06/13/2003 9:11 PM ET
A career retrospective
Winning 300 games has always been a moving experience.
Of the 20 men who have now reached that pinnacle, only one -- Walter Johnson -- spent his entire career with one team and only three others -- Christy Mathewson, Warren Spahn and Kid Nichols -- bagged No. 300 with their original teams.
For all the others, it was an odyssey, physical as well as spiritual. Don Sutton, so strongly identified with the Dodgers, wore his fifth uniform for win No. 300. Gaylord Perry was with his seventh team, Tom Seaver his third. Even Nolan Ryan had to make four stops before his Express blew through 300.
So why the obsession with Roger Clemens winning his 300th in New York seven years after being shown the door in Boston? Skepticism and doubt have chaperoned so many pitchers down the path to immortality.
Well, for one thing, it IS the Yankees and the Red Sox. Whenever the Sox hand over a legend to the Bombers, it seems to make news -- and comes with long-term consequences.
For another, it dramatizes two constants in Clemens' career: Its remarkable symmetry, and its reflection of the career of his role model, Ryan.
The Express had California Angels general manager Buzzie Bavasi letting him go after a 16-14 season in 1979, saying, "We can replace him with two eight-game winners."
The Rocket had Red Sox GM Dan Duquette estrange him from Boston after the 1996 season with that "twilight of his career" dismissal.
"Roger's situation was somewhat different," Ryan says. "After the Angels, I had an opportunity to get back to my Texas home (first with the Astros), and that was a high priority for me.
By Tom Singer / MLB.com
Rocketing to 300
Roger Clemens became the 21st Major League pitcher to reach 300 career wins. The first 20:
| Cy Young
| Walter Johnson
| Pete Alexander
| Christy Mathewson
| Pud Galvin
| Warren Spahn
| Kid Nichols
| Tim Keefe
| Steve Carlton
| John Clarkson
| Eddie Plank
| Nolan Ryan
| Don Sutton
| Phil Niekro
| Gaylord Perry
| Tom Seaver
| Charles Radbourn
| Mickey Welch
| Lefty Grove
| Early Wynn
| Roger Clemens
"Roger didn't have the opportunity to return home. But he did get the chance to sign with a club that has been very competitive."
With the Yankees, Clemens gained the World Series rings he had been missing. But even before landing in the Bronx, he had regained his focus in Toronto, where his pride went into overdrive to disprove he was on the decline.
Since those days on the University of Texas campus, diligent conditioning and meticulous preparation have been the pillars of Clemens' career.
But whatever help he has received from pitching coaches or personal trainers, there is now little doubt that no one put more second-wind into his sails than did Duquette. The Rocket's last four seasons in Boston were totally ordinary: a 40-39 record, 42 fewer strikeouts than innings pitched.
"I loved Boston," Clemens reflected in the 300 stretch. "I loved the city and was treated well by the fans. I always thought it would be difficult to leave. But Dan wanted his own team and made an evaluation based on how I was pitching.
"I've said this so many times it's old news, but he did me a favor."
If his career-long fixation to be a Red Sox forever had been satisfied, there's a reasonable chance Clemens would've compliantly settled into the Boston sunset. But when the GM questioned how much he had left, by way of rationalizing his mild play for the free agent, well ... thank you very much, Mr. Duquette, I'll take it from here.
Since this challenge, Clemens is 108-44. Since leaving Boston, he has won as many Cy Young Awards (three) as he did in Beantown. He had his peak strikeout season A.D. (After Duquette), with 292 in 1997.
"I don't think anybody in baseball thought he was on his way down," recalls Buck Showalter, the former Yankees manager, "but Duquette did."
"Everybody in the game goes through a year or two where they're not where they want to be," says Rafael Palmeiro, the newest member of the MLB 500-homer club, who has gone up against The Rocket the last 14 years. "Boston may not have seen it this way."
"Here was a franchise guy in Boston, and it almost seemed like they didn't want him back," says Anaheim outfielder Tim Salmon. "When he went to Toronto, it seemed like he had something to prove."
In two seasons as a Blue Jay, Clemens was 100-percent proof: 41-13, 563 strikeouts in 499 innings, two Cy Young Awards.
Having found the gratification of lampooning rumors of his decline, Clemens hungered for a different sort of gratification: that of a winner, as reflected in the sparkle of a World Series ring.
