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- May 19, 1986
- Vol. 25
- No. 20
What's 23 Years Old and Goes K-K-K-K-K-K-K-K-K-K-K-K-K-K-K-K-K-K-K-K? Red Sox Strikeout Ace Roger Clemens
And then Roger Clemens woke up. It was all just a bad dream. That night, April 29, Roger Clemens really had pitched for the Red Sox in Fenway Park, but he hadn't duked it out with a fan. All he had done was beat the Seattle Mariners, 3-1, while striking out 20 batters in nine innings—20 Ks in standard scoring shorthand—a feat unmatched by any other pitcher in 111 years of major league baseball. So why was Clemens' hard-earned sleep disturbed by this nightmare? And what did the dream say about the young phenom's psyche? Was he subconsciously guilt-ridden over humiliating 20 hitters with his 97 mph fastball and his wicked, darting curve?
If Freud were a fan, perhaps he could answer those questions. But Roger Clemens cannot. "I'm just a country kid," he says. Besides, Clemens, a devout Christian who preaches in Florida churches during spring training, would probably prefer religious explanations to psychological speculation. "I'm just happy there's Somebody Up There looking over me," he said after the game. "I thank the Man in the Sky for what I did tonight."
Indeed, Clemens' record-breaking performance was a bit of a miracle—Lazarus rising from the Disabled List. After a dazzling all-American career at the University of Texas, Clemens hit the bigs in 1984 and pitched well, compiling a 9-4 record with the perennially frustrated Sox. But his rookie season ended early when he injured his right forearm in August. Last year he again started strongly, again hurt his arm and again ended his season early. In August he underwent arthroscopic surgery on his shoulder. "It was very scary," he said.
The arthroscopy turned Clemens from prospect to suspect. But the man says he never doubted that he'd come back. He started working out with light weights the day after surgery, came to spring training in superb shape and won his first three regular season games. Then came his night of the 20 Ks. "I've never seen a pitching performance as awesome as that," said Sox manager John McNamara. "And I don't think you'll ever see one again in the history of baseball."
Roger Clemens isn't so sure about that. "If anyone has a chance to do it again," he says, "it's me." If that sounds cocky, well, so be it. "I gotta be cocky when I'm on the mound," he says. "That's half my life out there." The other half revolves around his religion and his family. His wife, Debbie, 22, is pregnant with their first child, who is due on an appropriate day—Thanksgiving. Roger is ready for the kid: He has already won a Texas-size menagerie of stuffed animals by playing those three-throws-for-a-quarter pitching games at amusement parks. While the stuffed animals brighten the couple's home in Katy, Texas, their suburban Boston apartment looks more like a monk's cell—the only amenities are a few pieces of rented furniture, a TV and some board games. And Clemens' life-style is as Spartan as his domicile. After a hard day at the ballpark, he says, "I'll run two miles and then collapse into bed. It's better than going for beer. Beer isn't going to make me a better pitcher."
Clemens' relentless regimen is directed at a lofty goal—the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. "For an athlete, Cooperstown is the only place you want to end up at," he says. If he makes it there, he will be reunited with some of his most prized possessions. After his record-breaking game, the Hall requested—and received—a game ball, his spikes and, yes, even his cap, the one he fought so hard to save from a drunken fan.
- Cable Neuhaus.
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