Special to Page 2
My bosses at Page 2 gave me a simple assignment this week: "Please explain to the world why Boston fans believe that Roger Clemens might be the Antichrist."
With pleasure.Even the most ardent Rocket-hater would concede that Clemens built a Hall of Fame resumé over the years. He certainly won enough games -- 265 and counting, including five different 20-win seasons. He rang up enough K's over that time -- 3,575 and counting, not to mention all of his children who have names starting with the letter "K" (Koby, Kody, Kodachrome, Kornonthekob and so on). He has more than enough Cy Young trophies (an astounding five), World Series rings (two and counting) and records (including the hallowed "Only Guy to Strike Out 20 Batters Twice" mark). He made enough money over the course of his career to fund a Michael Bay movie -- $60 to $70 million at least, not including endorsements and other goodies. Yup, all the elements are there ... except one. Fans. He doesn't have any. And that's what makes Clemens so unique, the fact that he keeps chugging along in his late-30s, pitching as well as ever ... and yet nobody cares about him. He's like the Wolf in "Pulp Fiction" -- no attachment to anyone or anything, a hired gun, a means to an end. Red Sox fans loathe him. Blue Jays fans despise him. Yankees fans tolerate him, but they haven't embraced him and never will, not with his Boston connections. Who else is left? Can you remember any other superstar athlete squandering his emotional connection to every possible city? Think about it. Name a superstar over the past 30 years; within a nano-second, you instinctively link that athlete to a particular place. Rose? Cincinnati. Aikman? Dallas. Reggie? New York. Rice? San Fran. Isiah? Detroit. The list goes on and on. In every case, the superstar enjoyed his prime years in a particular city and still reaps the benefits of that relationship to this day. And yet Clemens drifts along, the hired hitman, the superstar who sold out his fans for a few extra bucks. Instead of a team logo, the cap on his Hall of Fame statue should simply feature a dollar sign. Of course, the general public associates Clemens with the city of Boston, regardless of his current Yankees affiliation and enough bad blood over the past few years to rival the Overlook Hotel's main elevator at the end of "The Shining." The prevailing feeling seems to be that Boston fans will soften during the twilight of Clemens' career -- when he enters that cuddly "aging and vulnerable" stage that turns everyone nostalgic -- and we'll collectively bury the hatchet with him, forgive his sins and accept him back in our good
graces. And then the Rocket will retire, and he'll make the Hall of Fame, and heck, he might even wear a Red Sox cap as a gesture of good will.Well, I'm here to tell you ... this will never happen. Sometimes relationships pass a point where they can be salvaged, as Ike & Tina, Nicole & OJ and Sam & Diane all proved over the years. In the Rocket's case, too much has happened. We can't let it go. We won't let it go. When you give your heart to someone and they basically drop it on the ground, stomp on it a few times, then ask, "What did I do?" ... well, you don't forget something like that. Ever. In footsteps of Orr, Bird
Clemens splashed onto the Boston sports scene in the mid-'80s -- the zenith of the Larry Bird Era -- causing everyone to mistakenly assume that the Rocket would follow the footsteps of Bird and Bobby Orr and become our next local sports legend. Orr rejuvenated the Boston hockey scene during the '70s; Bird did the same for basketball in the '80s; Clemens would carry the torch for baseball into the late-'80s and beyond.Orr ... Bird ... Clemens. That's how we were thinking -- this is going to happen. Everything felt right about it. And over the next seven years from '86 to '92, the Rocket played his part reasonably well -- 136 wins, three Cy Youngs, three playoff appearances and one World Series trip -- but he lacked Orr's panache and Bird's sense of The Moment. After awhile, we stopped measuring him against them. We adored him, we supported him ... but we worried about him. You never worried about Bird and Orr. For instance, during Game 6 of the '86 World Series, Clemens could have closed out the Mets and emerged as a genuine hero (you forget this now, but everything was sitting right there at his fingertips -- "legend" status, a statue, the whole shebang). He pitched valiantly, holding a 3-2 lead through the seventh before exiting with a blister