Musings: The Rocketman

By Dick Flavin

Boston Red Sox Poet Laureate

and New York Times Best Selling Author

THE ROCKETMAN

Thirty-five years ago Roger Clemens played for the Pawtucket Red Sox before being

called up to Boston to launch a major league career that was filled with more twists and

turns and dramatic story lines than he or anyone else could ever have imagined.

His time with the PawSox, only two months, was brief because he was already on the

fast-track to the majors, but it was enough to earn him induction last week into the

PawSox Hall of Fame. He and his wife Debbie made the trip up from Texas for the

ceremony at which he was given a hero’s reception. He, in turn, was open, affable and

easily approachable before, during, and after the ceremony at McCoy Stadium prior to a

PawSox versus Indianapolis Indians game. He signed every autograph, shook every hand,

and answered every question from those who were crowded around him.

It was a marked contrast from the atmosphere around him on days when he pitched. His

jaw was set and his eyes had the steely glare of a man on a mission. It was intimidating

just to look at him, one can only imagine what it must have been like to step into the

batter’s box against him. Oh, how we loved him for it when he wore a Red Sox uniform

and how we resented him, especially when he wore the detested pinstripes of the

Yankees.

How did he ever get away from Boston in the first place? It all amounted to a personality

clash between him and then general manager Dan Duquette. Instead of locking him up

with an early offer, the Red Sox let his contract expire and the Toronto Blue Jays were

ready with open purse strings. The rest is history. When he left, Duquette famously, or to

be more precise, infamously, described him as being “in the twilight” of his career.

Eleven years and 162 wins later (he already had 192 with the Red Sox) Duquette was

right. The sun finally set on Clemens’ career, but not before he had won a total of 354

games, struck out 4,672 batters, and won seven Cy Young Awards. He was inducted into

the Boston Red Sox Hall of Fame in 2014.

But that was all in the past when Clemens was honored in Pawtucket. In his acceptance

remarks he was exceedingly generous, devoting a good portion of his speech to honor the

late Bill Buckner, who had died shortly before the ceremony. He offered encouraging

words to the players in both dugouts, reminding them of ”how hard” the game is. When

he was presented with two shadow boxes, each containing twenty baseballs labeled with

the name of each of his strikeout victims during his two twenty-strikeout games, he

beckoned to PawSox hitting coach Rich Gedman, who was the catcher in the history

making first twenty-strikeout game back in 1986, and together they reminisced about that

cold night in April thirty-three years ago.

Gedman, by the way, has remained steadfastly loyal to his friend, even in the darkest

days, when the federal government tried to convict Clemens of perjury for testifying

before congress that he had never used performance enhancing drugs. Gedman insisted –

and still insists - that Clemens was not only the best pitcher that he ever played either

with or against, but he was also the best teammate he ever had. At the weeks-long trial, in

case you’ve forgotten, Clemens was acquitted on all counts, making him the only player

of the steroids era who is certified not guilty. Still, the powers-that-be have held back on

voting him into Cooperstown. There is absolutely no one who doesn’t agree that Roger

Clemens is one of the greatest pitchers in the long history of the game, but they haven’t

voted him into the Hall. Go figure.

When he was asked to throw out the first ball following the induction ceremony, instead

of lobbing one in from in front the mound, as is the usual practice, Clemens had all the

tables and chairs that had been set up moved aside, retreated to the mound, wound up,

and delivered, if not a blinding fastball, one with plenty of zip on it, to his old catcher,

Gedman.

He, in fact, throws on a regular basis at his home in Texas to keep in shape. Every year he

makes a trip to Fenway Park to throw batting practice to contributors to the Jimmy Fund.

What a thrill it must be, to step up to bat against the great Rocketman, confident that he’s

not going to throw a fastball high and inside to keep you off the plate. In his days with the

Red Sox he made regular visits to the children who were patients of the Jimmy Fund.

One day a little girl refused to believe he was actually the real Roger Clemens, so he went

back to the park, changed into his uniform, and returned to show her he was, indeed,

Roger Clemens. After that, he always showed up at the Jimmy Fund wearing his uniform.

One can just imagine how many people must have almost driven off the road at the sight

of him jogging the mile or so up Boylston Street between Fenway Park to the Jimmy

Fund Hospital in full uniform.

He’s almost fifty-seven years old now, but looks much younger, still more like a football

tight end than a baseball pitcher. He and Debbie have been married for thirty-five years,

their children are grown, and they have been to the top of the mountain and in the deepest

valley, and still, they were genuinely excited to be in Pawtucket to relive some of the

early days of their baseball journey. It was endearing to see Debbie snapping pictures and

taking videos of him with her cell phone as the ceremony progressed.

Pawtucket, Rhode Island is ahead of Cooperstown, New York. It’s put Roger Clemens

where he belongs, in the Hall of Fame.