Baseball Men - The Pitcher

Our exclusive ‘Baseball Men' interview series continues with Roger Clemens, seven-time Cy Young Award winner and future Hall of Famer.

Peter Handrinos is a frequent contributor to and author of the upcoming ‘The Best New York Sports Arguments:  The 100 Most Controversial, Debatable Questions for Die-Hard Fans'.



With Roger Clemens, there's a lot to talk about.


You could, for instance, talk about a deeply devoted family man. After losing his father at a young age, Clemens grew up in an exceptionally close family, one that he largely supported once he started earning Major League paychecks. He's the father of four teenage sons, with the oldest (Koby) now standing out as a promising Major League prospect in his own right.


Alternatively, you could talk about the baseball ambassador, the one who's maintained a multi-million dollar charitable foundation since 1992. The Clemens Foundation supports children's philanthropy in Boston, Toronto, New York, and Houston, with its president raising the bulk of its funds through tireless off-season events and autograph signings. It's one reason why Clemens has been largely synonymous with baseball in his home town, especially since he made his celebrated return as an Astro in 2004.


You could talk about those dimensions, of course, and you can also talk about the unsurpassed work ethic of a dedicated competitor. Clemens is the author of hours-long workout routines that have been known to exhaust men half his age, and may study hitters and umpires as closely as any player in history. One of his former catchers, Jorge Posada, described his on-field performances this way: "He's a fighter. He never died, never quit, every day, every pitch. It doesn't matter if he's 100% or not, he will always give you 100%."


Roger Clemens is remarkable in several ways, but all of them are, finally, secondary to the man's legendary work as a pitcher. In Major League history, there's never been another quite like him.


With more than 340 career victories to his credit, Clemens is the winningest pitcher alive, largely because he's been one of the most overpowering (second in all-time strikeouts) and stingy (eighth in all-time adjusted ERA) hurlers ever to grace a diamond. In many ways, Clemens has been in another league, not only in his accumulated totals, but in his game- and season-achievements - no one is looking for the next superstar to strike out 20 batters in a nine-inning game, or win 20 consecutive decisions, or strikeout 15 batters in a League Championship game, or win seven Cy Young Awards. It's a level without equal.


In the late 1990's, analysts like Bill James and Allen Barra were already mentioning Rocket as the single greatest pitcher who ever lived, and that was well before he became the oldest man ever to lead the league in hits allowed per inning (at age 42, in 2004) and ERA (2005). For most, the argument is now closed - as remarkable as he may be in his personal life, outreach, and work ethic - Roger Clemens has stood all alone in his on-field performance. For those who known baseball in the last two decades, he is and always will be the pitcher.



What did baseball mean to you as a young man?


Baseball was fun for me and my family. I first played at the age of 7 on a 9 year old team.


My dad passed away when I was 9, and my mother picked the slack right up and took over from there. She would take me to practice and games (sometimes on the back of her Honda 90 motor scooter) and also hold down three jobs. My sisters and brothers also pitched in many ways to help.


When did you start thinking about taking it to a higher level, even a professional level?


Going into high school, I played all three sports - baseball, football, and basketball. My senior year I got a nice break when I started getting scholarship letters. This was a big key for me because my family really didn't have the financial means for college.


How did your family influence your approach to the game?


My approach to baseball, and life, came from my entire family [including two older brothers, two older sisters, and one younger sister]. My mother, Bess, and grandmother, Myrtle, had the biggest influence on me.  They led by hard work and faith. I learned so much from just watching both of them. They both always found a way to get it done. I get my "TOUGH ALL DAY" saying from them.


Is it true that you didn't throw very hard in HS?


That is true. I didn't throw particularly hard. I might have been at 84 [miles per hour]. I was lucky because I had very good command. My senior year my velocity went to 87. Then my freshman year in college at the age of 18 I grew from 6'2" to 6'4", my body matured and my velocity jumped to the low 90's.


But, even as a teenager, you were doing an extraordinary amount of conditioning work to build up your body and velocity.


While in high school I would run home from practice most days. About a three mile run. At this point in my life I still enjoy running. It's therapeutic for me. It keeps mind clear from all the ups and downs you have in the game of baseball, and in the game of life. One of the stories that made the papers way back when was a game I got knocked out of in the fourth inning, I took off on a six-mile run around the Charles River in Boston. Returned back to the stadium just in time to address the media. My mind set was better by then. I wish it was that way all the time.


As a lot of people know, Boston is a great running town. A lot of people run, so when I'm running solo it's easy to get behind someone who is a good pace car. The best is the looks they give you when they make eye contact with you!


Cliff Gustafson once said that Burt Hooton was the best college player he ever coached, but a young Roger Clemens was the best pro prospect he ever had. What do you think he meant by that?


Coach has said that a few times. We played at different times at both levels. It was fun for me to watch men like Burt, Nolan Ryan, Gibson, and Seaver. Heck….even better, Seaver ended up being on my team for a short time in Boston, and Burt was my pitching coach in Houston.


