Thirty years later, can he imagine how young he was?
“That was a lot of hanging sliders ago,’’ said Roger Clemens, who was 23 years old on that 56-degree night in Fenway Park on April 29, 1986, when he became the first pitcher in major-league history to strike out 20 batters. “That’s called 24 years of stress.’’
Clemens was calling from Texas, his cellphone “blowing up” with messages from friends, former teammates, former Sox pitching coach Bill Fischer, and Dr. James Andrews, the orthopedic surgeon who had repaired Clemens’s shoulder the previous summer. Andrews had texted mid-call.
“Man, that was great,’’ he texted. “Glad I can call you a friend and my signature patient.’’
“People are texting me, saying, ‘Do you remember what you were doing 30 years ago tonight?’’ Clemens said.
“I say, ‘Yeah, I was in full panic mode on Storrow Drive, stuck in traffic.’’
Unlike some pitchers, who arrive hours before their scheduled start, Clemens preferred a different routine. He was one of the first pitchers to keep a notebook on opposing hitters, so he’d already done his advance study long before coming to the park. On days he pitched, Clemens liked to arrive a little later at the clubhouse, grab his clothes, and head back to the trainers’ room.
Only this night, trouble. Traffic was at a standstill on Storrow Drive. Clemens believes there was a concert in the vicinity. The Celts were also hosting Atlanta in a playoff game at the Garden. Cars were inching forward a length or two every 10 minutes. Clemens said he was still a mile, mile and a half away from the ballpark. “I could see the Citgo sign,’’ he said, “but we weren’t moving.’’
Clemens, dressed in jeans, T-shirt and cowboy boots, got out of his car. He popped the trunk to fetch his running shoes. “I was going to jog to the park,’’ he said.
Then, serendipity. A motorcycle cop came by, saw the trunk was open, assumed the car had broken down. Then he spotted the driver.
“He said, ‘Aren’t you…?’’’ Clemens said. “With his help, we got to the ballpark. I rolled into the clubhouse around 6:55 (a little more than half an hour before first pitch). “Fish said he was ready to scratch me from the start.
“I ran down to the bullpen, and I don’t think I threw a strike. I had a temple headache, too. I had about a minute and a half of peace and quiet during the anthem. Until then I was just flying around.’’
Originally, Clemens had been scheduled to pitch two nights earlier, in Kansas City, but the game was rained out. The day before was an off-day, and Clemens had driven out to Pittsfield to play golf with a group of friends that included Mike Capel, who had pitched with Clemens at the University of Texas and was currently playing for the Double-A Pittsfield Cubs. Capel mentioned to Clemens that when he faced the Seattle Mariners the next night, he’d be facing another ex-teammate, Spike Owen.
“They were talking real big, saying, ‘You’re facing Spike tomorrow,’’’ Clemens said. “They’re saying, ‘Brush him back, so we’ll all have something to laugh at.’’’
The next night, Seattle’s first batter of the night was Spike Owen.
“I heard [PA announcer] Sherm Feller announce his name and I said, ‘Oh my God, the boys will be watching, they want me to dust him.’’’
The first pitch was a called strike on the inside corner. The next pitch, a fastball high and tight, spun Owen around. “He lifted his arms up and stared at me,’’ Clemens said. The third pitch, a head-high fastball, knocked Owen off his feet. Owen was incredulous. History did not record the reaction of Capel and his friends; hilarity is a safe guess.
Owen went down swinging on his first at-bat, Clemens’s first strikeout victim of the night. On his second at-bat, in the fourth, he singled, Seattle’s first hit and one of only three they had all night.
“I threw him a curveball at his ankles that he put a pitching wedge on,’’ Clemens said. “After the inning he ran by me and said, ‘You’re throwing 96 miles an hour and you throw me a hook? That’s your fault.’’’
The previous summer, his second season in the big leagues, Clemen found himself breezing through the first few innings of a game painfree, only to experience searing pain midgame. It turns out he had a shoulder impingement, a piece of cartilage lodged in the shoulder joint. With the Sox medical staff uncertain of how to proceed, Clemens went to Columbus, Georgia, to see an orthopedist who was slowly becoming known for his expertise in pitching injuries: James Andrews.
