip — but he lacked Orr’s panache and
Bird’s sense of The Moment. After awhile, we stopped measuring him against
them. We adored him, we supported him … but we worried about him. You
never worried about Bird and Orr.
For instance, during Game 6 of the ’86 World Series, Clemens could have
closed out the Mets and emerged as a genuine hero (you forget this now, but
everything was sitting right there at his fingertips — “legend” status, a
statue, the whole shebang). He pitched valiantly, holding a 3-2 lead through
the seventh before exiting with a blister on the index finger of his throwing
hand; even 15 years later, the principles involved (Clemens, former manager
John McNamara and former pitching coach Bill Fischer) still argue whether or
not Clemens asked out of the game.
McNamara vehemently claims that Clemens told him, “That’s all I can pitch”;
Clemens steadfastly maintains that he was yanked after the seventh; and
prosecutor Jim Garrison claims that there may have been a second pitching
coach ordering Clemens to leave the game. Nobody knows the truth, but we know
one thing: Under similar circumstances, Larry Bird would have remained in the
game unless he was forcibly removed and hogtied to the Celtics bench.
Clemens started eight playoff games in a five-year span from 1986-90, with
the Sox winning just one of those starts (Game 7 of the 1986 ALCS against
a shell-shocked Angels squad). To be fair, Boston’s bullpen blew two other
potential wins, but only one statistic keeps jumping out: 2-6. Not a good
We watched Hershiser (’88), Rijo (’90) and Morris (’91) shine in
postseasons over that same stretch, quietly waiting for Clemens to embark on
a similar “Get on my back, boys” run. Never happened. Eventually we wondered
if Clemens only peaked in meaningless games, like the time he tossed a
complete game shutout during the final game of the ’87 season (clinching his
bid for a second Cy Young) after the Sox had been eliminated from the playoff
picture for months.
And then there was Oakland ace/nemesis Dave Stewart, who delighted in beating
Clemens in their head-to-head matchups (my math might be a little off here,
but if I remember correctly, Stewart’s lifetime record against Clemens was
982-0 — even the Globetrotters-Generals feud wasn’t this one-sided). Things
finally boiled over in Game 4 of the 1990 American League playoffs between
Stewart and Clemens, as the Rocket flipped out while arguing balls and
strikes with home plate umpire Terry Cooney and got himself tossed in the
second inning, even punctuating his exit by throwing a memorable, Whitney
Houston-esque tantrum on the field and bumping Cooney more than once. Again,
Larry wouldn’t have done something like that.
Our concerns about Clemens deepened after the ’92 campaign, when he signed a
four-year, $20 million contract and took much of the next 3½ years
off, almost like a professor who gets tenure and doesn’t feel like grading
papers anymore. Unveiling a historic double chin for the ’93 season — my
father’s favorite joke that spring was, “Would you like another slice,
Roger?” — Clemens battled arm problems and floundered to the first losing
season of his career. He seemed more dedicated during the strike-shortened
’94 season (9-7, 2.85 ERA); unfortunately, he stopped working out that winter
and showed up for the post-strike spring training in ’95 looking like he was
auditioning for the “Chris Farley Story.”
Fueled by an increasingly vicious Boston media, Sox fans started to turn
against Clemens, especially after his inevitable breakdown during the first
part of the season (an extended DL stint) coincided with an improbable
playoff run by the Red
Sox. Of course, Clemens squandered his only playoff start to the Indians,
fueling those “can’t win the big one” doubts.
That brings us to ’96, the final season of Clemens’ aforementioned four-year
deal. Chunky, disinterested and increasingly vocal about Boston’s failure to
offer him a contract extension, the Rocket turned on the jets once the team
fell out of playoff contention, going 6-2 over his last 10 starts and
striking out 20 Tigers during a
mid-September game at Detroit. Classic Clemens, through and through. You
could always count on him when it mattered least (and yes, I’m getting bitter
just remembering this whole thing).
Understandably, the Red Sox were dubious about signing him to another
long-term deal, given that he A) was 34 years old; B) battled health problems in ’93
and ’95; and C) spent a sizable chunk of the past four years hibernating
through his last mega-contract (this was the musical equivalent of U2 asking
for a contract extension from their record company on the heels of “Zooropa”
and “Pop”). Tensions escalated between Clemens’ agents (the hideous
Hendricks brothers) and Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette, exacerbated by
Duquette’s steadfast refusal to negotiate during the season or recognize the
Rocket’s market value. We were headed for a divorce, an ugly one, and the sad
thing was this: We knew things were headed that way all along.
Blue Jays, OK, but Yankees …
When Clemens ultimately jumped at a $28 million offer to play for the Blue
Jays, we were jolted … but deep down, we understood. Sometimes you just
have to move on.
