There was something Ruthian about the whole deal. Ace pitcher . . . and slugger. The Rocket as Bambino. For just one inning.
Roger Clemens went the route last night, beating the Seattle Mariners, 11-4, for his third win of the year. But long after everything else about the game is forgotten, fans will speak of the night they saw Roger Clemens get his first hit in the big leagues.
On a warm and dry Thursday night in May of 1996, Sox fans fell in love with Clemens all over again. The Rocket’s teammates and 31,551 fans were delirious when he walked up to the plate in the bottom of the eighth inning. When Clemens cracked a single up the middle off Seattle lefty Norm Charlton, there were smiles from foul pole to foul pole.
Baseball was fun. Fenway was fun. Clemens was having fun. This was about the sheer joy of competition -- the feeling that drew us into baseball in the first place.
Clemens saved the ball after hitting his single. No doubt it’s worth more today than those JFK golf clubs he bid on.
``I couldn’t even swallow when I went out to warm up in the ninth inning,’’ Clemens said.
It was easily the high point of this dreadful season. Fenway must have been something like this when Ted Williams pitched against the Detroit Tigers here in 1941.
``They’re all telling me I’m a threat to Ted’s record now,’’ Clemens said. ``Batting 1.000. They’re going to have to put that down in the books.’’
Done. Let the record show that Clemens now has 185 major league victories, 2,416 strikeouts and a career batting average of 1.000. Go ahead, you great Bambino. Try topping those numbers.
The situation developed when Kevin Kennedy managed himself out of the designated hitter. Clemens was inserted into the ninth spot in the order after the Sox batted around in the seventh. Infamous as the man who let Jose Canseco pitch (Canseco blew out his arm pitching at Fenway in 1993), Kennedy is also the man who let Roger hit.
``Believe me, it was in the back of my mind,’’ said Kennedy. ``And of course, it was ironic that tonight I had to put Jose in left field when Roger moved into the No. 9 spot.’’
With two out and nobody on in the eighth, Clemens donned a batting helmet and stepped toward the plate. It was weird. It was like seeing Ray Bourque in goal or Drew Bledsoe lining up at wide receiver.
The Rocket was wearing Mo Vaughn’s elbow pad on his left arm and Kevin Mitchell’s shin guard on his left leg.
``I took all that football gear,’’ he said. ``I was kind of making a mockery of the guys who wear all that gear. But you do feel safe.’’
He chatted briefly with catcher John Marzano, a former battery mate.
``I told him I’m swinging at three and I’m out of here,’’’ said Clemens. ``It was weird, me being at Fenway Park, standing at the plate. And then the first bat I used I think they got at the concession stands.’’
Using the generic bat, Clemens swung at the first pitch and fouled it weakly down the first-base line. The bat shattered. A Bill Haselman model (32 1/2-ounce Cooper) was handed to Clemens. At this point, Clemens had officially used more equipment for one plate appearance than any other Sox player this year.
After taking strike two, he ripped the next pitch up the middle. The ball streaked between Charlton’s legs and into center field. A stunned Charlton fell down as the ball squirted through him.
``Norm has that big leg kick,’’ noted Clemens. ``I was trying to pick the ball up. I just threw the head of the bat out there and I was fortunate. I think Norm was as surprised as I was.’’
A laughing Canseco said, ``We were all up in the dugout saying, `God, is it that easy to hit in this league?’ ‘’
The crowd roared its approval. Clemens’ at-bat was reminiscent of Luis Tiant’s tour-de-bases in the first game of the 1975 World Series.
``I was glad the fans here got to see it,’’ said Clemens.
Red Sox Nation loved it. On this night, Boston fans embraced the Rocket in a way they haven’t since he was thin and fuzzy-cheeked in 1986. Seattle seems to bring out the best in Clemens. The Mariners were his victims when he fanned 20 in April of ‘86.
That was so long ago. It’s strange to realize that Clemens came to Fenway the year after Yaz, who came to Fenway the year after Williams. The Rocket has been in a Boston uniform longer than any other active athlete except Bourque.
He is part of the Boston landscape, no less than Chet and Nat, the Hatch Shell and the Cheers bar. Think of it this way: Dick MacPherson, John Stephens, Craig Janney, Bruce Shoebottom, Dave Gavitt, Acie Earl, Ellis Burks, Dick Lutsk and Margo Adams all have come and gone since Clemens first pitched for the Red Sox in 1984.
Now he is almost 34 years old, hasn’t won 20 since 1990 and may very well wind up pitching for the Houston Astros next year. It turns out that 1986, when he was 24-4 and MVP, was the closest he got to winning a World Series -- and owning the city of Boston.
But, for one night, it was just like the old days. Fans chanted his name and there was sweet innocence about him.
Roger Clemens batted. Roger Clemens hit. After 12 years, three Cy Youngs and 185 victories, he finally felt like a baseball player again.