“He wrenched my arm and said, ‘I can fix you tomorrow,’’’ Clemens said. “I said, ‘Let’s do it.’ I went in the next day. I was the first patient he did cuff work on.’’
That was in August. By November, Clemens began his throwing program. Andrews offered a note of caution, telling Clemens there would be days that he’d be playing catch he’d feel as if he could cut loose, but other days when the shoulder was sore and Clemens would wonder if he had been fixed at all.
But Clemens felt increasingly confident as spring training progressed, and by the time he made his fourth start of the season against the Mariners, he felt strong.
The K card kids showed up late, but were there when it counted. (Courtesy NESN)
And it showed. He went to a three-ball count on the first three Seattle batters of the game, then struck them all out. Six whiffs through three innings. Eight whiffs through four, one coming after Don Baylor, playing first because Bill Buckner had a sore elbow, dropped a foul pop by Gorman Thomas. “Donnie says now he did it on purpose,’’ Clemens said.
A dozen K’s through five. Fourteen through six, as Clemens reeled off eight strikeouts in a row, an American League record. Clemens said he could see his wife, Debbie, clad in a pink jacket, leaping out of her seat after every strikeouts.
He also took note of a late arrival: The K Kids, whose ringleader lived in Newton, had showed up in midgame and were now hanging their K’s on the center-field wall.
Still, even with all the K’s, Clemens found himself trailing, 1-0, when Thomas homered in the seventh over the head of the center fielder, Steve Lyons, now the NESN broadcaster. But Dwight Evans saved the night for Clemens with a three-run home run in the bottom of the seventh, Lyons’s two-out single touching off the winning rally.
With his 18th strikeout of the night, Dave Henderson, who with Owen would later that season become Clemens’s teammates in Boston, Clemens broke Bill Monbouquette’s club record. When he struck out Phil Bradley in the ninth for the fourth time, the major-league record belonged to the Rocket. Twelve Mariners had gone down swinging. No Mariner walked.
“It was unbelievable,’’ Clemens said. “That game was a stepping stone for my career. I think it was also big because I showed my teammates I was healthy.’’
Clemens signed 50 copies of a famous photo taken by an amateur photographer from New Hampshire, Joe Hickey, and gave a copy to the players on both teams. Dan Lyons, who was working in the Sox ticket office at the time, had printed up thousands of tickets that went unused that night; Clemens wound up signing many of those, too.
Catcher Rich Gedman gave Clemens his glove. Evans gave him his bat. They remain among Clemens’s most cherished keepsakes.
Clemens turns 54 on Aug. 4. He is doing some work for the Houston Astros as a special assistant to general manager Jeff Luhnow. He also spends a good deal of time watching his sons Kody and Kacy, both infielders on the University of Texas team. He takes the three-pound weights he uses to maintain his rotator cuff everywhere. In a couple of weeks, he is scheduled to be in Fenway Park to throw batting practice for a Jimmy Fund event.
Here’s some advice for those planning to pick up a bat against the Rocket. The other day in Austin, he threw on the side.
“Skip Johnson (UT’s associate head coach) said he had to put a gun on me,’’ Clemens said. “I was touching 90.’’
On your scorecard, RBI stands for runs batted in. For the more than 1,600 kids who wore the colors of RBI teams last season in Boston, RBI means Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities, a program initially conceived by John Young, who played a total of two games in the big leagues but has made a lasting impact on the game since he conceived RBI in 1989, with more than two million kids participating since its inception.
Young, an African-American who worked as a scout for Red Sox president Dave Dombrowski when he was with the Marlins, grew up in south-Central L.A., an inner-city neighborhood in which baseball had not yet ceded supremacy to basketball and football. Years ago, Young told me what an event it was when the kids from 103d Street, his neighborhood, played the Murray boys from 108th Avenue, a clan that featured future Hall of Famer Eddie Murray, his brothers, cousins and uncles.
“Our heroes were guys like Frank Robinson and Bobby Tolan, Bob Watson and Willie Crawford,“ Young said, rattling off the names of African-American stars of the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Young launched RBI on the streets of South-Central, hoping to rekindle inner-city interest in the game. Now, embraced by Major League Baseball, it is in more than 200 cities worldwide, including Boston, and has produced its share of major league alums, including CC Sabathia, Manny Machado, Justin Upton, Yovani Gallardo, James Loney and Carl Crawford.