So what happened? Why the sudden change of heart? Why did the Rocket
become the modern-day Sirhan Sirhan of New England? Five things happened over
the ensuing three-year span that turned Boston fans against Clemens for life;
if any of them had unfolded differently, the bad blood could have been
1. The Slap in the Face
When Clemens signed with Toronto and held his first press conference with the
Blue Jays, he only needed to take one minute out of the afternoon — just one
— to say something like this:
“I want to say something to the Boston fans who stuck with me over the past
12 years: Thanks for all your support. I’ll always remember the time I spent
in Boston and I’ll always be a Red Sox fan at heart. I hope you guys finally
win a Series some day and I’m just sorry I’m not going to be a part of it
when it happens. I wish things didn’t deteriorate with the front office, but
they did, and I didn’t fell like they wanted me around anymore. And Toronto
makes me feel like they want me, and they did everything they could to make
me a Blue Jay. For that, I’m grateful, and I’m happy to be here. But I hope
the Boston fans realize that I’ll always remember them and I’ll miss pitching
in front of them at Fenway. Thanks for 12 great years. You guys are truly
That’s it. Would have taken about 45 seconds. That’s all.
Instead, Clemens spent much of the press conference stroking his new Blue
Jays hat and showing about as much emotion as Mr. Spock. His only concern
seemed to be making everyone aware — repeatedly, painfully, flagrantly — of
how “excited I am to be a Blue Jay” and “how grateful I am that the Blue Jays
have treated me so well.” It was like they offered him an extra 50 bucks
every time he praised the Jays. The members of the Boston media kept giving
him chances to rectify the mistake, repeatedly asking him about his stint in
Boston, but Clemens stubbornly stuck to his guns. He was moving forward. He
was a Blue Jay. And so he brushed off every question about Boston fans, while
we watched in disbelief, our anger mounting. That wasn’t just an oversight,
it was a hanging curveball right over the plate.
(And when we found out that Toronto had offered him the most money — about
$2 million to $3 million more than the defending champion Yankees — and yet Clemens kept
maintaining that he signed with the Blue Jays because he wanted to win a
championship … well, that made him a liar, too. Let the record show that
Toronto finished 24 games under .500 in Clemens’ two seasons above the
2. The Kick in the Gonads
Suddenly and mysteriously motivated by the slight from Boston’s front office,
Clemens embarked on a rigorous conditioning program during the offseason,
determined to prove Team Duquette wrong. He arrived for spring training in
superb shape for the first time in eons, repeatedly telling reporters that he
had never been better prepared to start a season. Of course, that revelation
should have prompted questions like, “If you’re so motivated this season, why
weren’t you as motivated from 1993-96 after signing the most lucrative deal
in Red Sox history?” and “Will you be training with a feedbag and a vat of
chicken wings like you did in ’95?” but that’s a story for another time.
Apparently star athletes aren’t obligated to get
themselves in shape until they feel slighted.
Anyway, we watched in horror as Clemens rolled off consecutive Cy Young
seasons for the Blue Jays. Here were his average stats from ’93-’96 in
Boston, followed by the ’97 and ’98 seasons in Toronto:
YR W-L ERA G IP H SO BB 93-96 10-10 3.90 26 186.1 164 204 76 1997 21-7 2.05 34 264.0 204 292 68 1998 20-6 2.65 33 234.2 169 271 88
Put it this way: Watching Clemens lighting it up in Canada was like breaking
up with your girlfriend, then watching her hire a personal trainer, shed 15
pounds, spend 10 Gs on a boob job and join the cast of “Baywatch.” If that
wasn’t tough enough to swallow, Clemens thrived against his former team,
going 2-0 with a 1.73 ERA in four starts (including a memorable “f-you” start
in Fenway in ’97, when he glared at the owner’s box after leaving the game)
and dropping hints in the papers that Mo Vaughn should join him in Canada.
Now it was becoming personal, and when the Boston media started hammering him
(with longtime Boston Globe hatchet man Will McDonough leading the pack), the
tide shifted against Clemens for good. We felt jilted, we felt used and we
started rooting against him. Vehemently.
3. The Revelation
As luck would have it, at the exact same time Clemens was sparkling for a
sub-.500 team in a foreign country, Boston fans were falling for two new
heroes: Pedro Martinez and Nomar Garciaparra. Both of them were blessed with
an innate understanding about Boston fans — what baseball means to us, how
we value players who play hard, how we revere players with a sense of The
Moment, how we love when our heroes acknowledge us and say things like “The
fans were great today” or “Nothing beats playing in Boston in front of these
fans.” Sounds stupid? It’s not. That’s Boston. We eat that stuff up.
The double-barreled emergence of Nomar and Pedro (coupled with Clemens being
hooked up to the Rejuvenation Machine in Canada) made us realize that the
loss of Clemens wasn’t as important as we thought. If anything, the new guys
were more fun to watch. And since Clemens was a self-serving, greedy jerk who
didn’t care about us when he played here … well, this was war.
(If baseball were wrestling, this would be the point where Clemens came into
the ring carrying the Canadian flag, shouting epithets about Nomar and Pedro,
making unflattering jokes about Boston and forcing everyone to stand for the
playing of the Canadian anthem. In other words, all ties had been severed —
he was an official “Bad Guy.”)
