Roger, Over and Out?
At 38, Roger Clemensthe greatest pitcher ever to come out of Texasis losing his edge. He is no longer the strutting, rosin bag-slamming, fist-pumping fireballer who terrorized the American League and won five Cy Youngs.
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Roger Clemens hates this. He has just beaten the Toronto Blue Jays 7-1, and now, cornered by a battery of microphones and a half-circle of reporters, he is forced to answer questions about the game. He does not like post-game interviews. He’s not crazy about reporters, either, which is probably putting it mildly. He does not relish explaining himself to people who he feels only dimly grasp the game’s nuances. But he knows what is expected of him and he does it anyway, fielding question after question, even though some of them clearly tick him off. In spite of his mastery of the Jays on this late-April afternoon—in seven innings he gave up seven hits and struck out eight—the reporters will not let go of the idea that today’s victory is now the exception rather than the rule. That Clemens’ performance, in fact, is the exception that proves the rule. That he is somehow lucky to have his old stuff again. That the 38-year-old Clemens, one of the game’s greatest pitchers—and arguably the greatest pitcher ever to come out of Texas (including the much-glorified Nolan Ryan, who never won a single Cy Young, much less a handful)—is rapidly losing his edge. Roger, over and out. The reporters are not making this up. The former University of Texas star who won successive Cy Young Awards with Toronto in 1997 and 1998 has, since then, leveled into nothing more than a .500 pitcher. His tepid 14-10 season last year, when his ERA was nudging 5, has given way to a 6-6 record this year. He is no longer one of the best pitchers in baseball. He is not even, for that matter, the best pitcher on his own team, the New York Yankees. His explosive, rising fastball appears and disappears, mystically, for no apparent reason. One good inning is often followed by a weird, wildly erratic, or simply awful inning. Sometimes you find yourself hoping he doesn’t get banged around like a batting-practice pitcher and yanked from the game in the early innings, thus tarnishing your memory of the indomitable Rocket who once terrorized baseball and twice struck out twenty batters in a game. Back when, as Yankees manager Joe Torre says, he was “unfair.” Back when he threw 97-mile-an-hour fastballs. “There were times you didn’t look to be successful against him,” says the Texas Rangers’ Rafael Palmeiro. “You just wanted to survive.”
What’s wrong with Roger Clemens? The press, which has put Clemens in the increasingly uncomfortable position of having to explain his repeated bad outings, has waited nearly two seasons for him to answer that question, to display some sort of weakness. To confess, perhaps, that he may in fact have slightly less command of his pitches than he had, say, three years ago. That his fastball may be softening. He never has. He does not give an inch now. He stands there before the cameras, microphones, and notepads, arms folded across his hard-muscled barrel of a chest.
A man with a microphone asks him what it’s like to, at last, have his old stuff again.
Clemens pauses for a second, looks straight into the man’s eyes, and seems to seethe for a moment. If the reporter were a hitter, he’d almost certainly be getting a baseball stuffed in his ear. Years ago, back in the days when Clemens threatened a sportswriter with bodily harm, he probably would’ve snapped at him, gone off on the guy. Now, kinder, gentler, and more media savvy, he’s able to compose himself long enough to say, “I think it’s pretty much the same stuff I’ve been taking out there.” He is dressed immaculately in a black turtleneck, gray slacks, and a diamond-studded watch. “My ball’s been alive. I’m throwing as hard as I ever have. I just need the confidence to race it in there and take my chances. I’ve been beaten with some poor off-speed, and that’s the kind of thing that’ll make you shake your head on the drive back home. I have to remember I’m still a power pitcher, and my fastball is still my best pitch.”
This, of course, is nothing but Clemens’ pride talking. In recent years his “out” pitch has become primarily his splitter, which looks to a hitter like his “riding” four-seam fastball, thrown with the same square unturned wrist, but is around 10 to 15 miles per hour slower and dips sharply as it crosses home plate. It’s safe to say that the splitter saved his career, or at least prolonged it. Which doesn’t mean he’s not fundamentally a power pitcher anymore. It’s just that, at this stage in his career, he needs more than a little help from his splitter and other pitches—his slider, his curve, and a rare change-up—to get him through lineups now.