“I played RBI,’’ said Red Sox outfielder Chris Young, who grew up in Houston and played a couple of years in the RBI program, the highlight a championship game played on the campus of Texas Christian University in Fort Worth (“a road trip!”). “It was great for me.
“It was another avenue we could play baseball. Luckily I was able to play in different leagues as a kid, but in the RBI program, I was able to play with my friends, who maybe couldn’t afford to play on travel teams. RBI was competitive baseball, but affordable.’’
Young, beginning his 11th season in the big leagues, is at a stage in his career where his greatest value is as a fourth outfielder. But in his rookie season with Arizona in 2007, at age 23, he put up numbers that compare favorably to those of Mookie Betts, last season’s 22-year-old rookie sensation with the Red Sox.
Young in 2007: 29 doubles, 32 home runs, 27 stolen bases, .763 OPS
Betts in 2015: 42 doubles, 18 home runs, 21 stolen bases, .820 OPS
“Reminds me of when I was in Arizona,’’ Young said. “Me and my parents talk about it. It’s cool to see. Mookie is doing it in a much bigger market, and that changes it. When you do it in Boston, that’s special. He deserves a lot of credit.’’
But while RBI has proven to be a springboard for future major leaguers, that is happy coincidence. The reason Mick Blume and Rico Mochizuki and Tyler Petropoulos and Justin Perryman and Lidia Zayas of the Red Sox Foundation are here at Jim Rice Field, along with their close personal friend Wally and the three World Series trophies, has little to do with uncovering star-quality talent, but everything to do with supporting people like Ivelise Rivera and her daughter, Elise.
Ivelise Rivera, commissioner of the RBI softball leagues, and her daughter, Elise Rivera, who has played for almost 10 years, have made RBI a family affair. (Gordon Edes/Red Sox)
Ivelise’s day job is IT Business Analyst for the Boston Centers for Youth and Families. Nights are spent as commissioner of the RBI softball leagues. When she began as a coach, she knew little about a game she had not played as a child. Now she spends virtually every night of the week at one of the dozen or so neighborhood fields where RBI games are played.
Elise, meanwhile, started playing when she was 8. “I told my mom, ‘I hate this sport, I never want to play.’’’ she said. “I couldn’t stop the ball. I didn’t like throwing, didn’t like hitting, didn’t like running.’’
Nearly 10 years later, Elise, who packs an outsized personality into her petite frame, plays high school softball in Lexington and on her RBI team when the high school season ends.
“I love this sport,’’ she said. “I live, breathe, eat and smell the game. It’s really bad.’’
Bad? It’s wonderful. Only a few can play at the same level as a Chris Young. But to love the game like Elise Rivera? That’s what makes us care about RBI.
Photo courtesy of Michael Ivins/Boston Red Sox
It was the middle of David Price’s freshman year at Vanderbilt when Tim Corbin’s phone rang. Bonnie Price, the pitcher’s father, was on the line.
“David wants to see you,’’ Price told the baseball coach.
“David was struggling academically,’’ Corbin said. “And his outing the day before had been really, really rough. He came into the locker room, his eyes were swollen. You could tell he’d been up that night, crying.
“He said, ‘Coach, I can’t do it anymore. I want to leave.’ I asked why. He said, ‘I’m not good enough to pitch here, and I can’t do it academically.’
“I asked him what he was going to do. He said, ‘I don’t know. Maybe work, maybe go to a junior college.’’’
For the next hour, Corbin talked with his gifted manchild. He let the emotions spill out, then calmly deconstructed Price’s reasons for wanting to quit. He was smart, he assured the pitcher. He could handle the classwork. And there was no doubt in Corbin’s mind that he would succeed as a pitcher.
“Within an hour,’’ Corbin said, “he got up and gave me a hug. That was the last time I ever had talk to him about confidence again. It was a breaking point for the kid, but once he sat down and examined what he was going through, he said, ‘I’m fine.’
