Sports Nut

Roger Clemens, Choke Artist

Roger Clemens is, without question, one of the greatest power pitchers in baseball history. In 16 years in the American League, he’s struck out 3,504 hitters, grabbed five Cy Young Awards, and won 260 games. He’s a lock to be voted into the Hall of Fame the first year he’s eligible. When George Steinbrenner had the chance to acquire the Rocket from the Toronto Blue Jays two years ago, the Yankees owner just couldn’t resist—even though it meant trading David Wells, who was beloved by his teammates and had played a huge role in the Yankees’$2 1998 World Series run. And what has Clemens done for the Yankees? Pretty much what he’s done his whole career: He’s been at his best when it matters least, and at his worst when it matters most. The Rocket, to put it bluntly, is a choke artist.

The just-ended playoff series against the Oakland Athletics was the most obvious recent evidence of Clemens-as-choker. To quickly review: Yankee manager Joe Torre, his pitching staff in disarray, decided to open the series with Clemens because he’d been the team’s best pitcher during the second half of the season. (Never mind that he lost his last three starts as the Yankees were losing 15 of their last 18.) This meant, among other things, that El Duque, who has struggled mightily during the regular season but has proven his mettle time and again during the post-season, would only be able to pitch once against Oakland while Clemens would get two starts. Needless to say, the Rocket lost both games. In Game 1, he looked unhittable for four innings—and was yanked an inning later, after the A’s had pounded him. Then in Game 4, after both Andy Pettitte and El Duque had pitched tough, gritty victories, Clemens was called upon to finish off the A’s. Instead, the A’s finished him off, as he gave up a three-run homer in the first and two more runs in the fourth. The New York fans booed him after he was pulled by Torre. Yes, he was pitching on three-days rest, but this is the playoffs, for crying out loud. This is when great players are supposed to rise to the occasion.

To longtime Clemens-watchers (such as, well, myself), the surprise is not that Clemens let down the Yankees, but that Torre showed that much faith in him in the first place. The truth is Roger Clemens has never risen to the occasion. It’s just not part of his makeup. As Boston Globe columnist (and well-known Clemens tormentor) Dan Shaughnessy pointed out recently, in the Rocket’s 14 post-season starts, he’s only won a pathetic three games. And of those three, two don’t really count as “pressure games.” They took place during last year’s post-season, when Clemens was the Yankee’s No. 4 starter. In each game, he was finishing off a team—Texas in the first round of the playoffs, and Atlanta in the World Series—that was on the verge of being swept. He also pitched a game against his former team, the Red Sox, during last year’s post-season. He went up against Pedro Martinez, and in that game a lot was at stake, at least emotionally. Naturally he got completely crushed by the Sox. Indeed, according to ESPN’s Peter Gammons, the Yankees have only lost three post-season games since Clemens joined the team—and he was the starting pitcher all three times.

And then there were his years with the Sox—years in which Clemens would be brilliant during the season (especially in the first half when the games mattered less), win 20 or more games, be lauded as the greatest pitcher of his era, and then blow it during the post-season. Who started the infamous Game 6 against the New York Mets in the 1986 World Series? You guessed it. In Boston, that game lives in infamy not only because of the grounder that went through Bill Bucker’s legs, but because Clemens, who had a 3-2 lead after the seventh inning, mysteriously did not appear for the eighth. Later Red Sox manager John McNamara claimed that the Rocket had taken himself out, a charge that Clemens vociferously denied.

But even that isn’t the low watermark for the Rocket’s post-season outings. No, that would have to be the final game against Oakland in the 1990 American League Championship Series. That was the game, you’ll perhaps recall, in which Clemens went berserk when the umpire made a call he didn’t like and got tossed in the second inning. In addition to costing the Red Sox the series, Clemens’ actions had another sorry consequence. For a good three years afterward, American League umpires took their collective revenge by “squeezing” him, making him a far less effective pitcher because he simply couldn’t get a close call for a strike.

No thanks to Roger, the Yankees are still in the post-season. The series against Seattle starts tonight. But Torre has clearly learned his lesson. When the Yankees manager announced his rotation for the Seattle series, he set it up so that El Duque and Pettitte will get two starts each, if necessary. Clemens will be the No. 4 starter, just as he was last year, meaning he’ll only get one start. Torre denied that this was because of Clemens’ dismal outings against Oakland, claiming instead that the Rocket needed a little more rest because he’s a power pitcher. But nobody was fooled. A lifetime of choking has finally caught up with Roger Clemens.