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The Rocketman

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There is absolutely no one who doesn't agree that Roger Clemens is one of the greatest pitchers in the long history of the game, but they haven't voted him into the Hall. Go figure.


Thirty-five years ago, Roger Clemens played for the Pawtucket Red Sox before being called up to Boston to launch a major league career that was filled with more twists and turns and dramatic storylines than he or anyone else could ever have imagined.

His time with the PawSox, only two months, was brief because he was already on the fast-track to the majors, but it was enough to earn him induction last week into the PawSox Hall of Fame. He and his wife Debbie made the trip up from Texas for the ceremony at which he was given a hero's reception. He, in turn, was open, affable and easily approachable before, during, and after the ceremony at McCoy Stadium prior to a PawSox versus Indianapolis Indians game. He signed every autograph, shook every hand, and answered every question from those who were crowded around him.

It was a marked contrast from the atmosphere around him on days when he pitched. His jaw was set and his eyes had the steely glare of a man on a mission. It was intimidating just to look at him, one can only imagine what it must have been like to step into the batter's box against him. Oh, how we loved him for it when he wore a Red Sox uniform and how we resented him, especially when he wore the detested pinstripes of the Yankees.

How did he ever get away from Boston in the first place? It all amounted to a personality clash between him and then general manager Dan Duquette. Instead of locking him up with an early offer, the Red Sox let his contract expire and the Toronto Blue Jays were ready with open purse strings. The rest is history. When he left, Duquette famously, or to be more precise, infamously, described him as being "in the twilight" of his career. Eleven years and 162 wins later (he already had 192 with the Red Sox) Duquette was right. The sun finally set on Clemens' career, but not before he had won a total of 354 games, struck out 4,672 batters, and won seven Cy Young Awards. He was inducted into the Boston Red Sox Hall of Fame in 2014.

But that was all in the past when Clemens was honored in Pawtucket. In his acceptance remarks, he was exceedingly generous, devoting a good portion of his speech to honor the late Bill Buckner, who had died shortly before the ceremony. He offered encouraging words to the players in both dugouts, reminding them of ''how hard" the game is. When he was presented with two shadow boxes, each containing 20 baseballs labeled with the name of each of his strikeout victims during his two 20-strikeout games, he beckoned to PawSox hitting coach Rich Gedman, who was the catcher in the history making first 20 strikeout game back in 1986, and together they reminisced about that cold night in April some 33 years ago.

Gedman, by the way, has remained steadfastly loyal to his friend, even in the darkest days, when the federal government tried to convict Clemens of perjury for testifying before Congress that he had never used performance enhancing drugs. Gedman insisted -- and still insists -- that Clemens was not only the best pitcher that he ever played either with or against, but he was also the best teammate he ever had. At the weeks-long trial, in case you've forgotten, Clemens was acquitted on all counts, making him the only player of the steroids era who is certified not guilty. Still, the powers-that-be have held back on voting him into Cooperstown. There is absolutely no one who doesn't agree that Roger Clemens is one of the greatest pitchers in the long history of the game, but they haven't voted him into the Hall. Go figure.

When he was asked to throw out the first ball following the induction ceremony, instead of lobbing one in from in front the mound, as is the usual practice, Clemens had all the tables and chairs that had been set up moved aside, retreated to the mound, wound up, and delivered, if not a blinding fastball, one with plenty of zip on it, to his old catcher, Gedman.

He, in fact, throws on a regular basis at his home in Texas to keep in shape. Every year, he makes a trip to Fenway Park to throw batting practice to contributors to the Jimmy Fund. What a thrill it must be, to step up to bat against the great Rocketman, confident that he's not going to throw a fastball high and inside to keep you off the plate. In his days with the Red Sox, he made regular visits to the children who were patients of the Jimmy Fund. One day a little girl refused to believe he was actually the real Roger Clemens, so he went back to the park, changed into his uniform, and returned to show her he was, indeed, Roger Clemens. After that, he always showed up at the Jimmy Fund wearing his uniform. One can just imagine how many people must have almost driven off the road at the sight of him jogging the mile or so up Boylston Street between Fenway Park to the Jimmy Fund Hospital in full uniform.

He's almost 57 years old now, but looks much younger, still more like a football tight end than a baseball pitcher. He and Debbie have been married for 35 years, their children are grown, and they have been to the top of the mountain and in the deepest valley, and still, they were genuinely excited to be in Pawtucket to relive some of the early days of their baseball journey. It was endearing to see Debbie snapping pictures and taking videos of him with her cell phone as the ceremony progressed.

Pawtucket, Rhode Island, is ahead of Cooperstown, New York. It's put Roger Clemens where he belongs, in the Hall of Fame.

- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox “Poet Laureate” and The Pilot’s recently minted Sports’ columnist.

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