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Sports

March 29, 2006

Roger Clemens, Come Home

The wounds have healed. It's time for Boston's best pitcher to end his career where it began.

Dean Barnett

IT WAS APRIL 29, 1986. Ronald Reagan was in the White House, Mikhail Gorbachev presided over the Kremlin, and a young John Bon Jovi was teaching a nation how to rock.

In Boston, America's Hub, all local sports fans' eyes were on the growing legend of Larry Bird. The Celtics were hosting a playoff game at the Garden that night, in the process of rolling to their third title in six years.

Young Roger Clemens
Courtesy Homeruncards.com
Portrait of the mound artist as a young man.
Meanwhile, at a nearly empty Fenway Park, Roger Clemens took the mound for the Red Sox to face the Seattle Mariners. By the end of the evening, the Boston sports scene would be changed forever.

To no one's surprise, the Celtics took care of business at the Garden, dispatching the young Atlanta Hawks with typical ease. At Fenway, Clemens struck out 20 Mariners, setting the major-league record for strikeouts in a single game and causing Boston fans to fall in love with their baseball team with a passion never seen before.

I WAS A VERY TINY PART of the drama at Fenway on April 29. Starting in 1984, a few friends of mine from my hometown of Newton, Massachusetts, began hanging giant K's in the stands at Fenway every time Clemens recorded a strikeout. They invented the now-ubiquitous tradition, although, as is the way of New Yorkers, Shea Stadium copycats began paying similar tribute to Dwight Gooden—a rookie that same year—and claimed the idea was theirs.

The K's themselves were homemade, a piece of super-fans' craftsmanship. K Kid principals painted enormous red K's onto roughly three-foot-by-two-foot pieces of durable cardboard. Each game that Clemens pitched, they would board Boston's green line, K's and a large supply of tape in tow, and head out to Fenway.

I was a minor partner in the endeavor, showing up only a handful of times to participate in the ritual. We would sit in the last row of the right-field bleachers, which typically were mostly empty. When Clemens struck out an opposing batter, with much pomp and circumstance we would affix an oversized K to the back of the bleachers.

To our teenaged minds, Clemens, along with fellow young star Wade Boggs, brought hope to a franchise whose great teams of the 1970s never got it done and then descended into a morass of mediocrity. Besides, we were non-athletic types who had to scrounge for prom dates, so it's not like we had better stuff to do than hang giant K's in a mostly empty stadium.

By the time April 29, 1986, came, we had all gone off to college and the K-hanging had become sporadic. Through five innings of the game that night, Clemens had struck out 10 Mariners. Annoying TV commentator Bob Montgomery observed that it was a shame the guy who hung the K's that night wasn't there, because he would be loving it.

Unbeknownst to Montgomery, a flurry of phone calls was spreading across American campuses: From Baltimore to Ann Arbor to Cambridge, the K kids were trying to figure out a way to get the K's hung in Fenway for what promised to be a historic occasion. (Then an 18-year-old college freshman, I opted to keep listening to the Celtics game in my dorm room.) As a result, the undeniable leader of the K kids, Rich Barnett (no relation), made it to the park. In the sixth inning some dozen K's suddenly appeared in the back of the bleachers, to the delight of the Fenway Faithful. There was room for only 19 K's between the enormous Dunkin Donuts sign and the end of the bleachers. The record-breaking 20th K had to be affixed above all the others, which was entirely appropriate.

The next Clemens start was the following Sunday. The real K kids were there, including Rich and Rick Kaplan (the third real K kid, Rich's brother Bob, was still immersed in his studies in Baltimore), and they were joined by assorted hanger-ons like me who knew hanging K's was about to become a much more prominent activity. Sure enough, a guy who looked like a hobo wandered up to our seats; it turned out he was a writer for a Providence newspaper. Much to our delight, we all got our name in his paper in a story that focused on Rich. We also got our names in the Boston Herald, and the Associated Press credited Rick with inventing the K.

Soon, however, Clemens's surging popularity put the K kids out of business. As the Sox began selling out, even last-row bleachers seats were hard to come by. And Fenway soon became littered with copycat K hangers. All this was okay with original K Kids—Clemens was making the move from cult hero to just plain hero, and we had discovered him first.

AFTER THE 20-STRIKEOUT GAME, Clemens owned Boston. Even Larry Bird suggested the torch had passed. It was a joyride for Clemens, the Sox, and their fans—until early in the morning of October 26, 1986, when all sorts of things went wrong that are still too painful for me to discuss.

In the wake of the bitterness generated by Boston's 1986 World Series collapse, hard feelings lingered. Clemens became the undeserving target of those hard feelings when he held out for more money in the spring of 1987. The impasse was finally broken during the last week of spring training, but Clemens showed up overweight and unprepared. He was ineffective for most of the first half of the season and the Sox quickly dropped out of contention despite getting career years from Dwight Evans and Wade Boggs. Even though Clemens was his normal brilliant self during the second half of the '87 season, pitching well enough to earn his second Cy Young award, the breach was irreparable—Clemens' relationship with Boston's sports fans would always be contentious.