But isn’t it a relief, chirps someone else, to finally pitch a game like this?
Clemens stares at the guy, eyes burning. “A relief?” he says incredulously. “It’s never a relief for me. I mean, it’s a constant grind. You continue to work all the time. I don’t relax until the season is over.” He pauses, his tone turning a tad sharper, more severe, his eyes narrowing. “If you’re thinking I’m going to rest on my laurels, I don’t do that. I continue to pound.”
He also continues to refuse to see what almost everybody else does. Sometimes this produces confusing effects. Such as when, after being shelled by the New York Mets on June 9, a totally perplexed Clemens offered this remarkable analysis: “I thought I threw some good pitches—but they hit them out for homers.” He was on center stage that day, amid the circus of New York’s Subway Series, in front of a Yankee Stadium crowd of nearly 56,000 people. He responded with his most humiliating game to date, giving up nine runs, including only the second grand slam of his career, to Mike Piazza, before getting pulled with no outs in the sixth inning. When he walked off the field, he was so loudly booed that Yankee manager Joe Torre felt the need to grab his pitcher around the waist in the dugout, whispering in his ear, “We’ll get this thing figured out.” To the media later, Torre would say, “You know he’s hurting inside.”
This is what life is like for a power pitcher approaching forty. It promises to get worse. If history is any guide, the end will come soon. It is likely to come quickly too, as it has for so many others—especially the fireballers. But for now there will be no retreat, no surrender. As any American League hitter can tell you, Roger Clemens is a hard-nosed sonofabitch. He is a pile driver of a man who struts, slams down rosin bags, pumps his fists, kicks up clouds of dirt around the mound like an angry bull, and yells at everything and everybody, but mostly at hitters: “Get back in the box already! Swing harder! Yeah, that’s right, that’s a strike!”
Clemens is also, it must be pointed out, an extraordinarily disciplined human being. His answer to everything, from a difficult childhood to the ups and downs of big-league baseball, has always been to be harder, tougher, and more dedicated than anybody else. He may be going down, but he is not about to admit that to a crowd of pencil-neck geeks. And in any case, as absolutely everything in his past suggests, he is not going down easy. On the upper shelf of Roger Clemens’ locker, there is a ceramic Father’s Day gift type of thing shaped like a football. It reads “The harder you work, the harder it is to surrender.” Clemens likes that. It describes him. He has always subjected himself to brutal disciplines. Those closest to him say that at the core of his intense drive to succeed is the fact that, for a good chunk of his life, Clemens has been without a father. He spent his early life in Ohio. His biological father, Bill Clemens, a truck driver for a chemical company, disappeared before Clemens turned four. Clemens remembers only one encounter, when he was just ten, over the telephone. It wasn’t pleasant. “My father had called my mother and was irritating her,” he says, “so I got on the phone and said, ‘There’s no need for you to call here anymore.'” They never reconciled. Though his mother remarried, Clemens’ stepfather, whom he loved, died of a heart attack when he was nine. “I grew up fast after that,” he says. “I found out real quick I would have to work.” Clemens’ friends say he is driven, variously, to be exactly what his father was not and to show his worth to a father who never bothered to know him. After his stepfather died, Clemens’ mother worked at three jobs, while he shuttled to and from his grandmother’s house in Dayton. They had little money. Clemens moved to Houston in 1976 to join his older brother, and the rest of the family followed the next year. He attended Spring Woods High, where he was initially “the third best pitcher on my team,” behind Rick Luecken and Rayner Noble, who were later drafted by the San Francisco Giants and the Houston Astros, respectively. (Noble is now the coach of the University of Houston.) An oversized, pear-shaped kid with chubby cheeks, Clemens was also the center on the basketball team and a star defensive end. It was during these years that he developed the peculiar habit of “draining himself,” exercising to the point of total exhaustion. While the other kids drove to and from school in their jazzy new cars, Clemens, whose family could not afford to buy him a car, was content to run the miles both ways with a knapsack full of books on his back. And on weekend nights, “When all the guys were partying,” he says, “I was at the track running.” By his senior year, he was the team’s best pitcher, despite the fact that he did not throw very hard. His fastballs were in the low 80’s. What he had was an exceptional breaking ball and remarkable control. “Even with the stadium lights off, I could find the plate,” he says. This wasn’t simply due to nature. Clemens practiced his control for hours on end. He’d draw a small square with chalk on a brick wall and, pitch after pitch, would try throwing to different spots within it.
