As a youngster, Clemens idolized all-time strikeout king Nolan Ryan, and in less than five full major-league seasons he had emerged as Ryan’s rival as baseball’s most overpowering pitcher. The physically imposing, 6’4″ 220-pound Clemens’ confident attitude bordered on arrogance, but his impeccable mechanics, outstanding control, a good curveball, and a 95-mph fastball often left batters flailing helplessly. In his first two full seasons, Clemens became only the fourth pitcher ever to win back-to-back Cy Young Awards, pitching 18 shutouts in his first 139 starts. He also established a major-league record with 20 strikeouts in a nine-inning game — a feat he repeated a decade later.
Originally drafted by the Mets out of high school (which would have put him on the same staff as Dwight Gooden) Clemens opted to pitch in college instead of signing. He compiled a 25-7 record in two All-American seasons at the University of Texas and won the 1983 College World Series championship game. In doing so, Clemens became the first Texas alumnus to have his baseball uniform number retired, on a staff that included future major leaguers Greg Swindell, Calvin Schiraldi, and Bruce Ruffin.
Drafted in the first round (19th player overall) by the Red Sox that June, Clemens tore through Boston’s minor-league system, fanning 36 batters in 29 innings at Class-A Winter Haven and striking out 59 more in 52 innings at Double-A New Britain before winning the Eastern League championship game with a three-hit shutout. In 1984, he began the season at Triple-A Pawtucket, struck out 50 in 39 innings, and was promoted to the majors in early May. On August 21, he fanned 15 Royals and walked none. He finished the 1995 season 9-4, but shoulder troubles limited him to a disappointing 15 starts and he was forced to undergo surgery on August 30.
Clemens’s shoulder was still a question mark at the start of the 1986 season, but the 24-year-old responded with one of the finest pitching seasons in major-league history. He won his first three starts and, on April 29, leaped into the national spotlight with 20 strikeouts in a 3-1 win over Seattle, breaking the record of 19 shared by Ryan, Steve Carlton, and Tom Seaver. In that game, Clemens tied an AL record with eight consecutive strikeouts and didn’t walk a single batter. Red Sox manager John McNamara said afterwards, “I watched perfect games by Catfish Hunter and Mike Witt, but this was the most awesome pitching performance I’ve ever seen.”
Clemens ran his record to 14-0 before losing to Toronto on July 2, pitched three perfect innings to win the All-Star Game MVP award (and the game), and finished the season 24-4 with a 2.48 ERA. It was the first of seven seasons in which Clemens would strike out at least 200 batters, tying the major league mark. Not only did he win the AL Cy Young Award, but he was also honored as the AL’s Most Valuable Player.
After the season, Hank Aaron angered the star hurler by taking the opportunity to opine that pitcher should not be eligible for the MVP. “I wish he were still playing,” said Clemens. “I’d probably crack his head open to show him how valuable I was.”
Despite his regular-season dominance Clemens won only one of his four post-season starts in 1986 while achieving a number of dubious LCS records. He set the mark for most hits allowed (22) in a series, and tied the records for most runs allowed in one game (8), most earned runs allowed in one game (7), and most earned runs allowed in one series (11). (He did tie one positive standard with four consecutive strikeouts.) Clemens pitched more adequately in the World Series, but won neither of his starts. The Red Sox lost to the Mets in seven games, and it was reported that Clemens asked to be taken out of the infamous World Series Game 6 and leave it to Calvin Schiraldi to hold a 3-2 lead.
Clemens skipped spring training in 1987 in a contract squabble and was only 4-6 on June 12 that year, but he went 16-3 the rest of the way to finish 20-9 with a league-leading seven shutouts, winning his second consecutive Cy Young Award. In 1988, Clemens’s 291 strikeouts set a Red Sox season mark, and he finished 18-12 with an AL-best eight shutouts. On September 10 he pitched a 6-0 one-hitter against Cleveland. In 1989, he had a spectacular start and finish, but in his middle 19 starts he was a human 7-8 with a 4.00 ERA. He ended the year 17-11 with a 3.13 ERA.
He bounced back in 1990 with a career-best and ML-leading 1.93 ERA and a 21-6 record in a season where he was limited to 31 starts by more shoulder problems. Clemens didn’t surrender a home run after July 8, and none all season to righthanded batters. He went 6-0 with a 0.73 ERA in August, and during the season became the all-time Red Sox strikeout leader, passing Cy Young. But he lost the Cy Young to Oakland’s 27-game winner Bob Welch.
