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Countdown to Enshrinement
Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Rossiter Drake*

roger.jpg
Clemens will land in Cooperstown --
but what uniform will he wear?

FOR ALL HIS PINSTRIPED SUCCESS, CLEMENS GETS A 'B'

His reputation as a reckless headhunter notwithstanding, Roger Clemens will soon become a first-ballot Hall of Famer; the only question is, will the cap on his plaque bear the insignia of the New York Yankees or their bitter rivals, the Boston Red Sox?

That the Rocket will land in Cooperstown just as soon as he is eligible is a no-brainer, even if some in Boston insist that Clemens mailed it in during his final seasons pitching before the Fenway Park faithful.

As Clemens sputtered and stalled in 2003 during the final phase of his arduous quest for 300 victories, sportswriters eager to rank him among the game's all-time elite have been effusive in their praise of his intimidating stats.

One sensationalistic scribe, Joel Sherman of the New York Post, declared Clemens the game's best pitcher ever. That Sherman's appraisal failed to incur the wrath of baseball historians and instead provoked a national debate among his media peers is a tribute to the Rocket's legacy.

Rob Neyer, a less hyperbolic ESPN columnist whose analysis relies unrelentingly on statistics -- or, as some like to call them, hard facts -- conceded that Clemens might be the best pitcher since World War II, but gave a slight edge to former New York Mets hurler Tom Seaver, whose lifetime ERA (2.86), innings pitched (4,783) and wins (311) currently best the Rocket's. (Sherman and Neyer took converse approaches to pre-WWII baseball; while Neyer reasonably argued that Clemens cant be compared to Cy Young and Walter Johnson, whose 511 and 417 wins, respectively, will most likely never be matched, Sherman eliminated all pitchers from before 1920, claiming that the Deadball Era favored pitchers by a wide margin.)

Either way, the Rocket's numbers speak for themselves. Clemens finished the 2003 season -- and, presumably, his 19-year stint in the majors -- with 310 regular-season wins, 4,099 strikeouts, 4,278 innings pitched, 117 complete games and an ERA of 3.19. He has won six Cy Young Awards, one Most Valuable Player award and, in 1999, was named to Major League Baseball's All-Century Team. And, thanks to the Yankees, he has two shiny World Series championships under his size 38 belt.

But do those rings, the 100-plus victories he's notched since bolting Beantown after the 1996 season, and his lone Cy Young Award as a Bronx Bomber -- in 2001, when he went 20-3 with a 3.51 ERA -- make Clemens a lock to enter the Hall of Fame as one of the Sons of Steinbrenner?

Hardly.

Clemens has made no secret of his preference to be enshrined in pinstripes, arguing that his accomplishments in a Red Sox uniform would not have been enough to guarantee a spot in Cooperstown. "I would think with 300 [in New York] and hopefully winning another championship, it's obviously pretty much leaning toward here," he told The Boston Globe in March. "I wasn't a Hall of Famer [in Boston] If I'd listened to [former Red Sox General Manager Dan Duquette] and I was done, then I wasn't a Hall of Famer."

Few Red Sox fans have forgotten Duquette's infamous observation that Clemens, all of 34 at the time, had entered the twilight of his career. (Duquette used that faulty logic to justify the decision not to re-sign the Rocket; seven years later, Duquette is out of Major League Baseball, Clemens has amassed 310 wins, and the Red Sox have yet to break the Curse of the Bambino.) Nevertheless, Clemens' assertion that he wasn't a Hall of Famer in Boston remains dubious.

The Rocket spent 12 seasons in a Red Sox uniform. He left Boston with 192 wins (a team record), three Cy Young trophies, an All-Star Game MVP award, two single-game, 20-strikeout performances and an MVP award. He posted his finest single-season record with the Sox in '86 (24-4, 2.48), his second highest single-season strikeout total in '88 (291) and his stingiest ERA in '90 (1.93). (He racked up 292 punch-outs in 1997 with the Toronto Blue Jays.)

Just as Pedro Martinez decides the fate of the current Red Sox team, Clemens carried an otherwise run-of-the-mill franchise to three American League East titles in the '80s and early '90s, as well as the 1986 World Series, in which Clemens posted two no-decisions and a 3.18 ERA. In other words, after their ill-fated run at history in 86, Clemens was the Red Sox.

Sandy Koufax, generally considered one of the game's all-time greats on the mound and an undisputed Hall of Famer, pitched for just 11 seasons, amassed 165 victories, a lifetime ERA of 2.76 and 2,396 strikeouts. Clemens, in his Red Sox years alone, had more wins, more strikeouts (2,590) and an only slightly more generous ERA (3.05). Both were the most dominating forces in the league during the respective primes. The only difference, then, would be Koufax's four World Series rings.

Thats a big difference, of course, but when you add the Rocket's 41 wins, 563 strikeouts and two Cy Young Awards from his two years in Toronto, it's hard to argue that he wasnt a strong candidate for the Hall before he pitched his first game for the Yankees.

