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Why I can't help but love Roger Clemens

In baseball, as in life, our encounters with genuine greatness are typically fleeting. Each generation may see perhaps a handful of players destined for the most esteemed echelon, a handful of players who, upon completion of long and illustrious careers, could realistically feature in the greatest of all-time debate.

For my generation, so addled by performance-enhancing drugs, a few players immediately spring to mind: Rivera, Bonds, Rodriguez, Jeter and Pujols. Then there is Roger Clemens, who despite steroid accusations was probably the gutsiest competitor ever to bestride a major league mound.

Like him or loathe him, and conclude whatever you will about his later legal battles, there is no denying how fascinating it was to watch Clemens pitch. When he took the ball, there was an electric buzz, a simmering sense of happening that enlivened the field quite unlike anything before or since.

He was a hulking giant, snarling and breathing fire, determined to strike you out even if it required his last mortal breath. Yet to match that primal instinct, Clemens had astounding ability that made him one of the greatest and most commanding hurlers in baseball history.

As we watched, you could feel that history and you could see it eating at Roger, compelling him to dig even deeper and locate reserves of inner determination no other player possessed. The Rocket was not just competing within one game or one season, or even one era. Rather, he was chasing the ghosts and striving for altogether new categories of excellence.

To watch that journey was a pure and simple pleasure.

Did Roger Clemens take steroids?

Whether by means fair or foul, Roger Clemens was the absolute master of self-reinvention. He broke through with the Red Sox in 1984 as a young flamethrower, and twenty-three years later, he still brought the gas with the 2007 Yankees.

The game changed almost beyond recognition during the span of Rogers’ career, morphing from a rather genteel pastime into a hyperactive, technologically advanced, multibillion-dollar juggernaut. Clemens kept apace, mowing down hitters and breaking records.

Roger debuted in a league starring Rod Carew, retired in a circuit touting Jacoby Ellsbury, and dominated in between. He was a man for all seasons, a man who traversed generations. Ultimately, he was a man distinguished by his unwavering desire to succeed.

The Roger Clemens I knew, as a fan discovering baseball in the mid-2000s, was the truculent ace of the Houston Astros, the burly lion with broad shoulders and forearms like tree trunks. In hindsight, many will argue that The Rocket’s commanding physique was a product of steroid use, and they may well be correct. However, at the time, we had very little inkling, beyond rumours and whispers, because it was an age of innocence, before Game of Shadows hit baseball with tectonic force.

To me, as a nine-year old baseball novice, this uber confident gunslinger was simply enthralling. The way he collapsed and exploded towards the hitter in that famous motion. The way he sizzled fastballs and rocked splitters. The way he governed hitters in the knowing manner of a grizzled vet. It was just sensational.

However, in light of the various allegations, legal squabbles and wider information gleaned about the Steroid Era, I feel confused. Clemens was first mentioned in Jose Canseco’s infamous Juiced, before being heavily implicated in the Mitchell Report as a user of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs).

The latter revelation was based on the testimony of Brian McNamee, Roger’s personal trainer, who claimed to have injected the pitcher with steroids during the late-190s and early-2000s. Clemens, who never failed a drugs test, vigorously denied the accusations before Congress in 2008, at the genesis of a prolonged perjury trial.

Ultimately, in 2010, Roger was acquitted on all counts of lying to Congress, once McNamee admitted inconsistencies in his story. Yet while Clemens has effectively been cleared of illegality, a decade of accusation, speculation and allegation has sullied his image and tarnished his legacy in the capricious court of baseball opinion. An ugly caveat looms helplessly over the entire subject of Roger Clemens.

In times of yore, of course, he was not an avatar of the steroid era, nor was he so readily disrespected. First and foremost, Roger Clemens was an indomitable pitcher, a bonafide ace personified. He spent time with Boston, Toronto, Houston and had two tours with the Yankees, winning two World Series rings, seven Cy Young Awards, two pitching Triple Crowns and an American League MVP.

Roger was selected to eleven All-Star Games and, in 709 career starts, he managed to strike out 4,672 batters, third-most in the long and exhaustive history of baseball. Moreover, Clemens won 354 career games, and twice struck out 20 hitters in a nine-inning contest, establishing and tying a major league record ten years apart.

Quite simply, he was the greatest pitcher I have ever seen.

Roger Clemens, Red Sox phenom

Roger was born in Dayton, Ohio, in August 1962. He came from humble beginnings, his parents splitting early in his life, but Clemens seemed predestined for athletic success. Scouts from major league teams followed him from his earliest days of high school, where Roger also starred in football and basketball, but when the Mets drafted him in 1981, Clemens decided to attend the University of Texas instead.

There, he pitched the Texas Longhorns to a College World Series title, greatly improving his draft stock, to the point where the Boston Red Sox selected him 19th overall in 1983. Every team that passed over Clemens spent the next two decades regretting it, as he blazed a trail through baseball in the style of the quintessential power ace.

