Roger Clemens: The Turncoat Rocket

July 31, 1999

In the current era of baseball, player movement is at an all-time high. Teams that are out of the race quickly drop veterans in hopes of acquiring prospects to boost their farm systems, and potential free agents are dumped so their team will at least get something in return. While there are all-star players who have a tendency to bounce from team to team, there are others who become an institution with a certain franchise.

However, in most cases, there comes a time when players and franchises have to part ways, no matter how popular the player. That usually sets up an interesting dynamic in future seasons when that player returns home to their original club. The way they departed usually dictates the reception that player will get. However, if a player returns wearing the colors of a rival, the situation can get pretty sticky. Just ask Roger Clemens.

On July 31, 1999, Clemens returned to Fenway Park wearing the uniform of the hated New York Yankees. Clemens spent his first 13 seasons in Boston where he was a true hero. In 1986, he went from a promising youngster to full-fledged superstar seemingly overnight when he went 24-4 and led Boston to the World Series. He won the MVP and Cy Young that year and set a major league record when he became the first pitcher to strikeout 20 batters in a game. From that point on, Clemens was the Boston Red Sox.

“Roger Clemens [and Andy Pettitte] were both great guys,” said Dave Borkowski, who was on the Astros pitching staff with both players in 2006. “[They were] huge names in the game, but were just one of the guys. They both worked their tails off to be who they were.”

Stanley Jefferson, who was picked one spot behind Clemens in the first round of the 1983 Major League Baseball draft, reflected on Clemens as well: “He threw the ball damn hard,” said Jefferson, who hit a home run in his first at bat against Clemens. “He was extremely focused. Most Hall of Fame players I came across had routines they stuck by. Players like Tony Gwynn, Cal Ripken, Clemens. They were always the first to the ballpark and had routines to get their bodies and minds ready for the game. They got themselves better in order to make the team better.”

From 1986-1992, Clemens averaged 258 innings per season and over the next four seasons, it looked like that innings total was taking a toll on his surgically repaired right shoulder. Over the next four seasons, Clemens’ record was just 40-39 and his ERA was 3.77. After the ’96 season, Clemens parted ways with the Red Sox under contentious circumstances.

According to General Manager Dan Duquette in an article in the Boston Herald by Michael Silverman, the Red Sox offered Clemens “by far, the most money ever offered to a player in the history of the Red Sox.” Duquette then declared that Red Sox fans got to see Clemens in his prime, and “hoped to keep him in Boston during the twilight of his career.”

Whether or not the allusion that Clemens was in the twilight of his career served as motivation for turnaround, lies only with Clemens. What is well-known though, was that the turnaround came in a big way.

Clemens hooked up with the Toronto Blue Jays, who were transitioning into a team with younger talent after their success in the early part of the decade. His return to Boston was incredible as he struck out 16 Red Sox over eight innings to gain a 3-2 win. The fans cheered Clemens at his every move. Clemens went 41-13 in two years with the Blue Jays, causing Duquette to look like he made one of the biggest talent evaluation mistakes in the history of baseball. Later, allegations began that Clemens’ turnaround was attributed to steroids, but at the time, it just looked like he was simply back to his usual dominating self.

In the offseason of 1999, the Blue Jays made it known that they were open to trading Clemens. The righty was 35 years old and the Jays figured he was at his peak value for trade. While he was dominating for the Jays and won the Cy Young Award both years, they still looked to capitalize while his value was at a premium.

The Astros, Rangers and Yankees were in the mix for Clemens, and as far as Toronto was concerned, it was open bidding. The Yankees’ offer intrigued the Blue Jays, but they insisted the Yanks include Alfonso Soriano, who was a highly regarded minor league shortstop. In the past, George Steinbrenner was notorious for letting go of prospects in return for proven players, but he insisted on keeping Soriano this time. The Jays finally relented and on February 18, 1999, Clemens was shipped to his third AL East team, the New York Yankees, for all-star David Wells, promising youngster Homer Bush and middle reliever Graeme Lloyd.

The ramifications of this trade were felt deeply. The season before, the Yanks set a major league record by winning 114 regular season games and 125 overall as they steamrolled to a World Series championship. They were returning most of the key pieces of that team and now were adding the two-time defending Cy Young Award winner to the mix.