4. The Ultimate Violation
After two losing seasons in Toronto, a disenchanted Clemens eventually forced
a trade to the Yankees in the spring of ’99, with help from an illegal “You
can ask for a trade two years into this deal if you’re not happy” handshake
clause from his contract that drew the ire of the commissioner’s office. It
wasn’t bad enough that the winningest pitcher in Red Sox history wanted to
play in New York — he actually cheated to get there. Even the staunchest
Clemens sympathizers in New England couldn’t defend him anymore. He had
crossed over to the dark side. He was Darth Vader with a Texas accent. He was
(By the way, if you’re keeping track, Clemens was officially a quitter, a
cheater, a fibber and a traitor at this point).
5. The Final Straw
During the All-Star Game ceremonies at Fenway that same summer, Clemens took
part in the “Greatest Players of the 20th Century” introductions, where every
living legend wore the cap of the team with whom they were most prominently
associated. Of course, Clemens wore a Yankees hat because he had been playing
in New York for a whopping three months. Here was his last chance — I mean, ever — to salvage his ties with Boston fans. And he blew it.
At this point, we were like Michael Corleone in “Godfather 2” after finding
out that Fredo knew Johnny Ola: “Fredo, you’re nothing to me now. I don’t
want to see you. I don’t want to know you. If you visit our mother, I want to
know a day in advance. You’re dead to me.”
Or something like that.
Looking for love
More things happened after the 1999 All-Star Game; none of them remotely
changed the way we felt about the Rocket. We savagely booed him during an
unforgettable Game 3 in the ’99 ALCS, when Pedro outdueled him at Fenway
and officially became The Man. When Clemens’ wife whined to the Globe’s Dan
Shaughnessy about the treatment her husband had received — including the
infamous quote, “I don’t know what Roger ever did to them” — that inflamed
us even more. We winced when Clemens finally captured his first-ever ring a
few weeks later, taking solace in the fact that the Yankees probably would
have won without him. We enjoyed his battles with Mike Piazza during the 2000
season, including the bizarre bat-tossing incident
in Game 2 of the World Series that inadvertently tainted much of the Series
for the Yankees and their fans.
Now he’s practically old news. The “Everyone hates Clemens” angle has been
done to death. So has the “Clemens vs. Pedro” angle. And the “Fallen hero
returns home” angle. Done, done, done. Next time Clemens pitches against the
Sox, only the Yankee fans in attendance will be cheering him.
That begs one final question: Will Roger Clemens ever be loved by any group
of baseball fans?
Say what you want about Yankee fans, but at least you know where you stand
with them. When they love somebody, they love somebody, especially pitchers.
They loved Guidry and Righetti. They loved Cone and Wells. They love Rivera.
But Clemens … maybe it’s the Boston ties, or the fact that they traded
Wells to obtain him, or the way he made them sweat during the ’99 stretch
run, or his self-destruction at Fenway during the ’99 ALCS, or even the
bat-throwing incident from last October. Hell, maybe it’s a little of
everything. Whatever the case, he hasn’t clicked with New York fans; even the
most diehard Yankee supporter would admit that. They’re cheering him now, but
you always get the sense that they’re wary of him, that they would turn on
him in the drop of a hat. Watching the movie “61” last month, you couldn’t
help but notice the similarities between Roger Maris and Clemens — both
All-Star imports who never really won over their fans, through no fault of
And so Clemens gives the Yankees a better-than-good chance to win every five
days, and as soon as those odds drop, they’ll discard him and find someone
else. Those are the stakes. He’s a hired gun, a means to an end, a necessary
evil. He’s a temp. And maybe he’ll end up winning 300 games and another
championship ring, and maybe he’ll make $25-30 million more before it’s all
over … but everything about those last few years will inevitably feel
hollow. He’ll have his family and friends in the end. And that’s it. The fans
will be long gone.
As for Red Sox fans, the worst part about the Clemens Era is that void from
1986-1996 — it’s almost like dating someone for an extended time, then
suffering through a dreadful breakup that taints every aspect of the time you
spent together. It’s not that you forget the good times … you simply
choose not to think about them anymore, that’s all. There’s no point. I
remember my then-girlfriend bought me an autographed, limited edition photo
of Clemens’ 20K game back in college, which I dragged with me to every
apartment I lived in from 1990-96. After the Toronto press conference, in a
fit of rage, I yanked down that picture, never to be seen again.
More than four years have passed and that photo is still buried in my bedroom
closet. That’s what I think of Clemens — he’s stuck in a closet with useless
graduate notebooks, eclectic magazines, yellowed photos, letters from old
flames and old sweaters that I stopped wearing a long time ago.
Is he the Antichrist? Probably not. But I’ve been following sports for nearly
three decades, and no athlete ever let me down quite like Roger Clemens did.
Fortunately, we can take solace at the potential sight of Clemens standing on
the field at New Fenway, maybe 40 years from now, being introduced on Old
Timer’s Day 2041 … and getting showered with boos from Red Sox fans. “I
can’t believe they still haven’t let this go,” he’ll mumble to himself, a
thin smile spread across his face, oblivious to the bitter end, still waiting
for the fans to come around.
Not a chance.
You can read Bill Simmons’ irreverent take on sports on his award-winning “Boston Sports Guy” website, which can be reached at www.bostonsportsguy.com. Simmons is a regular contributor to Page 2.