Here’s the stark, honest reality: Roger Clemens has always been beloved in Boston.
Red Sox fans may try to play the part of jilted, angry lover, but they can’t help themselves. They always come back to Clemens. Cheered him here. Cheered him as a Blue Jay. Cheered him as a Yankee. Cheered him as a cheater and a liar. Cheered him as the most powerful pitcher of his generation and one of Boston’s most important and debated professional athletes.
It’s no surprise then that the Fenway crowd greeted him with applause once again on Thursday night, when the team announced the 2014 class of the Red Sox Hall of Fame, which also included Pedro Martinez, Nomar Garciaparra, and Joe Castiglione. For all the chilly receptions Clemens has received over the past 18 years, since leaving his “twilight” behind for Toronto, New York, and Houston, Boston has also proven that it is always wanting to embrace him.
Hell, it began as soon as his first start at Fenway in a Blue Jays uniform on July 12, 1997 - eight innings, four hits, 16 strikeouts - a performance that turned fans on their heels, transforming Fenway Park from a den of anger into a forum of appreciation, complete with Clemens’ famous glare to the owners’ box as a message for Boston CEO John Harrington and general manager Dan Duquette, as well as the rest of us; This has only just begun.
When Boston thought Clemens was retiring the first time, they sent him off with a raucous ovation, the biggest any Yankee has ever received at Fenway Park.
In between, they booed him mercilessly; most viciously on two occasions: During the pre-game celebration of the All-Century Team prior to the 1999 All-Star Game, and at one of the most-hyped showdowns in Boston playoff history. Clemens-Pedro, in the 1999 ALCS between the Red Sox and Yankees, the game where fans implored for Clemens to “Have another Donut,” much to Debbie Clemens’ dismay.
The only glaring Clemens was doing that day was at the left field scoreboard, which revealed a two-inning, five-run effort on his part, as Martinez (seven innings, two hits, 12 strikeouts) and the Sox dominated Game 3, 13-1. Red Sox past and present were at a crossroads, and with Martinez as the new toy to enjoy and cherish. Buzz Lightyear was in the house, with little use for a cowboy.
But Woody will always be the guy, the link to our past that we tend to cherish. Red Sox fans say they will never forgive Clemens for the way he left, the way he lied about wanting to go home to Houston, by way of Canada. He’s one of the game’s most notable steroid offenders, re-writing the record books during an era when commissioner Bud Selig and the Baseball Writers Association of America both buried their collective heads in the sand with ratings and attendance figures.
There’s every reason for Boston fans to hate him for the way he spat on his Red Sox legacy with the Yankees, for his constant “misremembering” and dubious antics on and off the mound. But this isn’t about forgiveness and the Red Sox recent offering of an olive branch in Clemens’ direction, nor is it a sign of Red Sox fans getting soft. The eighth inning took care of that long ago.
Instead, it is simply recognition that he will, indeed, go down as the greatest Red Sox pitcher to ever live, forever entwined with Cy Young with 192 wins. Yes, the greatest. Pedro had the style, artistry, and the dominance, but Clemens had the longevity. You can argue that in 13 years in Boston, Clemens had only one really subpar season, his 1993 campaign when he went 11-14 with a 4.46 ERA in 24 starts. The common excuse that he was 29-25 his last three seasons here, a sign that his career was on a downswing, is foolish, especially considering his 2.85 ERA in 1994 prior to the strike, and his league-leading 257 strikeouts in 1996 to go along with his 242 innings pitched, the most for Clemens since 1992.
He pitched here when the names Bird, Neely, and Bourque were all that mattered otherwise. But he’s also a terrible liar and an awful actor, traits that many of his baseball colleagues had become masters at performing in front of the cameras. Just see Nomar making the rounds on Thursday telling anyone with a microphone how “devastated” he was to be traded in 2004.
No, Red Sox fans want to hate Clemens, but they have never been able to. It’s one thing to call an athlete despised in a place where he played the bulk of his Hall of Fame-worthy career, depending on how long the BBWAA wants to keep playing judge and jury, it’s something else to call him polarizing. Clemens may be portrayed as the latter, a figure whom Bostonians can’t seem to universally agree on forgiving and forgetting, but there’s really little of that to be done. He’s the greatest pitcher in franchise history. Like it or not, you’re stuck with him.
“I’ve always said: This is my home,” Clemens said prior to his induction on Thursday. “This is where I got started. For me, it’s time to reflect and give thanks to people who helped me get here.”
Nobody has worn No. 21 since that December day he stopped all of New England in its tracks in 1996 by announcing he was joining the Blue Jays, who gave him a four-year, $40 million deal. The Red Sox had offered $17.5 million guaranteed for three years, with a 2000 option that could have made the package worth $22 million. Effectively, Clemens’ departure was the end of Red Sox fans wanting anything to do with Harrington or Duquette.
Clemens, on the other hand, they have always revered. That will never change.
Boston still loves him as much as it ever has.
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