on the index finger of his throwing hand; even 15 years later, the principles involved (Clemens, former manager John McNamara and former pitching coach Bill Fischer) still argue whether or not Clemens asked out of the game. McNamara vehemently claims that Clemens told him, "That's all I can pitch"; Clemens steadfastly maintains that he was yanked after the seventh; and prosecutor Jim Garrison claims that there may have been a second pitching coach ordering Clemens to leave the game. Nobody knows the truth, but we know one thing: Under similar circumstances, Larry Bird would have remained in the game unless he was forcibly removed and hogtied to the Celtics bench. Clemens started eight playoff games in a five-year span from 1986-90, with the Sox winning just one of those starts (Game 7 of the 1986 ALCS against a shell-shocked Angels squad). To be fair, Boston's bullpen blew two other potential wins, but only one statistic keeps jumping out: 2-6. Not a good sign. We watched Hershiser ('88), Rijo ('90) and Morris ('91) shine in postseasons over that same stretch, quietly waiting for Clemens to embark on a similar "Get on my back, boys" run. Never happened. Eventually we wondered if Clemens only peaked in meaningless games, like the time he tossed a complete game shutout during the final game of the '87 season (clinching his bid for a second Cy Young) after the Sox had been eliminated from the playoff picture for months. And then there was Oakland ace/nemesis Dave Stewart, who delighted in beating Clemens in their head-to-head matchups (my math might be a little off here, but if I remember correctly, Stewart's lifetime record against Clemens was 982-0 -- even the Globetrotters-Generals feud wasn't this one-sided). Things finally boiled over in Game 4 of the 1990 American League playoffs between Stewart and Clemens, as the Rocket flipped out while arguing balls and strikes with home plate umpire Terry Cooney and got himself tossed in the second inning, even punctuating his exit by throwing a memorable, Whitney Houston-esque tantrum on the field and bumping Cooney more than once. Again, Larry wouldn't have done something like that. Our concerns about Clemens deepened after the '92 campaign, when he signed a four-year, $20 million contract and took much of the next 3½ years off, almost like a professor who gets tenure and doesn't feel like grading papers anymore. Unveiling a historic double chin for the '93 season -- my father's favorite joke that spring was, "Would you like another slice, Roger?" -- Clemens battled arm problems and floundered to the first losing season of his career. He seemed more dedicated during the strike-shortened '94 season (9-7, 2.85 ERA); unfortunately, he stopped working out that winter and showed up for the post-strike spring training in '95 looking like he was auditioning for the "Chris Farley Story." Fueled by an increasingly vicious Boston media, Sox fans started to turn against Clemens, especially after his inevitable breakdown during the first part of the season (an extended DL stint) coincided with an improbable playoff run by the Red Sox. Of course, Clemens squandered his only playoff start to the Indians, fueling those "can't win the big one" doubts. That brings us to '96, the final season of Clemens' aforementioned four-year deal. Chunky, disinterested and increasingly vocal about Boston's failure to offer him a contract extension, the Rocket turned on the jets once the team fell out of playoff contention, going 6-2 over his last 10 starts and striking out 20 Tigers during a mid-September game at Detroit. Classic Clemens, through and through. You could always count on him when it mattered least (and yes, I'm getting bitter just remembering this whole thing). Understandably, the Red Sox were dubious about signing him to another long-term deal, given that he A) was 34 years old; B) battled health problems in '93 and '95; and C) spent a sizable chunk of the past four years hibernating through his last mega-contract (this was the musical equivalent of U2 asking for a contract extension from their record company on the heels of "Zooropa" and "Pop"). Tensions escalated between Clemens' agents (the hideous Hendricks brothers) and Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette, exacerbated by Duquette's steadfast refusal to negotiate during the season or recognize the Rocket's market value. We were headed for a divorce, an ugly one, and the sad thing was this: We knew things were headed that way all along. Blue Jays, OK, but Yankees ...
