06/13/2003 9:05 PM ET
Rocket still going strong
So now Roger Clemens has one foot in the Hall of Fame and another in retirement.
Clemens has been quite candid with his intentions to bid farewell to the game he has dignified for two decades once "300" has been etched onto his Cooperstown plaque. We don't yet know what that final etching will read, how many more wins he will add between now and the end of the 2003 season.
But if Clemens does indeed walk at the end of it, we'll be able to add one more: He will have left on top, still calling the shots, emptied of Holy Grails but never beaten. As close to "undefeated heavyweight champion" as his sport can get.
"He's a freak of nature," Bill Fischer, his pitching coach during his formative years with the Red Sox, said a couple of years ago. "The kind of pitcher who comes along once in a generation. He's like Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan."
Err ... actually, not. When it comes to burning bright to the end, Clemens is unlike anyone. He becomes the model. Even his idol, Ryan, didn't storm the 300 mountain with such prime-time verve and remain so potent on the other side.
This is a grueling journey, pursuit of which has worn down many men, who have either given up in frustration or stumbled across the finish line. Clemens ... well, rocketed toward it.
At 40 -- closer to 41, just weeks away -- The Rocket has lost none of his thrust. He still bears down on hitters with his '80s contempt and still blows them away with his 90-plus heater.
In becoming the 14th man since 1900 to reach 300 wins, Clemens is off to another winning season. In the season Walter Johnson reached 300 wins, The Big Train went 8-10. Steve Carlton was 15-16 when he made it to 300. Gaylord Perry (10-12), Lefty Grove (7-7) and Early Wynn (1-2) also were gassed by the time they broke the tape.
Since turning 35, Clemens has gone 87-37. After their 35th birthdays, fellow modern 300-game winners Christy Mathewson (six), Tom Seaver (76) and Johnson (80) had fewer wins, and no one on the list can touch that winning percentage.
Still lost amid these dramatic comparisons is Clemens' most admirable quality, the consistency with which he has performed from that very early Day One.
He won his first game at 21, on May 24, 1984 against the Twins and, despite the significant detour of shoulder surgery later that 1984 season, had 53 wins before he turned 25.
At that age, neither Phil Niekro, the only other pitcher to actually claim his 300th victory in a Yankees uniform, nor Warren Spahn had yet to win a game. Nolan Ryan had 29 wins, Early Wynn 39.
The conclusion to be drawn is that few have carried the load so long, so well, so durably. Start early, stay tough, finish strong.
"I sit here and marvel," says Joe Torre, who at 41 was four years past the last of his 2,209 Major League games. "I was managing at his age. I was out of the game."
Clemens has never even had to change his game.
"Everybody talks about the left-handers who are finesse guys -- Frank Tanana, Jamie Moyer, Tom Gavine -- but most people forget these guys threw 94 or 95 (mph) at one time and they evolved into finesse guys," says Texas manager Buck Showalter. "Roger never has had to do that.
"He still has great stuff, arm strength and speed. And the amazing part to me is being able to maintain it."
How has Clemens been able to maintain, for 20 years, the high level at which he entered the game? Contrary to the popular explanation (often applied to Ryan), there are no medical or physiological miracles. He has driven himself, both physically and mentally, to keep his edge.
Clemens' workout regimen is legendary. Yet, that's the easy, tangible part. More world-class athletes have been finished by spent desire than by a flabby body.
"He's a pro in every sense of the word," says Lou Piniella, who was still active when Clemens broke in. "He has a will to win and compete and always has. He keeps himself in great shape and stays focused. That's why you see him out there at age 40 throwing like a young man."
Mo Vaughn, who broke in with the Red Sox seven years after Clemens and whose body, frankly, has already started to break down, is impressed. But not surprised.
"That's just Roger," Vaughn says. "It figures. He's got the drive. When he gets an idea, there's nothing he can't do. Especially if he sets his mind to it. He prepares himself as well as anyone in the game, so no one will ever out-power him."
Shawn Green rose into prominence as Clemens' Toronto teammate in 1997-98, and has faced him 13 times around that stretch, with more strikeouts than hits. So he's seen, and admired, both sides of The Rocket.
"He's a power pitcher with a tremendous presence on the mound," Green says. "By that I mean by striking you out, by winning, by occasionally drilling people. I remember Alex Gonzalez hitting one off him as a rookie (in 1998) and Clemens was yelling at him all the way around the bases.
"His game is to make you think that you don't want to bat against him, because he might drill you. At least, he'll put that in your mind."
Cliches in baseball, as in everything else, change with the times. Now pitchers say of hitters, "You've got to tip your cap." Not too many years ago, they said, "He's trying to take food off my table." There was genuine dislike across that line.
That's the attitude Clemens has never lost.
Consider a young Rocket's reaction when one of the greatest batters of all time questioned his 1986 American League MVP Award. Hank Aaron had argued that every-fifth-day pitchers shouldn't be eligible for the prize.
Clemens: "I wish he were still playing. I'd probably crack his head open to show him how valuable I was."
Sixteen years later, Roger last summer did follow through on his promise to introduce his fastball to Barry Bonds' armor. In-between, there have been many such episodes and, if maintaining that animosity toward batters makes him an anachronism, it also makes him a winner.
Three hundred times over.
"To understand that he has just about twice as many wins as I do ... wow!" says Curt Schilling, who after all his seasons of excellence has 158 wins. "It's a testament to so many things beyond just pitching ... his legendary conditioning, the frame of mind you need to do it for 20 years.
"I'm glad to have known him, to have learned from him. I understand the background, the commitment his family has made to him, the things he's sacrificed to do it. It's incredible, it truly is."
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.
By Tom Singer / MLB.com