Peter Handrinos is a frequent
contributor to Scout.com and author of the upcoming ‘The Best New York
Sports Arguments: The 100 Most Controversial, Debatable Questions for
With Roger Clemens, there’s a lot
to talk about.
You could, for instance, talk
about a deeply devoted family man. After losing his father at a young age,
Clemens grew up in an exceptionally close family, one that he largely supported
once he started earning Major League paychecks. He’s the father of four teenage
sons, with the oldest (Koby) now standing out as a promising Major League
prospect in his own right.
Alternatively, you could talk
about the baseball ambassador, the one who’s maintained a multi-million dollar
charitable foundation since 1992. The Clemens Foundation supports
children’s philanthropy in Boston,
Houston, with its president raising the
bulk of its funds through tireless off-season events and autograph signings.
It’s one reason why Clemens has been largely synonymous with baseball in his
home town, especially since he made his celebrated return as an Astro in 2004.
You could talk about those
dimensions, of course, and you can also talk about the unsurpassed work ethic of
a dedicated competitor. Clemens is the author of hours-long workout routines
that have been known to exhaust men half his age, and may study hitters and
umpires as closely as any player in history. One of his former catchers, Jorge Posada, described his on-field performances this way: “He’s a fighter. He
never died, never quit, every day, every pitch. It doesn’t matter if he’s 100%
or not, he will always give you 100%.”
Roger Clemens is remarkable in
several ways, but all of them are, finally, secondary to the man’s legendary
work as a pitcher. In Major League history, there’s never been another quite
With more than 340 career
victories to his credit, Clemens is the winningest pitcher alive, largely
because he’s been one of the most overpowering (second in all-time strikeouts)
and stingy (eighth in all-time adjusted ERA) hurlers ever to grace a diamond. In
many ways, Clemens has been in another league, not only in his accumulated
totals, but in his game- and season-achievements - no one is looking for
the next superstar to strike out 20 batters in a nine-inning game, or win 20
consecutive decisions, or strikeout 15 batters in a League Championship game, or
win seven Cy Young Awards. It’s a level without equal.
In the late 1990’s, analysts like
Bill James and Allen Barra were already mentioning Rocket as the single greatest
pitcher who ever lived, and that was well before he became the oldest man ever
to lead the league in hits allowed per inning (at age 42, in 2004) and ERA
(2005). For most, the argument is now closed - as remarkable as he may be in his
personal life, outreach, and work ethic - Roger Clemens has stood all alone in
his on-field performance. For those who known baseball in the last two
decades, he is and always will be the pitcher.
What did baseball mean to you as a
Baseball was fun for me and my
family. I first played at the age of 7 on a 9 year old
My dad passed away when I was 9,
and my mother picked the slack right up and took over from there. She would take
me to practice and games (sometimes on the back of her Honda 90 motor scooter)
and also hold down three jobs. My sisters and brothers also pitched in many ways
When did you start thinking about
taking it to a higher level, even a professional
Going into high school, I played
all three sports - baseball, football, and basketball. My senior year I got
a nice break when I started getting scholarship letters. This was a big key for
me because my family really didn’t have the financial means for
How did your family influence your
approach to the game?
My approach to baseball, and life,
came from my entire family [including two older brothers, two older sisters, and
one younger sister]. My mother, Bess, and grandmother, Myrtle, had the biggest
influence on me. They led by hard work and faith. I learned so much from
just watching both of them. They both always found a way to get it done. I get
my “TOUGH ALL DAY” saying from them.
Is it true that you didn’t throw
very hard in HS?
That is true. I didn’t throw
particularly hard. I might have been at 84 [miles per hour]. I was lucky because
I had very good command. My senior year my velocity went to 87. Then my freshman
year in college at the age of 18 I grew from 6’2” to 6’4”, my body matured and
my velocity jumped to the low 90’s.