In the ensuing years, Clemens pitched with consistent brilliance but handled the press in an occasionally maladroit manner. On one memorable occasion, Clemens ridiculed the Red Sox for being a sorry, classless organization. Pressed for an example, Clemens cited the fact that Red Sox players had to carry their own luggage. This did little to endear him to Boston fans.

By the mid-90's, Clemens was a great pitcher but clearly not the pitcher he once was. In spite of his consistently stellar efforts, his record in a Red Sox uniform between 1993 and 1996 was only .500. While this was primarily due to Boston's already weak hitting getting weaker when he took the mound, his poor record made Clemens tumble from Boston's athletic Mt. Rushmore. No longer was he in the pantheon of Larry Bird, Bobby Orr, and Doug Flutie—as caller after caller to talk-radio shows would misleadingly point out, Clemens had become a .500 pitcher.

As the 1996 season came to a close, depressingly, it became apparent that the Red Sox would part ways with their longtime ace. In his penultimate start, as if to confirm that the Red Sox were making an epic mistake, Clemens tied his own record for most strikeouts in a game against the Detroit Tigers. And as if to confirm that Red Sox management was as classless as it was clueless, Red Sox GM Dan Duquette, upon bidding farewell to Clemens publicly wished Roger luck "in the twilight of his career."

Clemens's so-called "twilight" has been better than just about anyone else's prime. Since leaving the Sox, Clemens has won four more Cy Young awards.

Clemens post-Red Sox success wasn't easy for his Boston fans to take. In Toronto for his first season as an ex-Red Sox, he showed up fitter than he had been in years. Then he won two straight Cy Young awards for the Blue Jays, and Sox fans wondered where this Roger had been during his last four years in the Hub. When Clemens went to the Yankees and won a Cy Young and a World Series while wearing the hated pinstripes, Sox fans' feeling of betrayal was complete.

BUT THE PASSAGE OF TIME BRINGS PERSPECTIVE. 1986 was a long time ago for all of us. Those of us who were hanging K's then are now middle-aged; the guy we were hanging K's for was also very young then and now he, too, is middle-aged. It was 20 years ago and 20 pounds ago for us all (although Clemens, a professional athlete and fitness fanatic, appears to be carrying his 20 pounds a bit better than the rest of us).

Clemens's public comments in Boston weren't always perfect in a public-relations sense, but he was special because of his skill and his dedication to his craft, not because of a Clinton-esque poise before the cameras. And though we condemned his moodiness that led up to his rancorous departure, in hindsight much of that attitude appears to have been warranted. Prior to the current regime's arrival, the Red Sox were a petty, mean-spirited organization run by a general manager, Dan Duquette, who by most accounts was a perfect ass. For Sox fans inclined to revise their opinion of Clemens upwards, it didn't hurt that Pedro Martinez spent seven years significantly raising the bar on obnoxious-behavior-by-a-star-pitcher that Sox fans had to endure.

NOW THERE IS TALK that Roger Clemens might return to Boston. There is further speculation that part of his decision to return to Boston hinges on how the fans would feel about him coming back.

Even though I was a minor partner in the K Kid enterprise, I feel I still have some special standing to address Clemens's concern about his reception in Boston. Clemens' relationship with Boston is the great loose end in his brilliant career. We didn't appreciate him enough when he was here, and we reacted poorly and inappropriately when he left.

Meanwhile, Clemens has a bit of unfinished business in Boston. His brilliant career in Boston came to a sad close on all accounts. Not only did the Sox never win the World Series title with Clemens in uniform after coming so close in 1986, but his rancorous departure was utterly unsatisfying for all parties concerned—the franchise, Clemens, and the fans.

Some media types speculate that Clemens won't be welcomed with open arms by the fans who felt betrayed 10 years ago. This is spectacularly wrong-headed. Boston now realizes what a special performer it had in Roger Clemens, and it is many Sox fans' fondest wish that Clemens conclude his career in the carmine hose.

I would say that all is forgiven, but Clemens doesn't need our forgiveness. He was the best pitcher in franchise history who went on to become the best pitcher in baseball history. Virtually every Red Sox fan knows this.

We fans were wrong in the way we treated him while he was here and when he left. We'd like to make it right. If Clemens comes back to Boston, the standing ovation he'll receive upon his first stroll to the Fenway mound probably will be the longest sustained standing ovation any Boston athlete has received since the 1992 Celtics' tribute to the recently retired Larry Bird.

If he's still mulling retirement, Clemens might want to consider the decades-old words of a great athlete: "I see retired or injured players come back, and they miss the spotlight, no matter what they claim." That wise athlete was Roger Clemens, quoted days after his 20-strikeout game in 1986. Nowhere will the spotlight be brighter and the fans more appreciative than in Boston.

Please, Roger—come home.

Dean Barnett is a frequent contributor to the Weekly Standard and writes on politics and other matters at www.soxblog.com.

•The New Hampshire Union Leader on Boston's continual quest for the next Roger Clemens. The Boston Globe Magazine calls Boston phenom Jonathan Papelbon "Rocket Redux."

•Sons of Sam Horn, the Red Sox message board, on a possible Clemens return.







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