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Thursday, December 6, 2012

Roger Clemens a Hall of Famer? Try the Tom Seaver Test

Young, strong, and Cooperstown bound

Since the list of Hall of Fame nominees was announced last week, I've been pondering whether first-time candidate Roger Clemens would be earn my vote if I had one to give.

The Rocket has undeniable Cooperstown credentials, topped by a record seven Cy Young Awards, the 1986 AL MVP, and 354 victories. He struck out 4,672 batters during his long career, a total topped only by Nolan Ryan and Randy Johnson, and twice had 20-K games in which he didn't walk a single batter. That combination of power and control also helped Clemens lead his league in ERA seven times.

In my memory bank of Red Sox pitchers, which dates to the mid-'70s, only Pedro Martinez resonates as more dominant over a sustained period of time. But while Pedro was a delicate thoroughbred rarely allowed to reach past the seventh inning, Clemens was a good-old-fashioned workhorse who regularly finished what he started.

For more than a decade the Rocket delighted Boston fans with overpowering performances. One of the first came his rookie year of 1984, when he topped the Royals at Fenway with a 15-strikeout, zero-walk effort a few weeks after turning 22. 

Clemens was Topps in '86. 

Five years his junior, and about to enter my final year of high school, I followed the action that sweltering August evening through Ken Coleman's radio account while downing beers and looking out for cops in a concert parking lot. I've long since forgotten the venue and the band my buddies and I were seeing, but can still recall the excitement in Coleman's voice. He knew he was seeing the start of something special.   

In 1986, fully matured and free of the injuries that hampered his first two seasons, the Rocket went full throttle – going 24-4 and nearly pitching the Red Sox to a World Series title. I watched most of the series from a dormitory lounge at Syracuse, surrounded by Mets fans, but with Clemens on the hill their taunts grew quiet. Even the enemy respected him then.

That was the year the “K” cards started popping up at Fenway, and, as with Pedro later on, Yawkey Way had a special electricity when Clemens was scheduled to start. He stayed a winner through the team's myriad ups and downs, and in the days before and smart phones, scanning the morning paper for his pitching line was one of my favorite collegiate pastimes (along with summer pilgrimages to see the Rocket live).

Did Canseco (at right) give Clemens any ideas?

Later, while working late into the night at the Sports desk of The Washington Post, I went high-tech -- scanning for Clemens' name amid the Associated Press game accounts that came across in glowing green on my smoke-stained monitor. By the time I moved back to Boston in 1995, however, the Rocket appeared to be on the descent, his gut expanding along with his ERA.

Pitching for mostly mediocre teams, Clemens was 40-39 from 1993-96. I was at Fenway for his last start of '96, a 4-2 loss to the Yankees in which the pending free agent received a standing ovation when taken out midway through the eighth inning. Even thought it was a meaningless game, we knew based on the acrimonious relationship between Red Sox GM Dan Duquette and his ace that it might be the Rocket's final hurrah for Boston.  

It was. Although Clemens still led the league in strikeouts in 1996 – including his second 20-K gem -- management allowed him to depart to Toronto for what Duquette famously predicted would be “the twilight of his career.”

This is where things get more complicated. A visibly slimmer Clemens rebounded to win back-to-back Cy Young Awards for the Blue Jays, and went on to enjoy several more outstanding seasons for the Yankees and Astros – pitching effectively into his mid-40s and climbing the all-time leader boards in various categories.
Yankee Roger: public enemy No. 1.

But when the steroid scandal rocked baseball around the time of his 2007 retirement, the Rocket's surprising late-career resurgence made him a prime suspect. Thinking back to when I'd don my “Klemens” tee-shirt, buy a standing-room only ticket, and climb atop the railings behind Fenway's upper grandstand seats to see No. 21 perform, I desperately wanted to believe Clemens when he denied any involvement with PEDs during the 2008 Congressional hearings.

Then Clemens' former strength coach Brian McNamee came forward with claims he had injected the pitcher with steroids in 1998, 2000 and 2001, and with human growth hormone in 2000. A perjury case against the Rocket was quickly deemed a mistrial after the prosecution showed jurors inadmissible evidence, but not before one of the needles McNamee had saved for years was found to contain DNA matching that of Clemens. 
Clemens in court: the mighty have fallen

Now back to my mythical vote. Let's assume, given the large pile of damning information, that Clemens did indeed juice it up starting at age 34 in 1997. Since the player he is deemed most statistically comparable to on from ages 34-41 is Tom Seaver – whose career, ironically, ended with Boston in the pre-Juice days of 1986 – I thought swapping in Seaver's statistics for Clemens' from 34-41 would be a good way to gauge how the Rocket's career might have gone had he kept on the straight and narrow.

And, since Seaver retired at 41, it's a safe bet that a “clean” Clemens would likely have also hung 'em up rather than continue at less than his best. The real Clemens kept hurling until he was 45, longevity that allowed him to pad his stats and his wallet.

Given Seaver's late-career numbers in place of his own, the Rocket's record drops from 354-184 to a less glittering 279-112, and he winds up with three rather than seven Cy Young Awards. He still strikes out a lot of guys, but ends with closer to 3,800 lifetime whiffs than 4,700. And, like Seaver, he retires at 41.

For half a season, they were teammates.

Is a Clemens with these numbers a Hall of Famer? Probably, especially when you look at his "real" pre-1997 career. Playing exclusively for the Red Sox from 1984-96, the Rocket went 192-111 with 100 complete games, a WHIP of 1.158, and 38 shutouts. Those victory and shutout totals, incidentally, leave him tied atop the all-time Boston leader boards in both categories with Cy Young – the same guy whose name is on all those plaques Clemens earned for pitching excellence.

Whether a 279-win Clemens with no PED rumors is a first-ballot Hall of Famer is up for debate. I don't think so. His peak years may be as good as anyone's, but less lifetime victories than Cooperstown outsiders Jim Kaat and Tommy John should deny him a slam-dunk selection like those afforded Seaver and Ryan.

This might be for the best. Perhaps sweating it out for a few years with low vote totals will help Clemens to recall facts he may have “misremembered” about those needles, and lead to an admission that earns him a clear conscience and a Cooperstown plaque.

A last wave of the cap in '96.

I'll never feel quite the same about the Rocket as I did back in the '80s, but he'll have gained back some of my respect.

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