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.’’