“A lot of kids, you have to stay on top of to keep them focused; not Roger,” remembers his high school coach, Charlie Maiorana, who has just retired after thirty-three years at Spring Woods. “He didn’t say much, but you could tell he was deeply motivated to accomplish things. He did his work every day without fail, wore his uniform proudly, and on the mound, never gave in to a single hitter. Not a single one while I had him.” During Clemens’ last year at Spring Woods, Nolan Ryan came to pitch for the Astros. Maiorana recalls how Clemens made it his business to go to the Astrodome every time Ryan pitched, sneaking down to watch him warm up in the bullpen, mesmerized by the shotgun sound of Ryan’s fastball smacking the catcher’s mitt. Clemens says he couldn’t imagine a baseball being thrown that hard. He studied Ryan’s moves and even borrowed a few. “That’s why Roger yells at hitters,” Maiorana says. “He got that from Nolan.”
At San Jacinto Junior College in Houston, Clemens suddenly blossomed. He sprang up from six two to six four in a matter of months, his body hardened, and he started blowing fastballs by hitters for the first time in his life. Word of this eventually spread to University of Texas coach Cliff Gustafson, who offered Clemens a baseball scholarship as quickly as he could coax him into his office. Clemens remembers being in awe the first time he walked on the huge UT campus and struck cold by the large sign in the clubhouse at the university’s Disch-Faulk field that read “The University of Texas Tradition Will Not Be Entrusted to the Timid or the Weak.” He knew of UT’s rich winning tradition, of having a slew of Southwest Conference titles to its credit, and of its knack for manufacturing major league pitchers, such as Burt Hooton and Jerry Don Gleaton and Richard Wortham. “It was so intimidating, so overwhelming,” he says. “I felt I could get lost in there.” He was so intimidated that, for the first two months, he raced back home on the weekends.
Clemens immediately moved into one of the greatest college pitching staffs ever assembled: Calvin Schiraldi (who played for the Mets, the Boston Red Sox, the Chicago Cubs, the San Diego Padres, and the Rangers), Mike Capel (who played for the Cubs, the Milwaukee Brewers, and the Astros), and Kirk Killingsworth (who played in the Rangers’ farm system). They all went by nicknames: Schiraldi, then the ace, was Nibbler; Capel was Gamer; Killingsworth was Killer. Clemens was Goose, a nickname he got in high school because he reminded people of the Yankees’ hulking, ace reliever Rich “Goose” Gossage. As a sophomore, Clemens had an outstanding season. He went 12-2 and had a stretch of 35 scoreless innings in the post-season, even though he lost to Miami 2-1 on one unearned run in the final game. (Texas finished in a tie for third in the college world series.) Clemens was competitive off the field as well. “In college I’d watch him play video games until his fingers nearly bled trying to beat them,” says Capel, who is now the general manager of a Ford dealership in Houston.
Clemens’ junior and final year, though, was a distinct struggle, despite his respectable 13-5 record. Throughout the season, he fought the constant distraction of scouts in the stands clocking his every pitch. “There were so many radar guns on me,” he says, “I thought they were landing a plane.” Clemens estimates that at one time there were as many as 25 scouts watching him. The pressure got to him. Bill Little, UT’s assistant athletic director for media relations, who has been in the sports communications department of the school since 1968, says, “Roger got lost his last year with us. Every time the scouts pointed their guns at him, he tried to prove himself. Tried doing too much.” Things got so bad for Clemens that, late in the season, in the midst of a horrible string of starts—getting shelled by Oral Roberts, looking like a BP pitcher against Texas A&M—he had to be talked out of quitting by Gustafson. Clemens, who went on to beat Alabama 4-3 to win the College World Series, credits that talk with saving his baseball career. “Coach Gus was like E. F. Hutton,” he says. “When he talked, you listened. He had a way of always saying just the right thing. And, at that moment, he said all the right words to me. Because, believe me when I tell you, I was fully prepared to hang it up and never go back.”
