By Ross Forman
His nickname was “Rocket” and thus, Roger Clemens often adds that inscription to his autograph.
He certainly could add a load of impressive statistics, too.
Clemens’ major league career spanned 24 seasons with four teams: Boston Red Sox (1984-96), Toronto Blue Jays (1997-1998), N.Y. Yankees (1999-2003, 2007) and the Houston Astros (2004-06). He recorded 354 career wins, a 3.12 ERA and 4,672 strikeouts – the third-most all time. Clemens was an 11-time All-Star and two-time World Series champion.
Oh, and Clemens claimed seven Cy Young Awards, the most of any pitcher in history.
“I was very fortunate. I was very healthy for most of my MLB career,” Clemens said. “I was able to get to the major leagues at a very young age, 21 – and I was able to un-retire a couple of times. I tried to retire, and it didn’t work out. Thank goodness I came out of retirement to come home (to Houston), to pitch for the Astros. I had three of my most memorable years (with Houston), especially at my advanced age. For a team that didn’t score a lot, there were a lot of stressful games, but we got to the World Series (in 2005), and, sure, it was fun for me, especially since guys like (Craig) Biggio and (Jeff) Bagwell were able to get there, too. That was just a great deal of fun.”
Clemens had six seasons with 20 or more wins, including a 24-4 record with Boston in 1986. He had 10 or more wins in 19 seasons, and never had a losing record.
Clemens led the league in strikeouts five times, including a personal-best 292 strikeouts while pitching for Toronto in 1997.
Clemens was 12-8 in the postseason, including a 3-0 record in the World Series.
“I paid a lot of attention (to the reports) from the advance scouts,” Clemens said. “Sure, I’d always want to pitch my game, but if a player was hot, seeing the ball good, I’d be careful with that guy, especially if the game was close; I wouldn’t give him much to hit.
“The guys who gave me trouble were not the big power hitters, but rather the contact hitters. As a power pitcher, that contact hitter would sit there and foul off a bunch of two-strike pitches, and he’d push up my pitch count.”
When facing the contact hitters, Clemens said he “would try to throw a (pitch) extremely hard, probably a two-seam fastball down the middle, let it move and hopefully those guys would ground out quickly.”
Other highlights from Clemens’ illustrious career include:
• 1986 All-Star Game MVP.
• Two-time back-to-back Cy Young Awards, 1986-87 and 1997-98.
• Led the American League in wins four times.
• Led the American League in strikeouts three times.
“I started getting ready when I was taking my shower; I was thinking about the lineup (that I likely would face). I would visualize the players I’d face so, when I got to the ballpark at 3 p.m., or so, I’d be ready for those guys,” he said. “I was very serious about what I did, especially at the professional ranks. Sure, I still had fun at it, but I had a bunch of people counting on me to do my job, and do it well. So I took it very seriously.
“Off the field I was pretty fun-loving and had a good time. But when I got to the ballpark, and it was my day (to pitch), I was pretty locked in and was trying to help the other guys on the days I was not (scheduled to pitch).”
Clemens’ career as a batter was, well, so-so, at best.
He was a .173 lifetime hitter and laughs that he never hit a major league home run. But, he added, “I came close a couple of times.”
“I hit one off the upper padding in Colorado for a double. I thought it was going out and almost missed first base as I was admiring it. Same thing once happened at Shea Stadium (in New York); I hit one to right-center (field) and it hit the top of the padding; I thought it was going out.”
Clemens’ run on the baseball card market dates back to the 1980s. His top three rookie cards are 1984 Fleer Update #27, 1985 Donruss #273 and 1985 Fleer #155. Clemens has been an exclusive player on the autograph front for Houston-based Tristar Productions Inc. for years.
He appeared at Tristar’s mid-February card show in Houston.
“I enjoy the sports memorabilia industry, working with Tristar Productions, its president Jeff Rosenberg, along with Bobby Mintz and Doug Goldstein; they all do a great job,” Clemens said. “The thing I really enjoy is the fans who bring really special items, things that I hadn’t even seen, to be signed. Plus, Jeff and his team will show up with pieces that I hadn’t even seen.
“I wouldn’t say I’m really a collector, but when there are cool pieces, it’s really cool to see them. Be it a painting of yourself, or whatever.”
Such as the lady who painted Clemens’ image on a jersey, which he said “was fantastic.”
“There have really been a lot of cool items that the fans have asked me to sign,” Clemens said. “I enjoy doing my few public signing appearances for Tristar. I don’t often ask other athletes for autographs, but if they ask me to sign something for their kids, then I’ll try to get them to sign four autographs for me, for my boys.”
Tidbits from Clemens
• On three amateur coaches who he played for: “I had the opportunity to play with three fantastic coaches, more so, they were great teachers of the sport,” Clemens said. “Charlie Maiorana was my coach at Spring Woods High School (in Houston). He was a great coach of the game, and a father figure. I was coached by Wayne Graham, who is now at Rice; I played for him for one year, at San Jacinto (College North), before moving on to the University of Texas, where I had the privilege of playing for Cliff Gustafson.
• Do you miss the game: “No, I’m around it enough. I don’t miss the ice tanks or (needing to) ice my shoulder or elbow (after pitching). I did it to the fullest; I had 24 years.”
• On Mike Piazza and the famed broken bat toss in the 2002 World Series: “There’s nothing else to tell; it pretty much was what it was,” he said. “Media members said that I threw a bat at him, but I didn’t. If I wanted to throw a bat at him, I would have thrown it at him. I grabbed the broken portion and rifled it toward the on-deck area. It wasn’t that big of a deal.”
Ross Forman is a freelance contributor to SCD. He can be reached at Rossco814@aol.com.