It has been 30 years. No matter what you think of him now, 30 years ago tonight, Roger Clemens pushed himself and the Boston Red Sox towards the top of the sports world.
In the spring of 1986, Larry Bird ruled Boston, heck he practically ruled the entire world of sports. But Boston is and always has been a baseball town. That’s not to take anything away from the Celtics, Bruins or Patriots. It is just that history is tough to overcome and the Red Sox and Fenway Park are about as culturally and historically relevant as any thing in Boston with the exception of the numerous Revolutionary War sites that dot the landscape.
I was only 12 in April of 1986. The bulk of my friends were Red Sox fans, but they were also Celtics fans, and in April of 1986, the Celtics were definitely must-see tv for everyone. That Celtics team was amazing. While Red Sox fans wondered if they’d live to see their team win a World Series, the Celtics were a safe-bet to at least make the NBA Finals on an annual basis.
The Red Sox had not played in an official postseason game since Game 7 of the 1975 World Series. There was that one-game playoff against the Yankees in October of 1978, but that wasn’t really worth remembering.
So on Tuesday night, April 29, 1986 New England sports fans were given the choice between watching one of the greatest NBA teams to ever take the court play (and almost certainly beat) the Atlanta Hawks in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, OR watch the Boston Red Sox and a promising but not all that accomplished young right-hander named Roger Clemens face one of baseball’s worst teams, the Seattle Mariners.
For some reason, I chose to watch the Red Sox. I think it was because I assumed that the Celtics were going to win. It seemed like a foregone conclusion (and it was.) I loved basketball, but I really loved baseball.
Plus the Red Sox hadn’t looked bad. They didn’t look great, but there was potential. A lot of the team’s potential relied on the arm of one Roger Clemens.
As a rookie in 1984, Clemens looked good and he threw the ball hard. By today’s standards Clemens was just another guy with a good heater, but back in 1986 guys who could consistently get their fastball at or even above 95 miles per hour were quite noteworthy. Plus, Clemens had pitches besides a fastball.
He got hurt in 1985, but there were high hopes for him in 1986. Through three starts Clemens had been pretty good, he even struck out 10 batters in his last start and the Mariners were a team that would definitely provide him the opportunity to rack up more strikeouts.
Thus while most of New England had their eyes fixated on the Celtics, I tuned in to watch the Red Sox face the Mariners. Let the record reflect that Fenway was mostly empty that night. The attendance is listed as 13,414. It looked even worse on television.
Roger Clemens didn’t care. He was on absolute fire. New England sports fans were used to watching Larry Bird make jaws drop, but no member of the Red Sox was really a can’t-miss type of player.
That all changed on April 29, 1986.
That was the night that Roger Clemens became “The Rocket.” That was the night that Clemens went from a guy who might be good, to a guy who you just had to watch. In just over two-and-a-half hours Clemens transformed himself and the Red Sox from a potential winners to potential champions.
He struck out the side in the first. Then following a line-out by Gorman Thomas to start the second, he struck out the final two batters of that frame.
Two innings, five K’s. Okay this is entertaining.
Clemens only got one strikeout in the third. The first and last inning in which Clemens would strikeout less than one batter.
He struck out the side in the fourth and then again in the fifth. That’s 12 K’s in only five innings. I was already a die-hard baseball stat geek. I knew that the single game record was a suddenly reachable 19. Three pitchers had amassed 19 K’s in a 9-inning game. Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver and Steve Carlton
Clemens needed to get 7 of the final 12 outs via strikeout to tie the record. It definitely felt possible. I was watching the game alone. I was too young to call friends, and they were most likely watching the Celtics. There was no texting or social media, there were barely any fans visible on the television screen.
Here’s another thing about that night. Never did I ever worry about Red Sox manager John McNamara pulling Clemens and going to the bullpen. Complete games were not rarities back then. In fact a team’s best starting pitcher was expected to rack up a number of complete games. In 1985 Bert Blyleven led the American League in complete games, he threw 24 of them.
The last time anyone in the majors threw more than 10 complete games in a season was in 2011 when James Shields threw 11 of them. In fact that’s the only time this century that a major league pitcher has thrown more than 9 complete games in a single season.
Pitch counts and specialized bullpens just weren’t part of the game in 1986. There was no pitch count tracker on the television screen. There was zero concern that Clemens would be lifted because he was approaching his pitch-count limit, or because he was on an innings limit for the season.
Clemens kept throwing, the Mariners kept swinging and missing. Clemens struck out the first two batters of the sixth, before Spike Owen (who along with teammate Dave Henderson would be dealt to the Red Sox later that season) flew out to Red Sox centerfielder Steve Lyons to end the sixth.
It was still a 0-0 game in the seventh. Clemens racked up two more K’s to start the inning but then Gorman Thomas hit a solo home run to give the Mariners a 1-0 lead. Had this all transpired during the current era, Clemens would likely be pulled out of the game. Not back in 1986. Not with Clemens sitting at 16 K’s through seven innings pitched. No chance Clemens was coming out of the game.
A three-run home run courtesy of Dwight Evans gave the Red Sox a 3-1 lead heading into the eighth.
The Rocket added a pair of K’s and the game would head to the ninth inning with Clemens sitting at 18 K’s. He would have three chances to tie the record and if he could do that before the final out was recorded he’d have a shot to set a new single game record.
Spike Owen led off the inning and Clemens got him swinging to tie the record. Phil Bradley was next. Bradley was already 0-for-3 with three K’s. When he watched strike 3 sail by, Roger Clemens had officially set a new single game record for strikeouts with 20. Clemens had a chance to get to 21, Ken Phelps was 0-for-3 with 3 K’s but he grounded out harmlessly to short to end the game.
All of a sudden 1986 was about more than just the Celtics. It was the Red Sox not the Celtics leading sports segments on the late news. It was the Red Sox not Celtics gracing the front pages of not just local sports sections but of the whole newspaper. From that moment on the season felt different.
On Wednesday night May 11th the Red Sox moved into first place in the seven-team American League East. They would never look back. The Red Sox went 21-7 in May, they withstood a mid-summer slump but never relinquished their grip on first place.
It was an amazing season, with a well-documented and tragic ending.
Roger Clemens would go on to have one of the most amazing careers of any starting pitcher in major league history. Seven Cy Young awards, one MVP award, 354 wins, 4,672 strikeouts. On September 18, 1996 as Clemens was preparing to bolt Boston via free agency, Clemens struck out 20 Detroit Tigers in a single game.
Accusations of performance enhancing drug use have put a permanent dark mark on Clemens career. Red Sox fans weren’t too happy when Clemens left the team to play for the Blue Jays, but that dislike turned to outright hatred when Clemens joined the New York Yankees prior to the 1999 season.
That does not change the memories of 30 years ago. Roger Clemens was simply amazing that night. If you’re of a certain age, then his performance stands out in a special way. Clemens performance brought gravitas to the franchise. It added a superstar element that the team had lacked.
It brought the Red Sox out from behind the considerable shadow cast by Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics and gave the team their own well-deserved attention and recognition. In spite of all of his accomplishments Clemens was probably at his finest on that chilly night in late April of 1986.