Instead, Clemens was picked in the first round of the major league draft, the nineteenth selection overall, by the Boston Red Sox. It was the first of several times in his career he’d be passed over by the Rangers and the Astros, which had the third and eighth pick, respectively. Clemens gave himself only two years to make it to the major leagues. He beat that by a year, going 9-4 in twenty starts with the Red Sox in 1984. Two years later, after recovering from a career-threatening arm injury and subsequent surgery, he became the ace of the rotation, set a major league record with twenty strikeouts in a single game, and won, as only nine players have in the game’s history, both the Cy Young Award and the Most Valuable Player Award. He won the Cy Young again the next season and again in 1991, combining power and finesse as well as anyone who’s ever pitched. He played for the Red Sox until 1996, compiling a 192-111 record, and for the Toronto Blue Jays in 1997 and 1998, when he went 41-13. He was traded to the Yankees in 1999.
But Clemens was always more than the sum of his statistics. He was a massive presence on the mound, a player who played with a kind of mad intensity rarely seen in professional baseball. “There’s an aura about him unlike anyone in the game,” Blue Jays catcher Darrin Fletcher once said of him. “I think it’s about him being the Great Texas Fastball Pitcher.” Take him out of the game, he didn’t run for the showers or grab a beer. Instead, he jumped atop the stationary bike, working out his volcanic aggression until it was gone. Draining himself the way he did as a kid. A teammate in Boston once taped over the nameplate of his locker: “Possessed Rebel.” Clemens didn’t protest. He liked it. At one point in his career, he even pitched with a custom-made rubber mouth guard to keep his teeth from grinding. “My emotions have gotten me into trouble,” says Clemens, who once, in an infamous incident in 1990, was thrown out of a playoff game because he would not stop yelling profanities at home plate umpire Terry Cooney.
He also became famous for being just plain mean. If a hitter did something he didn’t like, Clemens wasn’t interested in just embarrassing the guy; he was looking, if not to bruise him, to put the fear of God in him. “A lot of guys can go out there and try to be mean,” says Yankees first baseman Tino Martinez. “But it doesn’t work because it’s not their personality. Roger’s got it naturally.” Look at him funny, you’re going down. Crowd the plate, you’re getting one up near the earflap. Show him up with one of those corkscrewing cuts, expect the next pitch stuffed in your armpit. The opposing pitcher hits one of his, he’s hitting one of yours. “You can be a nice guy, but off the field,” says Clemens. “I take the approach that the batter’s trying to take away my livelihood with his bat. Trying to take money out of my pocket.” He’s especially well known for what’s called “doubling up”—brushing back a hitter with two straight pitches just to reinforce the message. If that doesn’t work, you’re probably getting plunked on the elbow, wrist, or shoulder blade, someplace that hurts.
“Off the field, he’s a great guy, generous, caring,” says one of Clemens’ best friends, former UT and Red Sox teammate Spike Owen, now working in community relations for the minor league’s Round Rock Express. “But put a ball in his hand and he’ll turn on you.” Owen should know. The time Clemens struck out twenty against the Seattle Mariners, Owen was the Mariners leadoff hitter. “The first pitch brushed me back, and the second pitch knocked me down,” says Owen, who ultimately struck out. “It kind of ticked me off. I said to myself, ‘What’s wrong with this guy? He’s supposed to be my friend.’ But that’s the thing about Roger. When he’s on the mound, he has no friends. Roger has always had the type of presence that says, ‘You will not do certain things while I’m on the mound.'”
That apparently includes hitting grand slams off him. On July 8, 29 days after Piazza embarrassed him, Clemens drilled him in the head with a fastball. Clemens insisted that he hadn’t meant it. “I wasn’t trying to hit him in the head,” Clemens said. “I was trying to crowd him, pitch him inside.” Other pitchers might have gotten away with this. But this was Clemens, and the Mets weren’t buying it. Said a groggy Piazza: “I thought it was definitely intentional.”
