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20 YEARS AFTER 20 K'S

A whiff of immortality

The daze continued into the next day. Roger Clemens awoke -- well, didn't exactly awake, because he never really had slept -- into a lovely strangeness.

His mother was on the telephone. Crying. His brothers were on the phone. Crying. People magazine wanted him. Sports Illustrated. "The CBS Morning News." Gentle pulls. Affectionate tugs. The Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown wanted his glove, his cap, his shoes.

And, of course, the baseball.

"I'm in the Hall of Fame," the 23-year-old Red Sox pitcher said yesterday in his soft Texas accent, again and again, as if he were a lottery winner still staring at the numbers and only half believing what he saw. "That's something nobody can take away from me now."

Twenty strikeouts. He did that. No pitcher in 111 years of major league baseball ever had struck out 20 batters in a nine-inning game. He did that.

Nowhere in sport are the records as meaningful, as consistent, as in professional baseball. The line of history goes from today to the furthest yesterday, encompassing all the names and all the eras, everyone whoever played. Roger Clemens now was part of that. Part? His name now was at the top of the strikeout list.

"I still don't think he realizes what he did," friend and teammate Al Nipper said. "I picked him up today and drove him to the park and I still don't think it's hit him. He's still spinning."

Who can wake up in the morning and realize that he has done something that Christy Mathewson never did? That Walter Johnson never did. That Bob Feller, Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, no one ever did. Who can do that? Who can realize -- truly realize -- how special a special night like that could be?

"I got home, I couldn't sleep," Roger Clemens said. "I tried -- it's important for a pitcher to getthat rest for his arm -- but I just couldn't. I was tossing all night."

He dipped into sleep only once. He said he had a weird dream. He was back on the mound in the middle of the game Tuesday night, on the way to the 3-1 win over the Seattle Mariners. The game suddenly changed.

A fan came out of the stands -- as, indeed, two fans did during the real game -- and ran onto the field. This fan ran to the mound to talk to Roger Clemens. Roger Clemens whacked the fan in the head. The police arrived, not to take away the fan, but to arrest Roger Clemens.

"That's when I woke up," Roger Clemens said. "The police were taking me away for hitting the dude in the head."

Was that the way it happened? No, not the way. The strikeouts happened. That was what was real. The strikeouts. Twenty strikeouts.

He remembered the game mostly as a concentrated blur. He was concentrating on what he was doing with each batter on each pitch. He knew he was pitching as well as he ever had pitched, that his fast ball was going where he wanted it to go, 97 miles per hour, that he felt really strong, but he had no time for counting. He was in the middle of Fenway Park, not history.

"I was in the trainer's room between innings," he said. "I usually put my jacket on with two outs and get out of there, but once, before I left, I did hear the announcers say I had a chance at the record for eight strikeouts in a row. That's all I knew until the final inning."

A numbness seemed to extend everywhere. Clemens didn't know he was heading toward history. His catcher, Rich Gedman, had no idea. The home plate umpire, Vic Voltaggio, had no idea. Everyone knew that something good was happening, but nobody seemed to know how good.

"The fans were cheering after every pitch," Gedman said. "I couldn't figure out why they were cheering. I didn't know what it was all about."

"I'm glad I didn't know," Voltaggio said. "All I knew was that I was working the best pitching performance I'd ever seen. I told that to the batboy after the seventh. That this was the best I'd ever seen. Anywhere."

The players in the dugout noticed that some fans in the center-field bleachers had begun to place K's on the outfield wall. When had that started? There were no K's on the wall for the first five innings, but suddenly there were K's and more K's, each of them signifying another strikeout.

"Where'd they come from?" Nipper asked. "Did those guys run out and get the cardboard and paint? Suddenly they were there."

The media contingent was as small as possible for a weeknight game. The pro football draft had been held in the afternoon. The Celtics were playing the Atlanta Hawks in a play-off game at the Garden at the same time. A Red Sox official looked down at the little photographers' box along the first base line early in the game and saw only one cameraman. The cameraman was the official Red Sox photographer.

The night seemed to start at the bottom level of interest -- The Seattle Mariners? Who cared? -- and grow and grow. Better and better. More and more. On the way to history.

"I was checking with Roger every inning after the fifth," Red Sox manager John McNamara said. "I've been doing that every game this year, making sure his arm feels good."

"My legs feel tired," Clemens reported after the seventh. "They're starting to cramp."

"What about your arm?" McNamara asked.

"Fine."

"Keep going."

The news that he was going for a record was given to Clemens before the start of the ninth by Nipper. Clemens had no idea how many strikeouts he had or how many would be the record. Nipper told him he needed one to tie and two to set the record.

"I had to do it," Nipper said. "Wouldn't it be a shame if a guy had a chance for something like that and didn't try for it? I wanted him to know. He's not the type of guy who would be affected by knowing."

The rest . . . the rest was more of the blur. Swinging third strike by Spike Owen to tie the record. Called third strike to Phil Bradley to set the record. Third baseman Wade Boggs rushed over to shake hands, and Roger Clemens didn't know why. Was this the end of the game? No, one more out to go.

"We should get the ball to save it," trainer Charlie Moss said in the dugout.

"You don't have to," pitcher Bruce Hurst, charting the game, said. "That ball ain't going anywhere."

Sure enough. No foul balls. No ball out of play. A final fly put-out and the record was the record and the ball was safe in Roger Clemens' glove.

"What would you tell people about yourself?" Roger Clemens was asked yesterday. "What would you tell people who read your name and what you did and say, 'Who is this guy?' "

"First of all," the pitcher said, still in his lovely daze, "I hope they don't think it's a misprint."

Twenty strikeouts? Twenty strikeouts. Yes, he did that.

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