“He went from being our 12th pitcher to No. 2 by the end of of his freshman year, then was great his sophomore year. I coached him on Team USA the next summer, and as a junior he was the No. 1 player in the country from the start of that year to the finish, which is very difficult to do.’’
Tim Corbin grew up a Red Sox fan in Wolfeboro, N.H., the lovely resort town on Lake Winnipesaukee. That insecure freshman he counselled 11 years ago is now the new ace of the Red Sox pitching staff, a Cy Young Award winner in 2012 who has finished second for the award in two other seasons, including last year. Corbin is convinced the pitcher and the fan base are made for each other.
“I think he will really enjoy it,’’ he said. “I think it’s a match. I know there are a lot of things that have to happen along the way, but the care levels are a perfect match. The care level of Boston sports and the care level of the individual attaching himself to Boston sports is the same. There’s no doubt.
“There’s a passion to the game that exists with this young man that’s different. He celebrates it all the time. Even when he’s not playing it, he’s still celebrating it, because he’s thinking about it, and he’s still preparing for it. And that in itself is the match. He’s got an innocence about him that has never left him, and every time I see him, I go, ‘Never lose that innocence.’’’
The back of his baseball card serves as mute tribute to the kind of pitcher David Taylor Price is. He is a five-time All-Star who in the course of eight big-league seasons has a record of 104-56, his .650 winning percentage second only to Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers (.671) among active pitchers with at least 125 decisions. His career earned run average of 3.09 is the best by an American League pitcher since the start of the 2000 season, and he has struck out at least 200 batters in four of the last five seasons, including a career-high 271 in 2014.
Price has done some of his best pitching at Fenway Park. In 11 career regular-season starts in the Fens, Price is 6-1 with a 1.95 ERA, holding Sox batters to a .186 average.
His bona fides as a pitcher are unquestioned. But set the baseball card aside, and allow those who have known David Price—as a coach, a boss, a teammate, a friend—tell you about the man.
Chris Archer is now the ace of the Tampa Bay Rays’ staff, but when he first got to know Price, he was a 23-year-old Double-A pitcher, newly acquired from the Chicago Cubs.
“Usually when people ask me about him, it’s never the baseball that first comes to my mind or anybody else’s mind,’’ Archer said in Port Charlotte this spring. “It’s the type of person he is.
“When I first got traded over, we had had very minor interactions before. But he reached out and texted me. He said, ‘You’re my lockermate. I want to look out for you. If you need anything, here’s my number. Don’t be shy or bashful about reaching out.’’’
“His locker is right here,’’ he said, gesturing to the one next to his, “and I’m still in the same locker. For an All-Star pitcher to reach out to a guy who was a Double-A pitcher, it meant a lot. It was life-changing. It made me realize how important it is for me now to shoot my number to these guys over here, to open a line of communication.
They have not been on the same team since the 2014 trading deadline, when Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski, then in Detroit, acquired Price from the Rays, but that has not hindered their friendship.
“On the day I pitch he texts me the same message every single time, the same message he told me the 50 or so starts I made when he was here,’’ Archer said. “To take the time to reach out somebody from three teams ago? And it’s not just me. It’s [Alex] Cobb, it’s [Matt] Moore.
“Everybody feels like they’re David Price’s best friend. You feel like you can go to him about anything because of how genuine he is. That 30 seconds in passing, whenever you see him, whether it’s the parking lot attendant or one of the clubhouse staff, a member of the grounds crew and obviously a teammate, everybody feels like David Price’s best friend because he is so open and genuine and sincere in that moment.’’
Jim Hickey is entering his ninth season as Tampa Bay’s pitching coach. He was at Tropicana Field when Price, drafted No. 1 overall by the Rays in 2007, worked out for the Rays the first time. The potential to be not only a great pitcher but an impactful teammate were evident from the beginning, Hickey said.
“I absolutely saw those qualities in him,’’ Hickey said, “but you have to evolve into that. You can’t just come in and make an impact if you don’t have the resume. He was a ‘1-1’ pick, and it was easy to see why. He obviously has all the physical attributes, he was left-handed, and it was obvious very quickly that he was raised right. His mother (Debbie) and father did a tremendous job. He was respectful, courteous, well-spoken, a really pleasant young man. If he wasn’t a major-league pitcher, and you just met him wherever, he’d be somebody you’d enjoy being around.’’