Away from the pressurized world of the ballpark, Clemens becomes, as his pal Calvin Schiraldi puts it, “just another good ol’ boy.” In an interview in his hotel in Tampa, Florida, during spring training, he is both punctual and polite. His two-level white stucco villa at the Hyatt Regency Westshore looks more like a trainer’s room than a home: exercise benches, Ace bandages, weights, Gold’s Gym and Met-Rx stuff are scattered about, and the faint smell of muscle ointment hangs in the air. His brown hair is spiked and newly bleached blond in the front, making him look like a cross between former football rebel Brian “the Boz” Bosworth and Toy Story‘s Buzz Lightyear. By baseball standards, Clemens is huge: six four, 238 pounds. He has Popeye forearms, a bearlike chest formed by innumerable hours on the bench press, and the tree-trunk legs that are the secret to his drop-and-drive delivery. (Few pitchers have used their lower body as effectively as Clemens.) He has a dimpled chin, a perpetual five o’clock shadow, and a pair of famously off-putting light brown eyes that, when summoned, produce a burning, lingering, piercing glare. Clemens has a reputation, mostly formed during his thirteen years in Boston, as a difficult, testy, and occasionally even paranoid interview. Yet on this day Clemens is relaxed and cordial, though his opinion of the media clearly has not changed. “I think a lot of writers hit below the belt,” he says. “They want to make bad things that happen to you sound funny. They want to sell papers. There’s so much [coverage] now. And everything you do is just sort of exploited and magnified. I’m not sure players want to be around and have to explain everything.”
He excuses himself for a moment, puts a George Strait CD into his CD player (“This music’s good for you,” he says. “It’ll lower your blood pressure”), then fixes the TV on ESPN’s SportsCenter with the sound turned off. “I keep most people at arm’s length,” he says. “I don’t let everybody into my world. I let my guard down only around certain people. And there are times I don’t want to be around anybody at all. Like the day I pitch. I’ll run right over you.”
How did he feel last season, when he had just one complete game in thirty starts? When he had a career-worst 4.3 walks per nine innings, when opposing teams hit an obscene .375 against him with runners in scoring position, and when he often went off, alone, to the weight room, where he would train by himself or mime his delivery ad nauseam in the mirror? “I wanted to slide in the back door,” he explains now. “This was a winning machine rolling smoothly along, and I did not want to do anything to throw it off.” It reached the point where Joe Torre called Clemens into his office one day, closed the door behind them, and said, “Rog, you really need to start being yourself.” Later, Torre would say, “I think Roger just lost who he was.”
Clemens does not accept the idea that he is in some sort of irreversible decline. He argues instead that, with a few runs here and there, everything could have turned out much differently in 1999. “Six games could’ve gone either way,” he says. “I could easily have been a twenty-game winner. And if I did that, there wouldn’t be any talk about how I’m losing it.” It’s true that the Yankees supported him with a mere fifteen runs in his ten losses last year, but how many times did they score by the bushel-load to dig him out of a hole? He just as easily could have been a fifteen-game loser. “Listen, the only downer last season was that I hurt my hamstring and couldn’t hold on to some four-to-nothing leads.” He hints that for most of season, he pitched while he was in pain. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner had theorized this over the winter. “I was in a defensive mode after the hamstring injury, trying to protect it, trying not to reinjure it,” Clemens says. “I didn’t want to miss more time. I wanted to answer the bell.”
His best and worst performances last year came in the post-season. The worst: game 3 of the American League Championship Series, against the Red Sox and Pedro Martinez, when he was swatted around for five runs in two innings of an embarrassing 13-1 loss. His best: game 4 of the World Series, against the Atlanta Braves, clinching the championship with a masterful seven and two-thirds innings, yielding just one run on four hits. “I was so focused,” he says. “Nothing existed for me that day but the mound and the plate.” In a way, game 4 was his redemption for such a disappointing season. It was supposed to carry over. It was supposed to be the start of something.
