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Clemens May Be the American League's Answer to Gooden

June 06, 1986|THOMAS BOSWELL | Washington Post

With Roger Clemens, you hold your breath.

Will he strike out 20 men, as he did against Seattle in April to set a major league record for a nine-inning game? His lucky number, which he wears around his neck, is 21, so you figure he has something planned.

Will he pitch a no-hitter, as he came within four outs of doing a dozen days ago in his home state of Texas? Since the 23 year old has allowed only 57 hits in 82 innings this year, way below the legal limit for a Boston Red Sox pitcher, he sure has a chance.

With his 9-0 start, and the hottest Red Sox team in generations behind him, when will he lose a game? Or will he? A man who is 6 feet 4, weighs 210 pounds, throws 98 mph and has a brain-freezing curveball and superb control is the sort whose mystique precedes him.

Gorman Thomas, a former home-run champ, calls him "overbearing." Which, if you're a hitter, is probably about right. Reggie Jackson says that as long as Clemens keeps his fastball above the belt, "I could stand up there until I collect my pension and I'd be just another notch on his gun."

Clemens could be the American League's 100-cents-on-the-dollar answer to Dwight Gooden. He could be the Fenway Messiah -- often sighted but never confirmed -- who has been sent to finish the job that Jim Lonborg began in 1967 but never completed because of a ski injury.

The Red Sox have had only two trips to the World Series in 40 years. And no world titles since 1918. Clemens could be the man -- the Tom Seaver, Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Jim Palmer, Catfish Hunter -- around whom a perennial contender and an occasional world champ can be built.

"Baseball's the first sport in this town, and people are starting to get excited," said Clemens, knowing that the Red Sox' 36-15 spring into first place means more to many a Bostonian than the Patriots in the Super Bowl or another banner for the Celtics.

But with Clemens, you still hold your breath. He is, you see, the perfect Red Sox phenom -- touched now and perhaps forever -- with that hint of potential disappointment that clings around Fenway like some perverse melancholy Puritan foreboding.

Clemens has arm trouble.

A season-ending forearm injury in 1984, season-ending shoulder surgery in 1985 and, at the moment, a recurrent cracked knuckle on the middle finger of his pitching hand. He has never pitched more than 180 innings in a season. And only once in his three previous pro years has he made it to 100. His gears and levels may be too powerful for his axles. Despite a wonderful compact pitching motion that ought to be the perfect mitigation against such glitches, Clemens always seems a pitch away from losing a wheel at high speed.

"I hope all that's behind me now," he said Thursday. Others hope so, too.

As a rookie, Clemens fanned 15 in a game, tying the career best of Smokey Joe Wood, who was the Roger Clemens of 1911. At age 22, Wood was 34-5 and the equal of Walter Johnson. When Wood was 23 (Clemens' age), his arm was dead -- and with it the Red Sox' dynasty dreams died, too.

"I met him a couple years ago. Nice old man in a wheelchair. I really care for a man like that," said Clemens. "I did all the listening ... how he said it wasn't for the money that he played, but the game. When he died, I saw an hour-long TV program on him. It was neat to meet him. Really glad I did."

Also, Clemens broke the team rookie strikeout record held by Ken Brett.

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