The Red Sox could barely contain Clemens within the minor leagues, his performances dictating a big league debut less than a year after the draft. Over the next two years, Roger encountered some of the typical wildness associated with strikeout pitchers, but in 1986, at the age of 23, he produced one of the finest seasons in baseball history. His 24 wins, 238 strikeouts and 0.969 WHIP in 254 innings lead the Red Sox to their first pennant in eleven years.

Then haunted by the Bambino Curse, Boston lost the resultant World Series to the Mets, when Bill Buckner wrote his name in infamy. However, Clemens’ season-long excellence, including his first 20-strikeout game against the Mariners, was so outstanding as to land him a slew of postseason awards, including his first Cy Young, and a rare pitcher MVP.

When the legendary Hank Aaron argued that pitchers should be exempt from MVP voting, Clemens issued an immortal response: “I wish he were still playing. I’d probably crack his head open to show him how valuable I was.”

The dye was cast. For the rest of his career, Roger Clemens straddled the thin line between hero and villain, between talent and arrogance. Some loved him, but many hated him. All watched, however, because the guys was just intoxicating. He was history in the making.

In 1987, Clemens joined Denny McLain, Jim Palmer and Sandy Koufax as the only pitchers to successfully defend their Cy Young Award, up to that point in time. He struck out more batters than in his MVP season and, from there on out, became must-watch TV.

Sadly, during the remarkable youth of their splendid ace, the Red Sox were decidedly schizophrenic, flittering in and out of contention, and typically following playoff seasons with sporadic spells in the American League basement.

Clemens struck out close to 300 batters in 1987, won a further Cy Young in 1991, and tied the great man for the franchise record in wins during the 1996 campaign. Nevertheless, Boston could never find a way to make all the stars align at the same time.

Ultimately, Roger became just another unsatisfied Red Sox star, just another all-time great who was tragically incapable of winning a World Series championship with the star-crossed team of Fenway Park. Just like Ted. Just like Yaz.

The twilight of Roger Clemens’ career

Unlike those Gods of New England, Clemens did not stay around into his twilight years, morbidly dedicated to a seemingly unquenchable quest. Rather, when his Red Sox contract expired following the 1996 season, Roger sought pastures new. His numbers declined with age, to the point where Clemens had a 4.46 ERA in 1993 and a dismal 1.436 WHIP two years later. Heading into his age-34 season, many openly questioned whether the great Roger Clemens, once this terrific fountain of Red Sox hope, was actually worth the money it would take to keep him around.

Boston general Dan Duquette did offer Clemens the largest contract in Red Sox history, but at that point, Roger’s mind was elsewhere. Regardless of money, he sought a new adventure and, ever aware of his waning years, he sensed an opportunity to win a World Series ring. He did not think an ageing Red Sox team had much chance of winning a title in the ensuing years and, instead, he opted to sign with the Toronto Blue Jays for four years and $40 million.

In Canada, Clemens pitched two of the greatest seasons in baseball history, seemingly reversing the ageing process to win consecutive Triple Crowns, and snatch his fourth and fifth Cy Young Awards.

Roger went 21-7 at the age of 34 in 1997 with a 2.05 ERA and 292 strikeouts, before producing 20 more victories and 271 more punch-outs a year later. It should be noted that this sublime resurgence coincided with McNamee working closely with Clemens. Indeed, during his Mitchell Report testimony, the personal trainer pinpointed 1998-2001 as the prime timeframe during which he injected Clemens with steroids.

Ultimately, Clemens was never content in Toronto. When the Blue Jays were actually worse than the Red Sox in two consecutive years, despite Clemens pitching abnormally well, Roger grew anxious. He knew he was the greatest pitcher of his generation, perhaps the greatest of any generation, but that talent was wasted in Toronto, a hockey town with fickle interest in baseball.

Accordingly, Clemens lobbied for a trade to the one guaranteed contender, the one consistent powerhouse of baseball. Roger sought a future in New York City, a future as the ace of the dynastic New York Yankees.

Roger Clemens and the Yankees’ dynasty

At the time, George Steinbrenner, the inimitable Yankee owner, was in his glorious pomp, spending endless amounts of money in pursuit of perfection. To him, Clemens was the icing on an already tasty cake, the latest hired gun needed to push his ballclub into another realm of excellence.

Under the aegis of Joe Torre, the Bronx Bombers won World Series championships in 1996 and 1998. They were the reigning masters of the baseball world, and when, prior to the 1999 season, the great Roger Clemens was added to a team that won 125 games, continuity was virtually assured in the Yankees’ monopoly.

Clemens, the most dominant pitcher with the biggest heart, took his electric show on the road to New York, the most dominant city with the biggest expectations. Roger, the most commanding superstar with the greatest arm, joined the most commanding team with the greatest history. It was so big, so bold, so tantalising.

In 1999, Clemens spearheaded a rotation containing Andy Pettitte, David Cone, Orlando Hernandez and Hideki Irabu, while Mariano Rivera loomed in the bullpen. On offence, the Yankees had Tino Martinez, Paul O’Neill, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada and a young kid named Derek Jeter. Of course, they won the AL East, then they won the pennant, and then they won the 25th World Series crown in team history by sweeping Atlanta.