It has actually gotten worse. At near mid-season, Clemens was a thoroughly mediocre 6-6 with an ERA of 4.33, perilously close to the forbidden zone of five runs a game. “I’m as hacked off as anybody,” he said after the June 9 loss to the Mets. A two-game stretch in May and early June is typical of the new Clemens: Against the Red Sox, he not only matches Cy Young Award winner Pedro Martinez, zero for zero for eight innings, but strikes out thirteen batters, equaling his high as a Yankee (though he loses after giving up a two-run homer with two outs in the ninth). The next game, against the Braves, he gets lit up like Times Square for six runs before exiting after five innings.
Still, Clemens insists that his tough winter regimen will pay off. He says he has never worked harder to get in shape. That is saying a lot, since Clemens is one of the hardest workers in baseball. From December to the start of spring training, Brian McNamee, a former New York City police officer who’s now a strength and conditioning coach for the Yankees, commuted to Houston every other week to train with Clemens. “This is the first winter I went this heavy with squatting,” says Clemens, whose hamstring injury—as well as an aching back—scared him into making his tough exercise regimen even tougher. “I can’t let what happened to my hamstring last year happen again. I can’t pitch without my legs. I can deal with shoulder problems, elbow pain, even sore arms,” he says. “But without my legs, I’m in trouble.” His rigorous workout schedule: time on the treadmill, push-ups and sit-ups, stretching, heavy leg-lifting, lower back exercises, the stationary bike, and running three miles a day. “I ain’t jogging either,” he says. “I’m running. Seven-minute miles.” He even did exercises between innings of his spring-training starts. “I’m definitely putting my foot to the pedal these next few years. I want to maximize my time here. I don’t want to look back and say I cheated myself. There were some guys who had a shot at three hundred victories but let themselves go and never got there [he is 47 wins away]. I ain’t playing this game for the paycheck every fifteen days or to watch the paint dry. I ain’t doing this for the money. I want to leave my mark on this game.” When asked when he thought he might ease up, even just a little, he pauses: “When my playing career is over.”
Just when that will be is anyone’s guess, of course, but Clemens has already pushed past most of baseball’s greatest pitchers. Consider the cases of hard-throwing great Don Drysdale, of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who was washed up at 33, and Bob Gibson, of the St. Louis Cardinals, completely cooked at 37. (Forget about Ryan, who pitched an inhuman 27 seasons, retired at 46, and threw a blazing fastball until the very end. He’s the mother of all anomalies—a freak.) Yankee TV broadcaster and former major league catcher Tim McCarver, who caught both Gibson and Hall of Famer Steve Carlton, remembers, “Gibson went in a hurry. And Carlton, who worked harder than anybody I ever saw, evaporated almost overnight. He was superhuman for so long, then—boom!—it all blew up in a period of months.” Still, McCarver—unlike so many others—believes that Clemens’ problems are more mental than physical. “I haven’t seen any noticeable drop-off in his stuff,” he says. “I just think his mind is not allowing him to do certain things. Everybody is looking for something they can see, but I think Clemens’ problem is something you can’t. It’s the mechanics of the mind at work here. He has fallen into the trap of thinking what got him to this point isn’t enough anymore to keep him here. Last year, it was his overreliance on his slider, which looked like a fat fastball most of the time.
“And one other thing: He’s human like the rest of us. He knows like everyone else that the Yankees were a better team, if not the best of all time, without him in 1998 than they were with him in 1999.”
Despite Clemens’ defiant spring-training proclamation that he “makes no concessions to age,” he clearly already has and will continue to make them if he expects to survive another year. Nolan Ryan, the 53-year-old Hall of Famer and foremost expert on the subject, would not comment specifically on Clemens but said, “The aging process affects you tremendously as a pitcher; I don’t care who you are. You start losing your natural ability. You lose sharpness off your breaking ball. You start losing velocity. You lose some movement. And that’s enough for major league hitters to catch up to you. Believe me, no matter what you do, no matter how hard you work, your muscle memory keeps slipping, as does your muscle timing; everything goes a bit at a time.”