But, even as a teenager, you were
doing an extraordinary amount of conditioning work to build up your body and
While in high school I would run
home from practice most days. About a three mile run. At this point in my life I
still enjoy running. It’s therapeutic for me. It keeps mind clear from all the
ups and downs you have in the game of baseball, and in the game of life. One of
the stories that made the papers way back when was a game I got knocked out of
in the fourth inning, I took off on a six-mile run around the
Boston. Returned back to the stadium
just in time to address the media. My mind set was better by then. I wish it was
that way all the time.
As a lot of people know,
Boston is a great running town. A lot of
people run, so when I’m running solo it’s easy to get behind someone who is a
good pace car. The best is the looks they give you when they make eye contact
Cliff Gustafson once said that
Burt Hooton was the best college player he ever coached, but a young Roger
Clemens was the best pro prospect he ever had. What do you think he meant by
Coach has said that a few times.
We played at different times at both levels. It was fun for me to watch men like
Burt, Nolan Ryan, Gibson, and Seaver. Heck….even better, Seaver ended up being
on my team for a short time in Boston, and Burt was my pitching coach
As you know, you were taken after
ten other pitchers in the ’84 draft, including guys like Stan Hilton, Jackie Davidson, Darrell Akerfelds, Ray
Hayward, and Joel Davis. Did that motivate or discourage you at
No, that didn’t bother me. You
really didn’t think about where, you just hoped to get that phone call in your
room that you were drafted. Now looking back, the only thing about the draft I
would change is the timing of it. It should take place after the College World
Series is all wrapped up.
I guess my point is - how does
somebody have so much pride in his work have the presence of mind to shrug off
the scouts’ lack of respect? Or, for that matter, losses on the playing
The losses, those aren’t so easy.
That’s what you’re talking about when you talk about ‘mental toughness’ in
baseball. Maintaining mental toughness may be the single most difficult thing in
the game, because you’re going to lose a lot, no matter what. To this day, I
tell my sons, ‘You can hate losing, but remember, you’re going to lose. You’ve
got to overcome it’.
It’s seldom recalled nowadays, but
you underwent arm surgery back in 1985 with Dr. James Andrews. Did that injury
affect your approach as a power pitcher?
It was a scary time for me. When I
first had the problem, I wondered if my days of being a power pitcher were over.
You can’t say enough about Dr. Andrews and his skill, and the biggest lesson was
in the knowledge I picked up at the clinic - learning about the large muscles’
interaction with the smaller muscles, learning about flexibility exercises,
learning how to prevent injuries before they happen. To this day, I’m religious
about following the routines. One thing I’d advise young pitchers - make sure
you’re doing all the conditioning and flexibility exercises. Don’t wait until
you’re injured. At that point, it might be too late.
The interesting thing is how the
physical and mental effort can sometimes be one and the same. This is what
Buster Olney wrote of your 1999 season - “He was pitching with a bad shoulder
and hamstring, but injuries seemed to make him focus, to concentrate on keeping
his body and mechanics in control.”
Dead on….It’s heightens your
concentration. If you have will to do so.
All pitchers have to deal with
significant pain in the day-to-day course of things, especially power pitchers.
The hardest part for me, physically, is dealing with leg injuries, because they
play such a big part in my delivery. It’s a matter of using willpower and smarts
to overcome it.
In the past, you’ve said that you
aren’t angry on the mound, but you are highly motivated. What’s the difference?
To me, there are three distinct
phases in the competition. There’s the physical aspect - ‘I’m going to beat
you because I’ve done the workouts’. There’s the mental aspect - ‘I’m going
to beat you because I’ve done the homework’. And there’s also the emotional -
‘If you’re at a low lazy point, find or think of someone who can push you to a
higher level. Channel those emotions to a positive
Does your motivation ever vary -
for good or bad - due outside factors like statistics, awards, or media
Be self-motivated. Once again -
positive energy. This is also knowledge and experience you gather over time.