Clemens was solid, if not spectacular, during the regular season, before coming up trumps in October, when the lights were finally bright enough to be worthy of Roger’s presence. Clemens pitched and won the clincher, securing at long last that elusive World Series ring at the age of 36. For so long baseball’s best pitcher, Clemens finally conquered the mountain, straddling its zenith with pride and power.

After striving fruitlessly for a ring for so long, Roger won two in as many seasons. In 2000, he improved across the board, winning 13 games, striking out 188 batters and pitching to a 3.70 ERA as the Yankees stormed to a third successive world championship. Along the way, Clemens set a record for most strikeouts in an ALCS game, with fifteen against the Mariners, before dominating the crosstown New York Mets in an epochal Subway Series full of tension and drama.

During that Series, Clemens infamously threw a shard of Mike Piazza’s broken bat at the Mets’ beloved catcher, sparking an ugly confrontation that only burnished Roger’s villainous reputation. Nevertheless, Clemens enjoyed the last laugh as the Yanks topped the Mets in five games, enriching their sprawling empire.

Clemens’ best year with the Yankees came in 2001, when he won his sixth Cy Young Award with a 20-3 record, 213 strikeouts and a 3.51 ERA in 220 innings. That year, the Yanks won their fifth American League pennant in six years, but were infamously beaten in seven games by Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling and the upstart Arizona Diamondbacks.

As a baseball fan for over a decade, I have seen a lot of pitchers, both good and bad. And if, in some bizarre dystopia, I was asked to select one ace to pitch a game with my life on the line, it would be a toss-up between Clemens and Schilling. In 2001, this scenario played itself out, with both warhorses duelling in Game 7 of the World Series.

Schilling lasted longer, but Clemens was marginally more effective, as the Yankees hauled a 2-1 lead into the bottom of the ninth for Rivera, the greatest closer who ever lived. Of course, Arizona famously stormed back against all odds, winning the game, and championship, on Luis Gonzalez’ bloop hit over a drawn-in infield with one out. The Yankees waited eight years for another title.

Buster Olney wrote a prescient book about the Series, entitled The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty, and his prediction was largely correct. The core of that championship run began to crumble and dissolve. O’Neill retired. Martinez played out the string in St Louis and Tampa. Cone became a Red Sock and Met, of all things. Before long, the Yankees were drawn back to the pack as opposing teams made up ground on a suddenly ageing juggernaut. New York won another pennant in 2003, but were overpowered by the youthful exuberance and energy of Josh Beckett’s Florida Marlins.

Why Roger Clemens came out of retirement with the Houston Astros

Meanwhile, Clemens announced 2003 would be his final season, then proceeded to win his 300th game, strike out his 4,000th batter, and following the season, experience a sudden change of heart. At the age of 41, Roger was compelled by his love of the game to come out of an abbreviated, three-month retirement. He signed a one-year contract with his hometown Houston Astros and, naturally, won another Cy Young Award, as if solely to prove his doubters wrong.

I’m forever thankful that Clemens chose to continue playing, because it afforded me the opportunity to enjoy one of very best players ever to grasp a baseball. I first discovered the game during an impromptu, late night viewing of the 2004 World Series on Channel 5 here in Britain. By the following season, baseball became my chief obsession. Accordingly, the 2005 Astros, featuring Clemens, Pettitte, Lance Berkman, Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell, will always hold a special place in my pantheon of memories.

That team, bedecked in the old Houston pinstripes and possessing an implacable patina of glory, won the National League pennant and faced the Chicago White Sox in the first World Series I watched with searing concentration. The Astros were ultimately swept, but those memories, and that incredible image of Clemens leading his team to the Fall Classic at the age of 42, with the lowest single-season ERA (1.87) of his distinguished career, will stay with me forever, regardless of what anybody else thinks of the man.

Roger flirted with retirement again in 2006, before returning to the Astros in May and continuing his amusing domination of major league hitters. However, when Houston did not renew Clemens’ contract for 2007, The Rocket took another leave of absence, only to randomly appear in George Steinbrenner’s box at Yankee Stadium a few months later, announcing his triumphant return to the Bronx Bombers.

Roger Clemens’ return to the Yankees

After a brief minor league tune-up with the Sugar Land Skeeters, Roger returned on 9th June 2007 and pitched decently in eighteen subsequent starts, earning $28 million for five months of work. Not bad for a fiery 44-year old.

Clemens retired, for the fifth and final time, following the 2007 season. In Game 3 of an ultimately fruitless American League Division Series, Roger struck out Cleveland’s Victor Martinez with the 69,272nd pitch of his major league career, exactly 8,546 days after baffling Cleveland’s Mike Hargrove for his maiden big league strikeout in 1984.

For almost 25 years, from minor league phenom to major league ace, onwards to all-time great, Roger Clemens remained relevant. Relevant and dominant. Four different presidents occupied office while Clemens stayed on top of baseball’s Mount Olympus, a testament to his talent and also to his fortitude.

Now, his legacy has been blighted, fairly or otherwise, and people do not hold The Rocket in quite the same regard as once was customary. But deep down, I cannot help but love the guy, and cherish the memories he created in my baseball-obsessed childhood. And for that, I’m truly grateful.

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