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Clemens is in good company
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06/13/2003 11:10 PM ET 
Clemens is in good company
Only 21 members of exclusive 300-win club
By Tom Singer / Vote now for the 2003 All-Star game
Before Roger Clemens, Nolan Ryan was the last pitcher to win 300 games. (Bill Janscha/AP)
The way Roger Clemens peers over his glove for the catcher's sign ... coils into his windup and explodes out of it on those pistons-for-legs ... rockets another heater across the inside corner ... starts off the mound with a scowl and a sly shake of a balled fist.

Take it all in carefully, and relish it. Because you will never again see the likes of him.

Never say "never again?" That might be good advice, generally. But the claim can be made confidently when it comes to the subject of winning 300 Major League Baseball games.

Now that Clemens has won his 300th game, it can be applied even more emphatically to what he has accomplished, and the style in which he has done it.

You think of the 300-win club as exclusive, given that only 21 have made it out of the thousands who, at least theoretically, have tried? That's just the beginning of it.

Rocketing to 300

Roger Clemens became the 21st Major League pitcher to reach 300 career wins. The first 20:

 Pitcher  Wins
 Cy Young  511
 Walter Johnson  417
 Pete Alexander  373
 Christy Mathewson  373
 Pud Galvin  364
 Warren Spahn  363
 Kid Nichols  361
 Tim Keefe  342
 Steve Carlton  329
 John Clarkson  328
 Eddie Plank  326
 Nolan Ryan  324
 Don Sutton  324
 Phil Niekro  318
 Gaylord Perry  314
 Tom Seaver  311
 Charles Radbourn  309
 Mickey Welch  307
 Lefty Grove  300
 Early Wynn  300
 Roger Clemens  300

Remarkably, Clemens is only the fifth 300-game winner in the American League's 103-year history and has an excellent shot at finishing this season as the league's No. 2 all-time top winner.

Having spent all of his career with Boston, Toronto and the Yankees, Clemens' 300th ties Lefty Grove and Early Wynn and leaves him trailing Eddie Plank by only five. The Rocket's 306th win leaves him trailing only Walter Johnson (417), heady company indeed.

His place is as unique among the short list of 300-win pitchers to have worn the pinstripes. Gaylord Perry got only four of his 314 wins in the Bronx and Phil Niekro, the only other to actually notch No. 300 in a Yankees uniform, totaled 32 wins with the team. Clemens' 300th is his 67th as a Yankee.

With it, he orbits in a pitching stratosphere out of reach for this and future generations.

Always the epitome of endurance and consistency, the 300-game winner has been pushed into extinction by bullpen relays, pitch counts and preventive sports medicine.

Present company excepted, of course. Greg Maddux (278 win) is a reasonable certainty to make it, Tom Glavine (247) is a longshot, and Randy Johnson (225) faces prohibitive odds but isn't yet off the board.

As for anyone else ever joining the exclusive club ... forget it, not gonna happen.

Winning 300 games has never been a very accessible plateau in the modern game to begin with. Of the 20 at the pinnacle, seven reached it prior to 1900. Two others made it in the pre-War era -- that's World War I -- meaning there were already nine 300-game winners by the time the American League marked its 15th anniversary in 1916.

The portrait of 300-game winners was distorted by a remarkable decade in the 1980s, when in quick succession six pitchers posted the magic number. But getting there has never been easy, few have made it throughout baseball's many distinct eras, and certainly rarer have been those who have stormed into the circle with the still-prime time potency of Clemens.

Actually, the demise of the 300-game winner can be traced to a single late-'80s development. What happened? Dennis Eckersley happened.

Eckersley, ironically, was himself on target for 300 wins prior to landing in Oakland in 1987. Having already been a rotation anchor for three different teams, he had 151 wins at the age of 31 -- the exact number as Nolan Ryan.

But then A's manager Tony La Russa inserted him into his bullpen, set him up with a shuttle of relievers with defined roles, and made it all work to perfection. That became a persuasive blueprint for today's game.

The Eck Line marks the beginning of baseball's post-300 win era.

Significantly, but hardly coincidentally, Clemens (1983) and hopefuls Maddux (1984), Glavine (1984) and Johnson (1982) all became pros and were developed in an environment without Eck's influence.

In other words, no pitcher whose career began after Eckersley & Co. reinvented the post-seventh inning game is even a remote threat to winning 300.

Extrapolating age and current wins, the prime post-Eck candidates are Pedro Martinez (156 wins at 30), Mike Mussina (189 at 33) and Andy Pettitte (133 at 30). To get there, Pedro would have to average 20 wins until he's 38, Mussina until he's 39 and Pettitte until he's 38.

Doable? That's a trick scenario, because 20-game winners themselves are endangered. Martinez has done it twice in 11 years, Pettitte once and Mussina never. The same factors that preclude future 300-game winners have elevated a 15-win season to the status once reserved for 20-game winners. So add a couple of years to each pitcher's timetable.

And about those factors ...

The five-man rotation, a '70s innovation, is usually the first thing cited. As Maddux does the math, "In a four-man, pitchers get 40-45 starts, compared to 33-36. In 10 years, that's 60 starts. That could mean 30 wins. Some pitchers who last longer are getting 100 fewer starts with a five-man."

In reality, this has nothing to do with it. Today's standard is 35 starts. But that was also the typical workload of Don Sutton, Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan and other 300-game winners. Warren Spahn, considered one of the throwbacks to four-man rotations, started more than 36 games precisely twice in his 21-season, 363-win career.

It's not how many you start, but how many you finish. And that's where the Eck Line is drawn.

Clemens' 116 complete games are by far the fewest of any 300-game winner; at that, he has gone the route only 27 times the last decade. The first 13 pitchers to reach 300 wins since 1900 averaged 292 complete games.

In a world where a "quality start" is defined by six innings, all those late-game decisions are being vultured by relievers.

Signposts of the post-300 era:

  • On May 2, Joe Kennedy turned in his record sixth career complete game for Tampa Bay, a six-year-old franchise which has a cumulative total of 37. After their sixth seasons, the Mets had 227 complete games, the Angels 178, and the Blue Jays 219.

  • On April 20, Josh Beckett dominated the Mets through six innings -- three hits, eight strikeouts. But his 22-year-old right arm had thrown 107 pitches, so then-Florida manager Jeff Torborg turned it over to his bullpen, which the next two innings gave up five runs, and Beckett's win.

    "The changing game makes it tougher and tougher for starting pitchers," says Yankees pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre. "The emphasis is on winning, but not necessarily with the starting pitcher."

    Adds Cincinnati manager Bob Boone, "There are so many more options in the bullpen. Steve Carlton once threw (346) innings in a season. That's unthinkable now."

    In 2002, Johnson and teammate Curt Schilling were the only Major League pitchers to top 240 innings. In 1986, the last pre-Eck season, 18 topped that figure.

    If bullpens shorten games, the urge to coddle valuable arms shortens stays in the rotation, and seven-figure contracts shorten careers. Given today's salary structure, there is no financial incentive to pitch into 300 territory, and rare is the pitcher driven on by competitive fires alone.

    And you can Roger that.

    Tom Singer is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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