Although his numbers were down from 1990, Clemens won his third Cy Young in 1991, leading the AL in shutouts (4) and ERA (2.62). He also led the majors in innings pitched and tied for strikeouts (241), notching 30 consecutive scoreless innings from April 9 through April 23. His 2.41 ERA in 1992 once again led the league, as did his five shutouts, but although he became the second pitcher to lead the league in ERA and shutouts three years in a row he finished third in Cy Young balloting.
For various reasons, Clemens became merely mortal over the next four seasons. He spent two stints on the DL in 1993 and finished with a losing record for the first time, with a bloated 4.46 ERA. He bounced back somewhat in the strike-shortened 1994 season, ranking second in the league in ERA and strikeouts with five 10-strikeout performances during the season, but the Sox were fading as a power and Clemens failed to get adequate run support. The downward career trend continued in 1995 when he started the season on the DL. He managed to win 10 games, but once again saw his ERA balloon to 4.18.
It seemed on the surface that Clemens’ career was ending when he went only 10-13 in 1996. But he was distracted all season by ongoing debates with the front office about whether he would re-sign with the Red Sox and suffered from an appalling lack of run support. In fact, over the second half of the season, Clemens was as dominant as he was at the turn of the decade. He was 6-2, 2.09 in his last 10 starts, and after the All-Star break struck out 123 men in 111 1/3 innings. He also became the first AL pitcher since 1993 to get a regular-season base hit on May 23 in a pinch-hitting appearance against Seattle’s Norm Charlton.
Then, on September 18, 1996, in a final rebuke to Red Sox management (particularly GM Dan Duquette) he tied his own major-league record 10 years after setting it by striking out 20 Tigers. His 257 strikeouts were tops in the AL — less than two months later, he with the Blue Jays. He left Boston owning the team career records for games started (382), bases on balls (856), and strikeouts (2,590), and tied with Cy Young with 192 victories.
When Clemens signed a four-year, $40 million free agent deal with Toronto at the end of the season, most observers figured that the once-fearsome hurler had simply found a comfy place to spend his declining years. But the Rocket’s righteous anger toward his former employers brought back the fire of his youth. He won his first 11 starts, threw nine complete games and three shutouts — both tied for the AL lead with teammate Pat Hentgen, the 1996 Cy Young winner.
By leading the AL in wins (21-7), ERA (2.05), and strikeouts (292), Clemens won the pitcher’s Triple Crown for the first time in the AL since Hal Newhouser did it with the Tigers in 1945 and became just the third four-time Cy Young winner after Carlton and Greg Maddux. And as if his dominating debut with the Blue Jays wasn’t enough, Clemens turned in an unprecedented fifth Cy Young season in 1998. After a slow start, Clemens won his last 15 decisions; his 2.65 ERA, 20 wins, and 271 strikeouts made him only the fourth pitcher (after Grover Cleveland Alexander, Lefty Grove, and Sandy Koufax) to win the pitcher’s Triple Crown in consecutive seasons.
That season, Clemens became just the eleventh pitcher in major-league history to rack up more than 3,000 strikeouts. He already had four special Ks at home — his four sons, named Koby, Kory, Kacy, and Kody. When he won his fourth Cy Young in 1997, he had commented, ”I got one for Koby and Kory. I got one for Kasy, and I needed one for Kody,” he said. ”It kind of takes the pressure off Dad a little bit.”
Trade rumors swirled around Clemens in 1998 and intensified when he exercised a little-known out in his contract that enabled him to demand a trade after two seasons with the Blue Jays. Even though Clemens eventually withdrew his trade demand, he was dealt anyway to the New York Yankees for pitchers David Wells and Graeme Lloyd and second baseman Homer Bush. Despite some rocky outings and a short stint on the DL, Clemens won his first five decisions in a Yankee uniform. His unbeaten streak stood at 20, an AL record, before ending at the hands of the New York Mets.
Clemens finished the season with a 14-10 record and a 4.60 ERA, hardly what the Yankees had hoped for. However, after suffering a humiliating loss to new Red Sox ace Pedro Martinez in Game Three of the ALCS (the only post-season contest the Yankee juggernaut would drop that year) Clemens redeemed himself in the Fall Classic. Given a chance to secure his first World Series ring, Roger closed out the Braves with 6 2/3 strong innings to pick up the clinching win in New York’s sweep of Atlanta.