Winning 20 games, MVP’s, Cy Young Awards are great until you taste being a World
Champion! There’s nothing like it!
With that attitude, was it tougher
to play for losing teams or non-contenders?
I don’t know. It’s tough to answer
Teams can turn it around so
quickly. Who’s a contender and who’s a non-contender, when you think about it? I
mean, I was on the ’86 Red Sox when we went all the way from the ALCS [win] to
the World Series [loss]. I’ve also been on a  Astros team that everyone
was counting out, and we came all the way back to win the franchise’s first
I guess the best thing to say is
- don’t give up too easily, no matter where you are in the standings. And
remember what Yogi always said . . .
I had a chance to talk to your
former Red Sox and Yankees teammate, John Flaherty, and he really emphasized the
way that you related to catchers, and included them in your game-day
performance. Can you talk about that?
The pitcher-catcher relationship
is a must. An absolute must. I’ve been really lucky - I’ve had some great
[catchers], who pay attention to detail in terms of pitching to hitters’
weaknesses, framing pitches, and adjusting to what they see over the course of
the game, especially later in the game.
When I have my best stuff, we
expect to win those games, but it’s a thrill when I can work with a good catcher
to work through jams without my best stuff, maybe take a game 4-3. It’s happened
- I’d be icing up afterwards, and they’d be sitting there in a chair,
giving me a look, and I’d give a wink back. We both knew I didn’t have a lot on
that one evening . . . but we got the W.
A lot of your teammates have
testified to that attitude, talking about the way you’d host parties or take
them out for golf, concerts, dinners. Are those connections purely social, or do
you think that closeness helps you on the field?
Baseball can be so mentally and
physically taxing that all of us need an outside outlet. My feeling is, ‘Let’s
all enjoy it’. I don’t know how many times the guys have gone out as part of
some group. The way we go at each other on the golf course can be mentally
draining. It’s also free entertainment!
One of the things that come up in
Roger Clemens stories has been the way you’ve mentored young pitchers. Can you
talk about that?
The really neat thing for me, is
when I’ve crossed paths with the older players and had a chance to pick their
mind. So many great ones, and a lot of Hall of Fame guys. Now to be able to pass
info along to the younger players is fun for me.
In the past, you’ve mentioned the
importance of inside pitching. Some may think of that as throwing at batters.
Can you explain?
I’m not sure that’s accurate. The
stories can take on a life of their own sometimes. Pitching inside works because
it expands the strike zone east-and-west as well as north-to-south. You don’t
pitch inside to hit guys; you pitch inside to make a 17” plate a 24” plate.
How’s that for keeping it simple?
But you’d have to concede there’s
something different in your particular willingness to go after guys. I’m
thinking, for example, of the 2000 ALCS, when Joe Oliver said you had his
Mariners off-balance from the moment you knocked down Alex Rodriguez.
That made for some great theater,
I guess. In truth, we were trying to go in at the belt for a good strike, then
climb the ladder. The pitches were more middle up. That game was one I had my
most dominant stuff. Three pitches working all night long. Same goes for the
playoff game in Boston. I threw a high pitch to Manny,
just up middle, and his eyes went crossed. Next thing we knew Zim was doing a
cartwheel over by the Red Sox dugout.
How does someone go through your
kind of physical workouts, then learn how to rely so much on the mental
Necessity. I had no other choice.
(chuckles) If I wanted to go out there and win.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve had to
rely on the mental game more and more, but it’s always been there. I don’t know
of anyone who goes out there and wins primarily on physical
I said it many times
- ‘You’re going to have to will the ball across the plate’. I
believe that. Sometimes the best player is the one who pays attention to detail,
and makes the most of their physical talent.
After seven Cy Young Awards and
more than 300 career wins, are you still learning how to pitch? If so, what have
you learned in the last couple of years?