Whenever a Rays pitcher threw a bullpen or pitched in a “B” game on a minor-league field, Price made it a point to make sure all of the starting pitchers were present. That practice may not have begun with him, Hickey said, but he embraced it and made it his own.
“The genuine concern he had for his teammates, the genuine want for them to do well, that’s not always the case when 10 or 12 or 15 alpha males are in the same room. David never ever has done anything but root 100 percent for the other pitchers to be the best they can be.’’
Like Vanderbilt’s Corbin, Toronto Blue Jays first baseman Chris Colabello has New England roots, having grown up in Milford, Mass., and starring at Assumption College in Worcester. He spent just 2 ½ months with Price, after Dombrowski—knowing that the Tigers were unlikely to make the playoffs or retain the left-hander as a free agent after the season—traded the pitcher to Toronto. But that was sufficient time to create a lasting bond, although it’s purely a coincidence, Colabello insisted, that he is now the proud owner of a French bulldog (Clutch), a future “BFF” of Price’s Frenchie, Astro.
“He’s everything you hope for in a guy to help create the right culture in the clubhouse,’’ Colabello said in Dunedin. “He’s one of those kind of guys, I’d be comfortable paying him whatever because his value is so much more than just the numbers he puts up on the board every night, and obviously those are pretty good in themselves.
“There’s no player more accountable or that scrutinizes himself more than David Price. There may be some players who are the same, but there is no player more vested in what he’s doing. He’s trying to do something bigger than just him. Whatever comes from the outside, I don’t think it really matters because no one is going to hold him to a higher standard than he does for himself.’’
Colabello referred to the sign Price hung in his locker: “If you don’t like it, pitch better.’’
“He feels like he owes it to the organization, to the team, the guys around him, to the city, to the environment he’s playing in,’’ Colabello said. “I understand Boston, New York are big markets and you’re held accountable, but I don’t think it’s going to change who he is because nobody holds themselves more accountable than he does.
“He has an uncanny ability to be himself in the most true honest way. I can say that he is literally the most unselfish guy I’ve ever met.’’
Colabello leaves a visitor with this story. Last season, Price wanted to buy himself a scooter. He wound up buying everyone on the club one. He did the same with bathrobes.
“He puts his teammates in the forefront of every decision he makes,’’ Colabello said.
Blue Jays pitcher Marcus Stroman, who made a remarkable recovery from knee surgery last spring to join the Jays for their playoff push last season, looks forward to facing a man he calls a mentor and one of his best friends.
“I think he’s a rare individual,’’ he said. “Obviously he’s one of the best pitchers in the game. That takes care of itself.
“But it’s what he does off the field, the way he lives his life and puts everyone before him, that leaves an unbelievable impression on everyone who meets him.
“He’s the first one to come and the last one to leave, and treats everybody the same. He’s the most humble individual I’ve ever been around.’’
Price once told him, Stroman said, that he will not be remembered for how he threw a 3-and-2 cutter but how he treats people.
“I just hope to have half as good a career as him, and go about my business the way he does,’’ Stroman said. “He’s left an unbelievable amount of knowledge to me. I picked his brain every day and I do to this day. We text all the time and he Facetimed me the other day.
“He’s one of the biggest role models and mentors I have.’’
And now David Price is in Boston, at 30 years old in the prime of his career. “He’s the total package,’’ Dombrowski says. “Talent, makeup, personality, intelligence.’’
The expectations are high, to be sure. The rewards, however, may be even greater. Price craves a World Series ring. But the returns he delivers are likely to transcend what he does on the mound every five days when he’s given the ball.
“If you took him away from baseball, you’re taking away something that makes him smile, that makes him cry, that makes him care,’’ Corbin says. “That’s what he is. He’s about baseball, but he’s about people. He loves the people he’s with every single day.’’
Dwight Evans, who coached Red Sox outfielders this spring, got the 1986 championship season off to an electrifying start (Photo courtesy of MLB.com)
The first person he told, Dwight Evans said, was his wife, Susan.
“I had a dream,’’ he said, “probably two weeks before the end of spring training. I don’t usually remember my dreams. This one I did. I told her, ‘I dreamed I hit the first pitch for a home run. I don’t know where it went, but it was a home run.’’’