Sure, he didn't have any championships on his resume, but Nolan Ryan, who notched 324 lifetime wins against 292 losses (Clemens finished with 160), had only one ring, and didn't start a single game during the 1969 World Series for the Amazin' Mets. (He also allowed 2,795 walks -- the most in Major League history, 277 wild pitches -- again, a record -- and never won a single Cy Young Award.) And Phil Niekro, with even less impressive stats (318-274, 3.35) and no rings, snuck into Cooperstown in 1997.

But the rings, Clemens might argue. The rings made me a lock.

Perhaps, but it's hard to believe that the Hall would turn away a five-time Cy Young winner with an MVP, a glitzy strikeout record and nearly 250 wins. And that's only if Clemens had called it a career immediately after his sojourn to the Great White North. The Rocket would have undoubtedly faced greater obstacles in his quest for 300 should he have landed in, say, Kansas City or Colorado after his 1998 season with the Jays, but great pitchers win ballgames, and nobody's disputing his greatness.

As luck would have it, he didn't land in Kansas City or Colorado; in 1999, he landed in the Bronx, just in time to rescue a struggling Yankees franchise that had won 114 regular season games the year before and had subsequently steamrolled its competition in the playoffs, sweeping the San Diego Padres in four games to gain its 24th title.

If truth be told, the Rocket's first year in the Bronx wasn't the stuff of legend that Yankees owner George Steinbrenner had dreamed about ever since Clemens hit the free agent market in '96. (The Boss was hoping his latest acquisition would be the final piece of the puzzle in an 162-win season for the Bombers, but the cavalry arrived, and the Yankees had to settle for a measly 98 victories.)

In 1999, Clemens posted the worst ERA of his career (4.60) en route to an underwhelming 14-10 record. His strikeout total plummeted from 271 in '98 to 162 in '99, while his IP fell from 235.2 to 187.2. And though the Rocket blasted past the Atlanta Braves with 7.2 strong innings in a relatively pressure-free World Series contest -- it was the fourth game of a four-game sweep -- few will forget the drubbing he received at the hands of Martinez and the Red Sox in Game Three of the American League Championship Series. (Clemens gave up 5 earned runs in two innings of work, good for a 22.50 ERA.)

Clemens earned his second ring in 2000, and this time there was no doubt about the value of his contributions. After delivering a 15-strikeout, one-hit masterpiece against the Seattle Mariners in the ALCS -- a performance that baseball analyst Peter Gammons has dubbed the greatest of the Rocket's career -- Clemens became the only member of the Yankees starting rotation to record a win during the Subway Series against the crosstown rival Mets. Even so, the Bombers once again trampled the competition, netting their 26th championship in just five games.

Clemens' 2001 regular-season campaign was easily his finest in pinstripes. At 39, he amassed 200-plus strikeouts for the first time during his three-year tenure with the Yanks, ate up more innings (220.1) than in '99 or '00, and posted his lowest ERA since the abbreviated Toronto experiment.

With a sixth Cy Young waiting in the wings, he boosted his lifetime World Series record to 3-0 with a Game Three win over the Arizona Diamondbacks and 6.1 innings of one-run ball in the deciding Game Seven. (Closer Mariano Rivera, who had been named World Series MVP in '99, eventually suffered the loss that ended New York's bid for a four-peat.) After one ineffective start against the Anaheim Angels in the American League Division Series in 2002, the Rocket's career postseason record, culled from 22 appearances, now stands at 8-6 with a 3.78 ERA.

To be fair, Clemens has strengthened his bid for Cooperstown glory with his four-plus years in the Bronx, if indeed that cake required any icing. And while the Rocket's rings represented the second-to-last piece of the puzzle in a fabled career -- until he reached 300 -- it must be acknowledged that he has never been the most indispensable cog in Steinbrenner's sleek machine.

In 1999, Orlando Hernandez led the Bombers with 17 wins and 214.1 IP, while David Cone sported a team-best 3.44 ERA. In 2000, it was Andy Pettitte with 19 and 204.2, though Clemens led the pack with a 3.70 ERA. Even in 2001, the year that should have solidified his credentials as a Hall of Fame Yankee, Clemens was bested in nearly every single statistical category by teammate Mike Mussina, save for the most superficial: wins. Clemens had 20 and the Cy Young, Mussina had 17, a fifth-place finish in the voting, and a finer ERA (3.15), more IP (228.2 to 220.1), more strikeouts (214 to 213), fewer walks (42 to 72) and four complete games against none for the Rocket.

Considering that the Yankees had already won two championships by the time Clemens arrived in '99, and that the team's uniformly solid pitching staff was then constructed only to go seven innings (whereupon uber-closer Mariano Rivera would finish the job), it's apparent that the Rocket has never been the teams most valuable asset, as he was to Boston for 14 years. Nor has he ever been the public face of the Yankees -- that job has always fallen to homegrown products like Rivera, Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams and cagey veteran pickups like Paul ONeill and Tino Martinez.

Like it or not -- and Clemens will not -- the Rocket's going to land in the Hall of Fame sometime soon, but his cap is going to bear the Red Sox 'B,' not the interlocking NY he was sporting when he picked up his 300th win.

 

 

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