Remembering good for which Clemens stood
Hard-working Rocket consistently showed caring nature toward teammates, others
Roger Clemens is a candidate on the National Baseball Hall of Fame ballot for the first year. The Class of 2013 will be announced on Jan. 9. You can watch the announcement live at 2 p.m. ET on an MLB Network simulcast on MLB.com.
Let me tell you about the Roger Clemens I got to know during his three seasons with the Houston Astros.
He was both a great competitor and a great teammate. He was also a great ambassador for the sport. He was one of the guys who young players felt they could call in the middle of the night if they were in trouble and Clemens would help, no questions asked.
He was kind to the people near the bottom of the masthead. He shared mementos from milestone games with young staffers and clubhouse attendants. He organized golf tournaments to build team camaraderie and shared workout and weightlifting tips with younger teammates.
On the days after he pitched, he'd sit down with a member of the club's public-relations staff and ask, "What do you have for me?"
There'd be a stack of interview requests, speaking engagements, personal appearances and the like, and Clemens fulfilled dozens of them.
Among the more unique requests would be boxes of apparel and photos sent over from the opposing clubhouse for him to sign.
Sean Casey spent an afternoon shopping for a Clemens jersey. He purchased it and asked for The Rocket's autograph on it.
"Games like this are different," Casey said. "This is a guy my grandkids will ask me about facing."
On the day Clemens signed to play for his hometown team in 2004, the Astros had to hire temporary help to fill all the ticket requests. When he did his occasional Minor League assignments, he would do everything from purchasing new clubhouse furniture to springing for the postgame spread.
One night in Lexington, Ky., I was chatting with a young guy who'd gotten plunked by Clemens that night. As he talked, I looked up and saw Clemens enter the clubhouse.
He approached the kid, shook his hand and asked, "You OK?"
They talked for a few minutes, and by the end of the conversation, Clemens had agreed to return the next day and give the pitching staff a tutorial on bullpen sessions.
Tim Purpura, who was general manager of the Astros during those years, tapped into Clemens' pitching intellect. During the offseason, he'd invite the organization's pitchers to come to Minute Maid Park for three days of advice from Clemens and Nolan Ryan, who then owned two Astros farm teams.
How lucky does a kid have to get to be able to pick the brains of two of the best pitchers who ever walked the face of the earth? Clemens was 41 when he joined the Astros, but his competitive fires burned as brightly as ever.
During one game, when he felt a plate umpire was squeezing the strike zone, he lingered in a conversation on the mound with catcher Brad Ausmus until the umpire approached.
"Hey," Clemens screamed, "I'm working as hard as I can out here."
"I'm working, too," the umpire snapped.
"Well, if something doesn't change it's going to be a short night for one of us, and it's probably not going to be you," Clemens answered.
There's a small room behind the home dugout at Minute Maid Park that was nicknamed "The Rocket Hole" by Lance Berkman.
Between innings, Clemens' teammates would hear him in there screaming at himself or an umpire or simply mentally preparing himself to pitch the next inning.
As Jeff Bagwell said, "He cares so much that you give a little extra, too, because you don't want to let him down."
Kevin Kennedy, one of his Red Sox managers, remembers the time when a Boston hitter got plunked early in a game at Fenway Park.
Kennedy sent his pitching coach to talk to Clemens, imploring him not to retaliate because an early ejection would wreck the bullpen.
Clemens agreed that he would behave himself, and between innings, Kennedy approached plate umpire Tim McClelland, who had issued a warning to both dugouts, meaning the next incident would result in an automatic ejection.
"Don't react to the first thing you see," Kennedy told him. "He's obviously going to pitch inside, but he has promised me he's not going to hit anyone."
Clemens hit the first batter he faced, but McClelland didn't issue an automatic ejection.
A couple of days later, Kennedy approached Clemens.
"What happened with hitting that guy?" he asked. "You could have really messed us up."
Clemens stared a stare that Kennedy remembers to this day.
"Listen, skip," Clemens told him, "our guys are going to know I've got their back."
My enduring memories of Clemens would be showing up at the clubhouse in Kissimmee, Fla., at 7 a.m. and seeing Clemens and Andy Pettitte finishing an early-morning conditioning workout.
He was so detail oriented in his workouts that he added baserunning drills to help him adjust to the National League. If he was going to do something, he was going to do it right.
I mention these stories about Clemens as a way to balance the battering his reputation has taken in the wake of performance-enhancing-drug allegations. I have no firsthand knowledge about whether Clemens used PEDs. But I trust the Mitchell Report that named him as a user.
Clemens was so competitive in looking for every edge that he allowed his judgment and ambition to get mixed up.
There's no gray area, either. Before a player can use steroids or human growth hormone, he has to find a dealer to supply them. By that time, he knows he's breaking the law and doing something that could ruin his reputation.
But these stories are complicated. Even if he used terrible judgment, Clemens did plenty of things right.
He wasn't just the best pitcher of his generation. He was also the hardest working and most competitive. He was determined to be as good as he could be for as long as he could be.
His resume is dizzying: 354 victories, 4,672 strikeouts, seven Cy Young Awards and a 3.12 career ERA. He's ninth on the all-time list in victories, third in strikeouts and 15th in innings.
If he's not the greatest right-handed pitcher to walk the earth, he's on the short list. I have no idea what he did before he arrived in the clubhouse or after he left.
But while he was there, he did the game proud. He competed like hell. He helped others. He reached out to fans.
All of us who've watched him over the years probably have a signature moment. Mine was a mostly forgettable postseason performance against the Braves in Atlanta in 2004.
Clemens had nothing that night. His split-finger had no bite. His location was all over the place. But he dug in and refused to give in. He cussed and stomped around the mound and kept at it. In seven innings, he allowed two earned runs, walked six and threw 117 pitches.
He also got the Game 1 victory, and for a team that had never won so much as a postseason series, it was an important moment.
Clemens' first two seasons with the Astros were the best they ever had, getting to the NL Championship Series one year and the World Series in another.
That night in Atlanta he stood in front of his locker happy but exhausted. It had been about as tough a game as he would ever pitch in the big leagues.
He'd gotten by on grit and smarts and not much else. That night, every player on his team appreciated him in a way few players are ever appreciated.
I realize Clemens may not get in the Hall of Fame because he has been accused of doing something plenty of others were doing. If we vote in the guys who got away with it and punish the players who were implicated, shame on us.
I'm OK with writers not voting for players they believe used steroids. But they shouldn't for a moment paint the players with a good guy/bad guy brush. It's far more complicated than that.
I feel lucky to have watched Clemens pitch for three years and to have gotten to know him. I won't gloss over his mistakes, but I won't forget the good things he did and stood for, either.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.