This was 1986. Dwight Evans was 34 years old, a player entering his 15th season in the major leagues. The previous season, manager John McNamara had turned to Evans as his leadoff hitter for much of the season’s second half. Evans had homered five times leading off a game in 1985, but never on the first pitch of a season. That had happened just once in his life.
“In Little League,’’ he said. “I was 12 years old. I didn’t start playing baseball until I was 10. I hit it batting left-handed. I was a switch-hitter at the time. That didn’t last.’’
The Sox were scheduled to open the 1986 season in Detroit against the Tigers and their ace, Jack Morris, a 16-game winner the previous season. Morris was arguably the American League’s toughest right-hander in the ‘80’s, and Evans, like so many hitters, had his hands full against Black Jack. He had 52 previous at-bats against Morris, and had 10 hits, a .193 average. But he had taken Morris deep three times, the last time in 1984.
April 7, 1986. A Monday afternoon. First pitch for the Red Sox and Tigers was scheduled for 1:37 p.m. Cincinnati, which traditionally played the first game of the major league season, wasn’t scheduled until 2:05. The Tigers called it a “quirk” in the schedule. ‘There was no intention on the part of the commissioner, the American League or the Tigers to steal the thunder away from the Reds,” said Tigers spokesman Robert Miller.
The good folk of Cincinnati, especially deputy mayor J. Kenneth Blackwell, weren’t buying it. Blackwell blamed Sparky Anderson, the former Reds skipper now managing the Tigers.
”This is a Sparky Anderson-led offensive on a Cincinnati tradition,” he said, ”and we’re not going to stand by idly and let it happen.”
The fuss made the front page of the Cincinnati Enquirer. Blackwell urged the City Council to pass a resolution upbraiding the commissioner, Peter Ueberroth, for allowing the Tigers to start first. He also urged Cincinnati fans to turn their watches back an hour before the start of the game, supposedly to confuse people about which game started first. He was kidding, we think. Considering he also urged a ban on all flights from Detroit to Cincinnati, we’re pretty sure he was.
Evans was aware of none of this. Even today, he thought the Sox and Tigers played first because there was a rain delay in Detroit.
What he was absolutely certain of that day, however, as he looked at a stadium packed with over 51,000 fans, is that Jack Morris was not going to start him off with an off-speed pitch. He was going to bring heat, Evans remembered thinking as he ducked under the low overhang of the runway leading to the dugout.
As the national anthem ended, someone grabbed Evans’ arm. It was Walt Hriniak, the Red Sox hitting coach. “He didn’t like me thinking about hitting home runs,’’ Evans said. “He thought it made my swing get a little bit bigger.’’
“What are you going to do?’’ Hriniak demanded of Dewey. “What are you going to do?’’
Evans didn’t hesitate. “I’m going to line a base hit to right-center,’’ he said.
Hriniak beamed. “Dynamite,’’ the hitting coach said.
Then Evans walked out to the on-deck circle. Marty Barrett, who would be batting second, was already there. Evans banged the knob of his bat on the ground, loosening the weighted doughnut wrapped around the barrel. “I look right at Marty,’’ Evans said, “and I say, ‘I’m going to take him deep on the first pitch.’’’
Evans stepped into the batter’s box. Morris went into his windup and sent the baseball plateward. First pitch of the 1986 season. Fastball, just as Evans had expected. Letter high, middle away, allowing Evans full extension on his swing. He sent the ball soaring, over the left-center field fence, to the left of the flagpole, more than 400 feet away.
“Mercy,’’ Ned Martin said on Boston TV.
The most surprised person in Tiger Stadium? He was, Dwight Evans said.
“I’m a man of faith,’’ he said, “and as I circled the bases, I looked up and said, ‘Thank you, God.’’’
The Red Sox hit four home runs that day off Morris. They still lost, 6-5, as Kirk Gibson drove in five runs and Black Jack went the distance. But Evans’ home run may have augured better things to come. It was the opening act of a season that ended with a trip to the World Series.
“It’s something I won’t forget,’’ said Evans, who spent spring training working with the Sox outfielders. “It’s neat. It was a neat season.’’