Now ... When Clemens ultimately jumped at a $28 million offer to play for the Blue Jays, we were jolted ... but deep down, we understood. Sometimes you just have to move on. So what happened? Why the sudden change of heart? Why did the Rocket practically become the modern-day Sirhan Sirhan of New England? Five things happened over the ensuing three-year span that turned Boston fans against Clemens for life; if any of them had unfolded differently, the bad blood could have been averted: 1. The Slap in the Face
When Clemens signed with Toronto and held his first press conference with the Blue Jays, he only needed to take one minute out of the afternoon -- just one -- to say something like this: "I want to say something to the Boston fans who stuck with me over the past 12 years: Thanks for all your support. I'll always remember the time I spent in Boston and I'll always be a Red Sox fan at heart. I hope you guys finally win a Series some day and I'm just sorry I'm not going to be a part of it when it happens. I wish things didn't deteriorate with the front office, but they did, and I didn't fell like they wanted me around anymore. And Toronto makes me feel like they want me, and they did everything they could to make me a Blue Jay. For that, I'm grateful, and I'm happy to be here. But I hope the Boston fans realize that I'll always remember them and I'll miss pitching in front of them at Fenway. Thanks for 12 great years. You guys are truly special." That's it. Would have taken about 45 seconds. That's all. Instead, Clemens spent much of the press conference stroking his new Blue Jays hat and showing about as much emotion as Mr. Spock. His only concern seemed to be making everyone aware -- repeatedly, painfully, flagrantly -- of how "excited I am to be a Blue Jay" and "how grateful I am that the Blue Jays have treated me so well." It was like they offered him an extra 50 bucks every time he praised the Jays. The members of the Boston media kept giving him chances to rectify the mistake, repeatedly asking him about his stint in Boston, but Clemens stubbornly stuck to his guns. He was moving forward. He was a Blue Jay. And so he brushed off every question about Boston fans, while we watched in disbelief, our anger mounting. That wasn't just an oversight, it was a hanging curveball right over the plate. (And when we found out that Toronto had offered him the most money -- about $2 million to $3 million more than the defending champion Yankees -- and yet Clemens kept maintaining that he signed with the Blue Jays because he wanted to win a championship ... well, that made him a liar, too. Let the record show that Toronto finished 24 games under .500 in Clemens' two seasons above the border.) 2. The Kick in the Gonads
Suddenly and mysteriously motivated by the slight from Boston's front office, Clemens embarked on a rigorous conditioning program during the offseason, determined to prove Team Duquette wrong. He arrived for spring training in superb shape for the first time in eons, repeatedly telling reporters that he had never been better prepared to start a season. Of course, that revelation should have prompted questions like, "If you're so motivated this season, why weren't you as motivated from 1993-96 after signing the most lucrative deal in Red Sox history?" and "Will you be training with a feedbag and a vat of chicken wings like you did in '95?" but that's a story for another time. Apparently star athletes aren't obligated to get themselves in shape until they feel slighted. Anyway, we watched in horror as Clemens rolled off consecutive Cy Young seasons for the Blue Jays. Here were his average stats from '93-'96 in Boston, followed by the '97 and '98 seasons in Toronto:
YR W-L ERA G IP H SO BB 93-96 10-10 3.90 26 186.1 164 204 76 1997 21-7 2.05 34 264.0 204 292 68 1998 20-6 2.65 33 234.2 169 271 88Put it this way: Watching Clemens lighting it up in Canada was like breaking up with your girlfriend, then watching her hire a personal trainer, shed 15 pounds, spend 10 Gs on a boob job and join the cast of "Baywatch." If that wasn't tough enough to swallow, Clemens thrived against his former team, going 2-0 with a 1.73 ERA in four starts (including a memorable "f-you" start in Fenway in '97, when he glared at the owner's box after leaving the game) and dropping hints in the papers that Mo Vaughn should join him in Canada. Now it was becoming personal, and when the Boston media started hammering him (with longtime Boston Globe hatchet man Will McDonough leading the pack), the tide shifted against Clemens for good. We felt jilted, we felt used and we started rooting against him. Vehemently. 3. The Revelation
As luck would have it, at the exact same time Clemens was sparkling for a sub-.500 team in a foreign country, Boston fans were falling for two new heroes: Pedro Martinez and Nomar Garciaparra. Both of them were blessed with an innate understanding about Boston fans -- what baseball means to us, how we value players who play hard, how we revere players with a sense of The Moment, how we love when our heroes acknowledge us and say things like "The fans were great today" or "Nothing beats playing in Boston in front of these fans." Sounds stupid? It's not. That's Boston. We eat that stuff up. The double-barreled emergence of Nomar and Pedro (coupled with Clemens being hooked up to the Rejuvenation Machine in Canada) made us realize that the loss of Clemens wasn't as important as we thought. If anything, the new guys were more fun to watch. And since Clemens was a self-serving, greedy jerk who didn't care about us when he played here ... well, this was war. (If baseball were wrestling, this would be the point where Clemens came into the ring carrying the Canadian flag, shouting epithets about Nomar and Pedro, making unflattering jokes about Boston and forcing everyone to stand for the playing of the Canadian anthem. In other words, all ties had been severed -- he was an official "Bad Guy.") 4. The Ultimate Violation