The Red Sox, who were just starting their ascension back into baseball’s elite, had a keen interest in these developments. With Clemens now pitching for the Yankees, he went from martyr to villain. Clemens had dominated the Red Sox since he left, so by the time he returned to Fenway wearing a Yankee uniform on July 31, 1999, the fans were ready to let him have it.

While the pitching matchup was Clemens vs. rookie Brian Rose, the real matchup everyone awaited was Clemens vs. the Red Sox fans. Clemens got a glimpse of what he would be getting as he appeared at the 1999 All-Star game in Fenway Park. Standing on the field he owned in his early career, Clemens was roundly booed as he tipped his Yankee cap to the crowd.

This time, he got it worse. Fans booed him lustily every chance they had and serenaded him with exaggerated “Roger, Roger, Roger” chants. Red Sox nation also had their share of signs in the stands, each expressing their displeasure.

It took the Yankees two pitches to anger the Red Sox faithful even further, as Yankee 2nd baseman Chuck Knoblauch launched an 0-1 pitch over the Green Monster to give New York a quick 1-0 lead. Just two batters later and eight pitches into the game, the Yankees took a 2-0 lead when Paul O’Neill belted into the right field seats to give Clemens an early lead to work with.

As he took the mound in the bottom of the first, the Fenway faithful let Clemens have it. He walked leadoff hitter José Offerman on four pitches, with the crowd growing louder on each pitch. However, nothing materialized as Clemens retired the next three batters.

Rose did a good job pitching out of jams in the second and third innings, and the Sox came to bat in the bottom of the third, still down two. Highly-touted rookie Trot Nixon, a crowd favorite already, greeted Clemens in the third with a home run to cut the lead in half. Offerman then drew his second walk of the day, stole 2nd and went to 3rd on a wild pitch, as the usually unflappable Clemens began to rattle just a bit. John Valentin then lifted a fly ball to left, to score Offerman on a sac fly to tie the game at two.

The Yankees bounced back and built a 5-3 lead through five innings. After a quick bottom of the fifth, Nomar Garciaparra greeted Clemens in the sixth by grounding his first pitch of the inning through the hole between 3rd and short for a single. Yankee manager Joe Torre had seen enough and pulled Clemens after 94 pitches. Needless to say, Boston fans were grateful as it gave them one more chance to let the former favorite son hear it from the crowd.

The game was tied going into the ninth and Offerman found himself in a key spot leading off the inning. He drilled the first pitch from Ramiro Mendoza over centerfielder Chad Curtis’ head for a triple, to bring the crowd of 33,179 to its feet. Mendoza got ahead of Valentin 0-1, but the veteran 3rd baseman singled on the next pitch to give Boston a walk-off win.

The game didn’t have much bearing on the standings as the Red Sox spent the remainder of the summer a handful of games behind the Yankees. They went on to a 94-68 record that year and were the American League’s Wild Card team in the playoffs.

The Red Sox upset a powerful Indians team in the ALDS and found themselves against the Yankees again in the ALCS. Because the Yankees swept their Divisional Series against the Rangers and the Red Sox went five games, fans realized quickly that Clemens was due for a return trip to Fenway and would face off against their ace, Pedro Martinez. Martinez had won the ’99 Cy Young Award and was in the midst of a seven-year run that many consider one of the greatest pitching stretches in the history of baseball. He was revered by fans and teammates.

“Pedro was a tremendous competitor and person,” said Eric Valent, who played with Martinez during his stint with the Mets. “There’s a reason guys like Pedro pitch for as long as they do. Great stuff, pitchability, tremendous work ethic and great competitor. Every team needs a pitcher like Pedro.”

Martinez won this battle with Clemens in a big way.

With the Yankees up 2-0, Red Sox fans were ready for Clemens. Their team responded by battering the righty for five runs in two innings on their way to a 13-1 win. However, it would be their only win of the series, as the Yanks won in five and went on to sweep Atlanta for their second consecutive World Series win.

As the Yankees celebrated their World Series victory, Red Sox fans were on year 81 of their own World Series drought. No doubt Sox fans felt great animosity towards the Yanks as they paraded down Broadway on November 6, 1999 with their World Series trophy. However, if there was one thing in which they could take solace, it was the fact that when Clemens returned to Fenway, at least their beloved Sox did them the favor of battering him around on July 31st and again on October 6th. For those days at least, it was ok to win the battle, but not the war.