This article is taken from the Jan. 28. issue of ESPN The Magazine.
SEPT. 18, 1996. —
I was bartending in Boston and wondering what the heck had happened to my life. You know things are bad when you’re setting your alarm clock for noon every day, only you still have to hit the snooze button a few times before rolling out of bed. That was me. I wanted to do only one thing in life — write
a sports column — and at the time, there was no conceivable way for me to pull that off.
So I felt sorry for myself, worked nights, partied six nights a week, dated people I shouldn’t have and watched a ridiculous amount of sports. That was my life. On Sept. 18, I had the night off and was sitting at home. Roger Clemens was pitching in Detroit. Like every other Boston fan, I wasn’t sure how to feel about him. He’d struggled through a dreadful contract year (4?11, 4.36 ERA on Aug. 1) before ripping off four straight wins
and looking like the Clemens of old.
Suddenly, Boston was divided between two camps: “We gotta re-sign Rogah!” and “We gotta get rid of this bum!” I was firmly entrenched in the latter. When Clemens unveiled a historic triple chin after the ’95 strike abruptly ended,
it looked like he’d hired Chris Farley’s personal trainer. Shouldn’t rich baseball players stay in shape? I had grown tired of Clemens’ hot and cold streaks, tired of hoping he could stay healthy for more than two months, tired of my Yankee-fan friends teasing me because he never came through in the clutch. If somebody offered him too much money and he left, I was fine with it.
Still, there was an undeniable nostalgia factor to The Rocket’s final Boston starts, like seeing your favorite band on a farewell tour. On this night, Clemens had it going.
He struck out 12 Tigers in five innings. Like every other Sox fan, I immediately thought of his famous Mariners game. Could this be … ?
I called my dad. He was watching and thinking the same thing. After I hung up,
my phone started ringing. One buddy called. Two buddies called. Three buddies called. Everyone was thinking the same thing.
Clemens struck out the side in the sixth, and the symbolism was suffocating. Weeks into his 1986 breakout season, Clemens struck out a record 20 Mariners. With two weeks remaining in his Boston career, he was doing it again. For some reason, fundamentally, as a human being, at that specific point in my life, I needed him to do this for me. He had sucked against Dave Stewart his whole career, he had sucked for most of the past four years, he was putting together the most thinly disguised contract push ever … and you know what? I didn’t give a crap. He owed me this. He owed every Sox fan this.
I remember cracking open a beer and working five Marlboro Lights at once. After Clemens fanned two more in the seventh,
I called my dad, and we had a two-minute conversation of only one-word sentences (“Wow!” “Whoa!”). Tired of pacing my apartment, I walked down to Sully’s Pub
in Charlestown for the last two innings. There wasn’t a more predictable local bar: The same people were there every night,
the same bartenders worked the same shifts, and the guy-to-girl ratio never dropped below 5:1. You walked out of there reeking of smoke and booze even if you were sober and not smoking. Anytime I liked a girl, I took her to Sully’s. If she didn’t like it or made a sarcastic comment like “I thought we were going somewhere fun,” she was a goner.
That’s where I wanted to watch Clemens whiff 20 Tigers, with a bunch of Sox fans in an old-school Boston bar. Just like I imagined, the regulars were throwing down beer like water and swaying with every pitch. Because our sports teams had been floundering, you could feel the collective pent-up joy bubbling to the surface. When Clemens notched two more K’s in the eighth (19!!!), the bar erupted as if
we were filming a scene for a sports movie.
I raced over to the pay phone, called Dad one more time to make sure he was awake, then proceeded to plow through another seven cigs at once. The last time Clemens had whiffed 20, I was in high school and found out from a scrolling breaking-news ticker. Now I was in my mid-20s, sitting in a Boston bar and legally drinking, living in the only place I had ever wanted to live …
and there was Clemens, my favorite pitcher once again, about to strike out 20 again. Maybe life wasn’t so bad after all.
When Clemens notched No. 20, in the ninth, the roof in Sully’s practically came off. I’m not kidding. I hugged complete strangers. I bought a round of shots even though I was broke. A buddy showed up, and we eventually closed the place. I woke up at noon again the next day, maybe even a little later, but for one of the few times that year, I had a smile on my face. Roger Clemens had fanned 20 guys. Again.
Three months later, he signed with Toronto and broke our hearts by not really acknowledging the fans at the press
conference. We turned on him for good when he got himself into killer shape, won four more
Cy Youngs, pitched into his mid-40s and secured his status as the best pitcher of the past 50 years. So much for his being washed-up at 34.
Of course, when his name landed in
the Mitchell report, evidence quickly mounted that Clemens had received
some “help” as far back as 1998. There’s
a good chance that he’s a liar and a
cheater, although we don’t know for sure.
The stunning turn of events didn’t leave me as satisfied as I thought it would. Whenever people write about the Steroids Era, they always focus on numbers. After all, the combination of numbers and history makes baseball unique. We crunch them, compare them, memorize them, and eventually they become living, breathing entities. The Steroids Era has made it impossible to say which numbers are genuine, so fans worry that we can’t compare generations anymore. I’d argue that every generation has mitigating factors that affect the numbers, and in time we’ll learn how to weigh those factors from the past 15 years. We just need time.
But here’s what we won’t figure out:
how to reconcile our own memories with everything we know now, after all these revelations. There’s no evidence that Clemens cheated in Boston, but he played there with Jose Canseco in ’96, and his
performance spiked sharply during
a specific period when he couldn’t stay healthy and needed a performance boost. If Clemens cheated in ’98 and beyond — and
it sure seems like he did — how
do we know he was clean for that Detroit game?
Before the Mitchell report, when I thought back to that night at Sully’s, it was always a happy blur of strikeouts and phone calls and cigarettes and drinks and high fives. Now there’s a shadow of a syringe, and it won’t really go away. We think the damage from the Steroids Era is about numbers, but it’s really about memories — the way we used to remember things and
the way we remember them now. Every
baseball fan may have been delighted by
different moments from the past decade,
but the shadow lingering over many of those memories will always look the same.
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His book “Now I Can Die In Peace” is available in paperback.