After two losing seasons in Toronto, a disenchanted Clemens eventually forced a trade to the Yankees in the spring of '99, with help from an illegal "You can ask for a trade two years into this deal if you're not happy" handshake clause from his contract that drew the ire of the commissioner's office. It wasn't bad enough that the winningest pitcher in Red Sox history wanted to play in New York -- he actually cheated to get there. Even the staunchest Clemens sympathizers in New England couldn't defend him anymore. He had crossed over to the dark side. He was Darth Vader with a Texas accent. He was the enemy. (By the way, if you're keeping track, Clemens was officially a quitter, a cheater, a fibber and a traitor at this point). 5. The Final Straw
During the All-Star Game ceremonies at Fenway that same summer, Clemens took part in the "Greatest Players of the 20th Century" introductions, where every living legend wore the cap of the team with whom they were most prominently associated. Of course, Clemens wore a Yankees hat because he had been playing in New York for a whopping three months. Here was his last chance -- I mean, ever -- to salvage his ties with Boston fans. And he blew it. At this point, we were like Michael Corleone in "Godfather 2" after finding out that Fredo knew Johnny Ola: "Fredo, you're nothing to me now. I don't want to see you. I don't want to know you. If you visit our mother, I want to know a day in advance. You're dead to me." Or something like that. Looking for love
More things happened after the 1999 All-Star Game; none of them remotely changed the way we felt about the Rocket. We savagely booed him during an unforgettable Game 3 in the '99 ALCS, when Pedro outdueled him at Fenway and officially became The Man. When Clemens' wife whined to the Globe's Dan Shaughnessy about the treatment her husband had received -- including the infamous quote, "I don't know what Roger ever did to them" -- that inflamed us even more. We winced when Clemens finally captured his first-ever ring a few weeks later, taking solace in the fact that the Yankees probably would have won without him. We enjoyed his battles with Mike Piazza during the 2000 season, including the bizarre bat-tossing incident in Game 2 of the World Series that inadvertently tainted much of the Series for the Yankees and their fans.Now he's practically old news. The "Everyone hates Clemens" angle has been done to death. So has the "Clemens vs. Pedro" angle. And the "Fallen hero returns home" angle. Done, done, done. Next time Clemens pitches against the Sox, only the Yankee fans in attendance will be cheering him. That begs one final question: Will Roger Clemens ever be loved by any group of baseball fans? Say what you want about Yankee fans, but at least you know where you stand with them. When they love somebody, they love somebody, especially pitchers. They loved Guidry and Righetti. They loved Cone and Wells. They love Rivera. But Clemens ... maybe it's the Boston ties, or the fact that they traded Wells to obtain him, or the way he made them sweat during the '99 stretch run, or his self-destruction at Fenway during the '99 ALCS, or even the bat-throwing incident from last October. Hell, maybe it's a little of everything. Whatever the case, he hasn't clicked with New York fans; even the most diehard Yankee supporter would admit that. They're cheering him now, but you always get the sense that they're wary of him, that they would turn on him in the drop of a hat. Watching the movie "61" last month, you couldn't help but notice the similarities between Roger Maris and Clemens -- both All-Star imports who never really won over their fans, through no fault of their own. And so Clemens gives the Yankees a better-than-good chance to win every five days, and as soon as those odds drop, they'll discard him and find someone else. Those are the stakes. He's a hired gun, a means to an end, a necessary evil. He's a temp. And maybe he'll end up winning 300 games and another championship ring, and maybe he'll make $25-30 million more before it's all over ... but everything about those last few years will inevitably feel hollow. He'll have his family and friends in the end. And that's it. The fans will be long gone. As for Red Sox fans, the worst part about the Clemens Era is that void from 1986-1996 -- it's almost like dating someone for an extended time, then suffering through a dreadful breakup that taints every aspect of the time you spent together. It's not that you forget the good times ... you simply choose not to think about them anymore, that's all. There's no point. I remember my then-girlfriend bought me an autographed, limited edition photo of Clemens' 20K game back in college, which I dragged with me to every apartment I lived in from 1990-96. After the Toronto press conference, in a fit of rage, I yanked down that picture, never to be seen again. More than four years have passed and that photo is still buried in my bedroom closet. That's what I think of Clemens -- he's stuck in a closet with useless graduate notebooks, eclectic magazines, yellowed photos, letters from old flames and old sweaters that I stopped wearing a long time ago. Is he the Antichrist? Probably not. But I've been following sports for nearly three decades, and no athlete ever let me down quite like Roger Clemens did. Fortunately, we can take solace at the potential sight of Clemens standing on the field at New Fenway, maybe 40 years from now, being introduced on Old Timer's Day 2041 ... and getting showered with boos from Red Sox fans. "I can't believe they still haven't let this go," he'll mumble to himself, a thin smile spread across his face, oblivious to the bitter end, still waiting for the fans to come around. Not a chance. You can read Bill Simmons' irreverent take on sports on his award-winning "Boston Sports Guy" website, which can be reached at www.bostonsportsguy.com. Simmons is a regular contributor to Page 2.