I’ve been able to hang on to my
velocity some what. Bottom line is you really never stop learning. I mentioned
it before, how I’m always talking to pitchers. Recently, I said to Roy [Oswalt],
‘Show me how you’re gripping your curveball’. ‘Brad [Lidge], let’s see that
slider again’. Andy [Pettitte] and I are always pretty good about keeping a
watchful eye on each others’ throwing sessions.
When Andy and I first landed in
Spring Training 2004, Jimy Williams grabbed us and said, ‘Look, if you guys can
just learn how to handle the bat a little bit and get a bunt down, it’ll win you
some ball games’. And he was right - there have been times when Jimy or
Phil [Garner] would have pulled me for a pinch hitter in a tight game, but they
felt comfortable enough that I would get the bunt down.
At this point, the biggest point
of debate on your career is if you’re the single greatest pitcher in Major
League history. Without any false modesty, has that been a part of your ambition
all these years, and how does it fit into your life
Honestly, I was always busy trying
to do it. Over the years, that was my focus, first and foremost. I wanted to do
my best and win.
Of course the accomplishments have
been heartwarming, and the best part has been in the way it’s connected me to
some pitchers I’ve admired all along. And to some I didn’t know, either. I can’t
say I knew a lot about Lefty Grove and Walter Johnson, but the good people at
the Hall of Fame have always been good about sending me some information or
(chuckles) The nicknames, even,
are fun. ‘Christy’, ‘The Big Train’, ‘Lefty’, ‘Rocket’.
What’s been your proudest
accomplishment on the field? Off the field?
That’s a very, very tough
question. I remember when I first came up and I faced Reggie Jackson, they
announced the name and I thought to myself, ‘Yup, you’re in the Major Leagues’.
It’s been a long time since then!
As a teammate - the championships
have been so incredibly gratifying. As an individual player, I’ll tell you, one
time Yogi told me I could have pitched to him back in his day, and that meant a
lot to me.
Off the field, I’ve been
privileged, again, to be part of an outstanding extended family. I’ve been so
fortunate in the way that baseball’s allowed me to be a part of so many
charities and events, none of them more memorable than the 9-11 commemorations
in New York
You were a big part of that, I
remember. Some say that you’ve given out more free signatures than any active
Well, we have worked hard at my
Foundation. And I say we because it is a good team of people who has
helped us raise money over the years. Hey, bottom line if the fans and donors
keep asking for them…that’s a good thing. (chuckles)
Have you ever had any reservations
about your son coming up in the game, given the inevitable and almost impossible
My wife and I have tried to
emphasize to him, again and again, that being Koby Clemens is all he needs to
be. And he has done a great job of that. That’s what we want all our boys to
do…be who they are. He doesn’t have to be me. I’m like any father - I want
all my children do well in whatever they do with their lives.
The odds are stacked against Koby
breaking into the Major League level - the odds are stacked against
anybody trying to break into the Major League level. That’s the fact and
he knows it. If there’s been a blessing in my struggling to keep up in these
last couple of years, it’s in the way he’s seen some of the hard work involved
in maintaining success. So, I don’t have any reservations as long as he puts in
the work and lives with good values.
If you ever retire
How do you see yourself defining
success in the rest of your life?
I look at role models in business,
for the most part. I look at guys like Drayton McLane and George Steinbrenner,
who’ve accomplished so much in their business and philanthropy and social impact
alike. I’ve been around a number of great business competitors and contributors,
including the Hendricks brothers, my agents.
If I had a similar sort of impact
after I move on to the next stage, that wouldn’t be bad at all. There’s never
any shortage of challenges out there, that’s for sure.
After all these years, are you
more of a fan, less of a fan, or about the same?
This spring, with my layoff, I’ve
actually had a chance to see how relaxing and leisurely baseball can look from
up in the stands. It is a beautiful game! I’ve always been a fan, and
I’ve become even more of a fan, without a doubt.
The complete Table of Contents for
the ‘Baseball Men’ interview series can be found here.