OAKLAND, CALIF. — Before Roger Clemens steps to the mound this weekend for his second chance to win his 300th game, author Chris Kahrl would like to make one thing clear about the man who has won six Cy Young Awards, one MVP, two World Series titles, and five strikeout crowns. He is horribly underrated.
When considering where the short-fused, stubble-chinned Texan clicks into the cosmic order of baseball's past, Mr. Kahrl is as obvious as an eye-high fastball: Since World War II, no right-hander has had a better career.
Big words. But among baseball's sharpest minds, many would not argue.
In the matrix of numbers that rules baseball history, 300 wins has always been significant. Only 20 pitchers have reached it, and all 20 are in the Hall of Fame.
When Clemens arrives, however, he will in many ways be a party of one. He will be the first pitcher to win 300 games during the Rise of the Bullpen, when managers began turning to relievers at the first scent of danger. He will be the first pitcher to win 300 games since expanded rotations meant fewer starts. In short, he will be the first pitcher to win 300 games since baseball's New Era of long balls and short leashes made winning 300 games Hercules' 13th labor.
Others will surely join him. Greg Maddux, most likely. Tom Glavine, perhaps. But there won't be many. As with his two 20- strikeout games, Clemens is once again redrawing the perimeters of pitching excellence for the next generation, when winning 300 games might become the single most impressive career watermark in Major League Baseball's statistical canon.
"Clemens is one of the top five right-handers of all time," says Lyle Spatz of the Society for American Baseball Research. He won't win 350 to 400 games, like the old-timers, but "you can't compare the numbers of today's players with [those of the older] guys, because it's such a different game."
Yes, pitchers still stand on a dirt mound and throw balls at a guy with a big wooden stick, but just about everything else has changed.
Last year, the New York Yankees carried 13 pitchers on their roster, with Clemens winning 13 games and losing six. In 1908, by contrast, the New York Giants had seven pitchers, with eventual 373-game winner Christy Mathewson going 37-11. Twenty-two years before that, career 342-game winner Tim Keefe was one of only two pitchers on the Giants roster, finishing at 42-20.
In fact, 12 of the 20 pitchers who have won more than 300 games finished their careers before Pearl Harbor, and seven of those pitched either partly or entirely during the 1800s.
Yet it is only fitting that Clemens now sits on a mile marker laid down by those baseball ancients like a statistical Stonehenge. He is a throwback to the days when pitchers were named Old Hoss or Three Finger Brown. He is the kindred soul of the Sandy Koufaxes and Bob Fellers who threw their pitches like red-stitched ramrods, daring hitters to put their bats and bodies in the path of the ball's fizzing kinetic force.
In short, he is the image of what a pitcher should be.
He does not walk to the mound; he bears down on it, tank-like, with a thinly veiled ferocity. His repertoire of pitches bespeaks pure power - fastball, split-finger, slider. And his assortment of facial expressions borders on the dyspeptic, as he grimaces and exhales slowly as if every pitch were an act of sheer, visceral will.
In truth, though, there have been few in baseball history better suited to throw the ball 60 feet, 6 inches than Clemens. In a position where the sole job is to repeat the same motion more than 100 times a game, Clemens has built himself into the perfect machine.
Standing 6 ft., 4 in., 240 pounds, he is part lumberjack, part sprinter - his chest as broad as a car windshield and his legs as solid and chiseled as the ash that opposing batters bring to the plate. To win 300 games, a pitcher must have the longevity to average 20 wins over 15 years. Now in his 20th year, Clemens is still an Adonis in spikes and pinstripes.
"I've gotten back exactly what I've put in," he said after winning game No. 298 against the Oakland A's earlier this month. "This is all a result of what I do behind the scenes."
His training regimen is legendary. Two days after a start, he does 600 to 2,000 stomach crunches. In the off-season, his break lasts only two weeks before he begins training again. For years, he has kept track of how his body responds to different foods and exercises.
"He's the ultimate grinder," says teammate and fellow starting pitcher Andy Pettitte. "He works extremely hard and brings a great amount of desire to the mound."
Desire hardly begins to describe it. This is a man who named his four sons Koby, Kory, Kacy, and Kody because the letter "K" is the abbreviation for "strikeout" on a baseball scoresheet. In the 2000 World Series, he broke Mike Piazza's bat with a pitch, then flung one of the shards at Piazza as he ran to first.
Yet this singular obsession with pitching has also given him an awareness of his place in baseball history. On Monday, when he lost in his first bid for win No. 300, he was already wearing a patch on his glove that commemorated his as-yet-unclaimed victory. Two years ago, after a game in which Clemens passed Walter Johnson to become the all-time American League strikeout leader, he immediately boxed up his cap, the game ball, and the catcher's mitt to send to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
"He has a profound respect for the game's history, and it is a big part of his drive," says Jeff Idelson of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Even now, before Clemens reaches 300, sports analysts say his high status as one of the best in baseball history is assured. All that remains is to see how far those giant thighs will take him.
"An argument needs to be made whether Clemens or Maddux is the greatest right-handed pitcher ever," says Kahrl, author of the "Baseball Prospectus." "We really should appreciate how good these guys are."
Born: Aug. 4, 1962, in Dayton, Ohio
Major league debut: 1984 with Boston Red Sox
Toronto Blue Jays: 1997 and 1998
New York Yankees: 1999 to present
Winning percentage: .662
Career ERA: 3.15
Strikeouts: 3,985 (record for the American League)
Repertoire: fastball, split-finger, slider
2003 salary: $7 million
- The Roger Clemens Foundation, Associated Press