As you know, you were taken after ten other pitchers in the '84 draft, including guys like Stan Hilton, Jackie Davidson, Darrell Akerfelds, Ray Hayward, and Joel Davis. Did that motivate or discourage you at all?


No, that didn't bother me. You really didn't think about where, you just hoped to get that phone call in your room that you were drafted. Now looking back, the only thing about the draft I would change is the timing of it. It should take place after the College World Series is all wrapped up.


I guess my point is - how does somebody have so much pride in his work have the presence of mind to shrug off the scouts' lack of respect? Or, for that matter, losses on the playing field?


The losses, those aren't so easy. That's what you're talking about when you talk about ‘mental toughness' in baseball. Maintaining mental toughness may be the single most difficult thing in the game, because you're going to lose a lot, no matter what. To this day, I tell my sons, ‘You can hate losing, but remember, you're going to lose. You've got to overcome it'.


It's seldom recalled nowadays, but you underwent arm surgery back in 1985 with Dr. James Andrews. Did that injury affect your approach as a power pitcher?


It was a scary time for me. When I first had the problem, I wondered if my days of being a power pitcher were over. You can't say enough about Dr. Andrews and his skill, and the biggest lesson was in the knowledge I picked up at the clinic - learning about the large muscles' interaction with the smaller muscles, learning about flexibility exercises, learning how to prevent injuries before they happen. To this day, I'm religious about following the routines. One thing I'd advise young pitchers - make sure you're doing all the conditioning and flexibility exercises. Don't wait until you're injured. At that point, it might be too late.


The interesting thing is how the physical and mental effort can sometimes be one and the same. This is what Buster Olney wrote of your 1999 season - "He was pitching with a bad shoulder and hamstring, but injuries seemed to make him focus, to concentrate on keeping his body and mechanics in control."


Dead on….It's heightens your concentration. If you have will to do so.


All pitchers have to deal with significant pain in the day-to-day course of things, especially power pitchers. The hardest part for me, physically, is dealing with leg injuries, because they play such a big part in my delivery. It's a matter of using willpower and smarts to overcome it.


In the past, you've said that you aren't angry on the mound, but you are highly motivated. What's the difference?


To me, there are three distinct phases in the competition. There's the physical aspect - ‘I'm going to beat you because I've done the workouts'. There's the mental aspect - ‘I'm going to beat you because I've done the homework'. And there's also the emotional - ‘If you're at a low lazy point, find or think of someone who can push you to a higher level. Channel those emotions to a positive energy.'


Does your motivation ever vary - for good or bad - due outside factors like statistics, awards, or media comments?


Be self-motivated. Once again - positive energy. This is also knowledge and experience you gather over time. Winning 20 games, MVP's, Cy Young Awards are great until you taste being a World Champion! There's nothing like it!


With that attitude, was it tougher to play for losing teams or non-contenders?


I don't know. It's tough to answer that.


Teams can turn it around so quickly. Who's a contender and who's a non-contender, when you think about it? I mean, I was on the '86 Red Sox when we went all the way from the ALCS [win] to the World Series [loss]. I've also been on a [2005] Astros team that everyone was counting out, and we came all the way back to win the franchise's first pennant.


I guess the best thing to say is - don't give up too easily, no matter where you are in the standings. And remember what Yogi always said . . .


I had a chance to talk to your former Red Sox and Yankees teammate, John Flaherty, and he really emphasized the way that you related to catchers, and included them in your game-day performance. Can you talk about that?


The pitcher-catcher relationship is a must. An absolute must. I've been really lucky - I've had some great [catchers], who pay attention to detail in terms of pitching to hitters' weaknesses, framing pitches, and adjusting to what they see over the course of the game, especially later in the game.


When I have my best stuff, we expect to win those games, but it's a thrill when I can work with a good catcher to work through jams without my best stuff, maybe take a game 4-3. It's happened - I'd be icing up afterwards, and they'd be sitting there in a chair, giving me a look, and I'd give a wink back. We both knew I didn't have a lot on that one evening . . . but we got the W.


A lot of your teammates have testified to that attitude, talking about the way you'd host parties or take them out for golf, concerts, dinners. Are those connections purely social, or do you think that closeness helps you on the field?


Baseball can be so mentally and physically taxing that all of us need an outside outlet. My feeling is, ‘Let's all enjoy it'. I don't know how many times the guys have gone out as part of some group. The way we go at each other on the golf course can be mentally draining. It's also free entertainment!


One of the things that come up in Roger Clemens stories has been the way you've mentored young pitchers. Can you talk about that?


The really neat thing for me, is when I've crossed paths with the older players and had a chance to pick their mind. So many great ones, and a lot of Hall of Fame guys. Now to be able to pass info along to the younger players is fun for me.


In the past, you've mentioned the importance of inside pitching. Some may think of that as throwing at batters. Can you explain?


I'm not sure that's accurate. The stories can take on a life of their own sometimes. Pitching inside works because it expands the strike zone east-and-west as well as north-to-south. You don't pitch inside to hit guys; you pitch inside to make a 17" plate a 24" plate. How's that for keeping it simple?