Empowered by a clause in his Toronto contract, he helped orchestrate his Spring Training 1999 deal to the Yankees, consummating an inevitable marriage after a two-year waiting period.
Certainly, George Steinbrenner wanted to corral The Rocket straight out of Boston. He joined the spirited free-agent bidding and, if given the chance, would certainly have topped Toronto's bid (four years, $40 million). But Clemens simply didn't think wife Debbie and their four sons -- aged 1 through 10 at the time -- were ready for The Big Apple.
The often-overlooked irony is that Clemens' first season in New York was arguably the very worst of his career, validating for cynics things that had always been whispered about him. He lacked nerve, he couldn't win the big ones, he was too self-centered, blah-blah. He went 14-10 with a 4.60 ERA for a powerhouse that defended its World Series title.
But Clemens was strong during the Yankees' 11-1 postseason run, and a funny thing happened after he was dominant in the 4-1 Series-clinching win over the Braves: coming through in the ultimate game lightened whatever burden he still felt, and launched him into a glorious career stretch drive.
Since, he has gone 51-20. Two years after that low point, he had his highest point, becoming the first in Major League history to open 20-1 on the way to a 20-3 season that earned his sixth Cy Young Award.
"At 39, the SOB is as good as when I had him," Bill Fischer, Clemens' original Boston pitching coach, told Sports Illustrated during that 2001 season. "I don't care if you're pitching for God's All-American team, to go 20-1, that's mighty hard to do."
Clemens is pitching only for Joe Torre's America's Team, and the manager feels blessed to have been able to share his uniform for a few years.
"The bonus for me the last few years has been to get a different perspective on what he's like as a person," Torre says. "When you watch him pitch for the other team, he's machine-like, very intimidating.
"But once you have a chance to enjoy his child-like enthusiasm, his passion for the game, it's nice.
"To get to this point, it's pretty special," Torre adds. "He's continued to do what he has done since Day One, from conditioning to pitching with enthusiasm. He's a tremendous competitor."
Constants define a career that has run in almost eerie cycles.
Had Clemens decided to go pro out of Spring Woods High School, he would've reached New York 15 years sooner -- he had been drafted by the Mets in the 12th round of the 1981 draft, in the same year as Dwight Gooden. Instead, he went to Texas, a decision which paid off -- after a 25-7 record -- in becoming a first-round pick in 1983.
While still weighing that decision, Clemens had an Astrodome encounter with his idol, Nolan Ryan. Both men recall that meeting.
"I went on to follow him during his college years," Ryan says. "I followed him probably a little closer than some other kids out of Texas.
"I was extremely interested to see how he would respond after he came down with that arm injury," adds Ryan, alluding to problems which forced Clemens to have shoulder surgery in August 1985, only 36 starts into his big-league career. "After seeing how he worked his way back, I knew he was a legitimate Major League starter.
"I really felt like he would have a good career. Of course, there was no way to anticipate he would accomplish what he has."
In his fourth comeback start, on April 29, 1986, Clemens broke the all-time single-game record by striking out 20 Seattle Mariners. "I watched perfect games by Catfish Hunter and Mike Witt," Red Sox manager John McNamara said, "but this was the most awesome pitching performance I've ever seen."
Ten-and-a-half years later, in his last Boston victory, he did it again. Unknowingly. In the 4-0 victory at Detroit, Clemens was so preoccupied with tying Cy Young's Red Sox records for career wins (192) and shutouts (38), he was not aware of the 20 K's until told afterwards.
"It was adrenaline," Clemens said immediately after that amazing Boston curtain-call. "I knew about the two records. When you're chasing the guy who they named the greatest pitching award after, you don't get tired."
That certainly belongs on his Hall of Fame plaque, as his motto: "You Don't Get Tired."
And you never drop the stick. Handing it over to the young guys when the time is right ... well, that's another matter.
"The guy is like Nolan Ryan as far as endurance. He could probably pitch another five or six years," says Palmeiro. "I don't know why he would want to retire."
"I've watched Roger this season and, from a conditioning standpoint, he could pitch as long as he wanted," Ryan himself says. "But I think he has some other issues."
For years, you beat Father Time. Then, you just accept him.
"Sometimes you can't argue with the truth," Clemens said after win No. 298. "I'm 40 now, that's the way it is.
"I have a son who plays football and baseball, and it's time to sit and watch him instead of the other way around."
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.