Others see that in Clemens already. “Frankly, he’s on the downslide, stuff-wise,” says a former big-league pitcher and pitching coach, who now works as a scout and who insisted on anonymity. “Not by a lot, mind you, but by just enough. It doesn’t take much in the major leagues to go from unhittable to hittable. The thing is, he’s not throwing consistently hard anymore, more like 91 to 92 miles per hour instead of 93 to 94. He doesn’t locate his pitches nearly as well, and his splitter doesn’t have that snap it used to. What’s happened is he has lost an inch here, an inch there, which is just enough to let the hitters make contact. And when hitters make contact, when they’re able to put the ball in play, anything can happen. But he’s still enough of a competitor, still knows how to pitch, and still works hard enough that he’ll get hitters out for a while. How much longer, I couldn’t tell you.”
“No way is this close to what I get back in Houston,” Clemens says over the din of clanging silverware and loud music at a Tex-Mex place in Tampa called Rio Bravo. He’s working on a plate of grilled chicken fajitas. “I’ve got a place right near my house where the portions are huge. And the tortillas are fresh. They sling the dough right in front of you.” This is a side of Clemens the hitters will never see: relaxed and high-spirited, laughing and joking and talking mostly about his favorite subject aside from his golf game, his four boys: Koby, 13, Kory, 12, Kacy, 6, and Kody, 4. Not surprisingly, all are athletes.
“So, get this,” he says, “My eldest dropped a ‘dude’ on me the other day. He said, ‘Dude, we’re fixin’ to scrimmage.’ I said, ‘Dude? Who’s Dude?’ I stopped him dead in his tracks. He’s getting to that age, you know. I said, ‘Hey, your friends are dudes, I’m your father.'”
He bites off a piece of tortilla. This is Clemens the family man, the man who obliges his pal former president George Bush by taking part in a Leadership Forum at Texas A&M—a thousand light-years from the snorting, stomping bundle of aggression that has been terrorizing major league hitters for the past seventeen years.
“That’s the thing about my kids,” he continues, warming to his subject. “I’m not the Rocket to them. I’m not Roger Clemens, the major league baseball player. I’m just Dad. I’m the one they see in my boxer shorts eating cornflakes in the morning. And I’m Captain Video with my camcorder at their Little League games. I’ve tried real hard to keep them away from all that celebrity stuff.”
Clemens’ home is a pine-shaded 15,000 square-foot place in the Villages of Houston’s Memorial Park, where he has lived with his children and his wife, Debbie, since 1990. The house is almost a sports complex, including a seven-thousand-square-foot gym, a quarter-mile track, half of a baseball infield, a basketball rim, an indoor batting cage, and a weight room. It is less than four miles from where Clemens went to high school. Clemens says he would have liked to have spent part of his career closer to home. His best shot at that, in 1998, fell apart when his agent asked for a $27.4 million one-year extension, designed to put his salary on par with other leading pitchers. That led the Astros’ general manager, Gerry Hunsicker, to publicly lambaste Clemens at the high-profile Baseball Winter Meetings for such a “mind-boggling” request and put an end to all talk of a trade.
Meanwhile, Clemens the homebody swears that, if getting to three hundred wins starts looking out of reach, if it seems like it’s taking too long, he is prepared to leave and never look back. “I love baseball, but it doesn’t define me,” he says, somewhat astonishingly. “And I won’t miss it. I have friends whose careers ended too soon, and because of that, they had a hard time dealing with it. That won’t be me. They didn’t have a clue what to do once spring rolled around. Me, I’ve got plenty of hobbies to keep me busy.”
Doesn’t he have any desire to manage or coach in the bigs, or at least go into broadcasting?
He cocks his head, as if waiting for a different sign from the catcher.
“None of that. I wouldn’t mind coming to spring training to help out the young pitchers and see all the old guys I played with. But I don’t want to travel. I’ll probably work with high school kids and give Little League clinics.
“I know I won’t be bored. And I’ll sleep well at night knowing I gave everything I had to the game when I could. Knowing I left everything out there on the field.”