But you'd have to concede there's something different in your particular willingness to go after guys. I'm thinking, for example, of the 2000 ALCS, when Joe Oliver said you had his Mariners off-balance from the moment you knocked down Alex Rodriguez.


That made for some great theater, I guess. In truth, we were trying to go in at the belt for a good strike, then climb the ladder. The pitches were more middle up. That game was one I had my most dominant stuff. Three pitches working all night long. Same goes for the playoff game in Boston. I threw a high pitch to Manny, just up middle, and his eyes went crossed. Next thing we knew Zim was doing a cartwheel over by the Red Sox dugout.


How does someone go through your kind of physical workouts, then learn how to rely so much on the mental game?


Necessity. I had no other choice. (chuckles) If I wanted to go out there and win.


As I've gotten older, I've had to rely on the mental game more and more, but it's always been there. I don't know of anyone who goes out there and wins primarily on physical strength.


I said it many times - ‘You're going to have to will the ball across the plate'. I believe that. Sometimes the best player is the one who pays attention to detail, and makes the most of their physical talent.


After seven Cy Young Awards and more than 300 career wins, are you still learning how to pitch? If so, what have you learned in the last couple of years?


I've been able to hang on to my velocity some what. Bottom line is you really never stop learning. I mentioned it before, how I'm always talking to pitchers. Recently, I said to Roy [Oswalt], ‘Show me how you're gripping your curveball'. ‘Brad [Lidge], let's see that slider again'. Andy [Pettitte] and I are always pretty good about keeping a watchful eye on each others' throwing sessions.


When Andy and I first landed in Spring Training 2004, Jimy Williams grabbed us and said, ‘Look, if you guys can just learn how to handle the bat a little bit and get a bunt down, it'll win you some ball games'. And he was right - there have been times when Jimy or Phil [Garner] would have pulled me for a pinch hitter in a tight game, but they felt comfortable enough that I would get the bunt down.


At this point, the biggest point of debate on your career is if you're the single greatest pitcher in Major League history. Without any false modesty, has that been a part of your ambition all these years, and how does it fit into your life today?


Honestly, I was always busy trying to do it. Over the years, that was my focus, first and foremost. I wanted to do my best and win.


Of course the accomplishments have been heartwarming, and the best part has been in the way it's connected me to some pitchers I've admired all along. And to some I didn't know, either. I can't say I knew a lot about Lefty Grove and Walter Johnson, but the good people at the Hall of Fame have always been good about sending me some information or old-time photos.


(chuckles) The nicknames, even, are fun. ‘Christy', ‘The Big Train', ‘Lefty', ‘Rocket'.


What's been your proudest accomplishment on the field? Off the field?


That's a very, very tough question. I remember when I first came up and I faced Reggie Jackson, they announced the name and I thought to myself, ‘Yup, you're in the Major Leagues'. It's been a long time since then!


As a teammate - the championships have been so incredibly gratifying. As an individual player, I'll tell you, one time Yogi told me I could have pitched to him back in his day, and that meant a lot to me.


Off the field, I've been privileged, again, to be part of an outstanding extended family. I've been so fortunate in the way that baseball's allowed me to be a part of so many charities and events, none of them more memorable than the 9-11 commemorations in New York City.


You were a big part of that, I remember. Some say that you've given out more free signatures than any active player.


Well, we have worked hard at my Foundation. And I say we because it is a good team of people who has helped us raise money over the years. Hey, bottom line if the fans and donors keep asking for them…that's a good thing.  (chuckles)


Have you ever had any reservations about your son coming up in the game, given the inevitable and almost impossible comparisons?


My wife and I have tried to emphasize to him, again and again, that being Koby Clemens is all he needs to be. And he has done a great job of that. That's what we want all our boys to do…be who they are. He doesn't have to be me. I'm like any father - I want all my children do well in whatever they do with their lives.


The odds are stacked against Koby breaking into the Major League level - the odds are stacked against anybody trying to break into the Major League level. That's the fact and he knows it. If there's been a blessing in my struggling to keep up in these last couple of years, it's in the way he's seen some of the hard work involved in maintaining success. So, I don't have any reservations as long as he puts in the work and lives with good values.


If you ever retire -


(laughs) Right.


How do you see yourself defining success in the rest of your life?


I look at role models in business, for the most part. I look at guys like Drayton McLane and George Steinbrenner, who've accomplished so much in their business and philanthropy and social impact alike. I've been around a number of great business competitors and contributors, including the Hendricks brothers, my agents.


If I had a similar sort of impact after I move on to the next stage, that wouldn't be bad at all. There's never any shortage of challenges out there, that's for sure.


After all these years, are you more of a fan, less of a fan, or about the same?


This spring, with my layoff, I've actually had a chance to see how relaxing and leisurely baseball can look from up in the stands. It is a beautiful game! I've always been a fan, and I've become even more of a fan, without a doubt.



The complete Table of Contents for the ‘Baseball Men' interview series can be found here.

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