Clemens stars at SABR gathering in Houston
Seven-time Cy Young Award winner holds court at annual event
HOUSTON -- Roger Clemens knows how to play to a room in Texas. Clemens, who went to high school in Houston and college at the University of Texas at Austin, was the star attraction on Day One of SABR 44, the annual conference for the Society of American Baseball Research.
Clemens, who won 354 games and a record seven Cy Young Awards during his big league career, made a rare public appearance Wednesday to speak about the history of college baseball in Texas.
Clemens, the namesake of the top pitching award in college baseball, spoke humorously and in detail about the state of the college game and his memories of his College World Series experience. Clemens, 51, said that it was all downhill after pitching for the Longhorns.
"Simply put, I took a step down when leaving the University of Texas," joked Clemens, who starred for the Red Sox, Blue Jays, Yankees and Astros during his 24-year career. "When I signed, we had won the College World Series and two weeks later I was in Winter Haven [Fla.]. I think at the College World Series, even back then, there were 20 or 22,000 people at Rosenblatt Stadium. At one point, they roped off some of the outfield sidelines and put fans down by the side of the warning track.
"Two weeks later, I found myself in Winter Haven, Fla., and there were about 11 people in the stands. I could see the guy in the red shirt calling me a bum. I thought, 'Wow, there's a difference here.'"
SABR, established in 1971, is an organization dedicated to nurture the research and objective study of the history of baseball. SABR has many disparate research committees designed to flesh out obscure areas of knowledge and to further illuminate what baseball fans think they already know.
Clemens, part of a speaking panel that included legendary Lamar coach Jim Gilligan and Mike Gustafson, the president and chief executive officer of the College Baseball Hall of Fame, issued several compelling opinions on the finer points of the college game. The 11-time All-Star said he wasn't the best pitcher on his high school team, and he said that he's always been a power pitcher.
And when it came time to steering his children toward professional baseball or a run through the college ranks, Clemens said he took it on a case-by-case basis. His oldest son, Koby, signed professionally without playing in college, and his son Kacy is currently at the University of Texas.
Clemens' youngest son, Kody, will make his own decision when he graduates in 2015.
"We wavered between going to university and seeing where he's at, depending on where he's drafted. When it came down to it, he decided he wanted to go chase his dreams, so you get behind him, support him and give him the information you can," Clemens said of oldest son Koby. "My second son has a restaurant here. He played that wonderful game of football and had both kneecaps reset. I said, 'Let's try something different.' So he graduated from Le Cordon Bleu in Austin and has Katch 22 down there on Durham Drive. ... [Kacy] just wanted to attend the University of Texas, and he got into the business school, which I'm happy to see. That's the most important thing. I try to encourage him."
Clemens provided several interesting punchlines during his hour-long panel session, and most of the audience questions were directed to him. But Gilligan, just the 32nd college coach to reach 1,000 wins in baseball, kept the audience lauging with his own unique wit and perspective.
Gilligan said that many of the players in college baseball are roughly the same in talent level, and he said only 10 percent of them really stand out. Gilligan cited three college players -- Norm Charlton, Lance Berkman and Clemens -- that he knew would be big leaguers after seeing them play.
Gilligan took the time to discuss another future big leaguer, Kevin Millar, who played for him at Lamar. Gilligan said that Millar was "tough off the charts," an intangible that lifted the rest of his skills. All of his standout players have been like that, said Gilligan, largely because the top talents sign elsewhere.
"I've always said that one of the keys to managing is knowing the guy in the other dugout you don't want to pitch to and the guy you have that they don't want to pitch to," Gilligan said. "Roger was a tough guy on the mound. If he didn't have that great fastball, he would've found a way to beat you. That's what we're looking for: Guys that have something special [in their head, their heart and their guts]."
Gilligan drew uproarious laughter twice during the panel discussion. At one point, when asked what's the difference between players who pro scouts recruit and who wind up at Lamar, he said, "We want the same thing, but we don't get it." A few minutes later, when he was asked if there was still a place for junkball pitchers in the game, he responded in the affirmative. "Lamar!" he said excitedly.
Reid Ryan, the Astros' president of business operations, issued the opening remarks at SABR 44, and the morning was full of interesting lectures. Coral Marshall, a research associate at the University of Alabama, talked about the ethics involved with experimental medical procedures in baseball.
Another lecturer, David Krell, spoke at length about the Astrodome and the era that produced it, and Mark Kanter discussed the 1960 Little League World Series played between Levittown, N.Y., and Dallas-Fort Worth. Later in the day, several of the conference attendees went to a Sugar Land Skeeters game.
Another panel discussion centered on the history of the Colt .45s, the first Major League team to call Houston home. Four former players for the Colt .45s -- Bob Aspromonte, Hal Smith, Jimmy Wynn and Carl Warwick -- spoke about what it was like to be part of an expansion team in Texas.
Smith, a catcher who had hit a key home run for the Pirates in the 1960 World Series, said that he welcomed the chance to play for an expansion team because it means regular playing time and a chance to play in a warm climate. But perhaps he didn't know the full extent of what he would get.
"It turned out to be a fantastic year for me," Smith said. "I'll never forget, the first doubleheader I caught was on July 4. It was about 104 degrees. They carried 87 people out of the stands, and I lost about 13-14 pounds that day. I thought, 'Maybe there will be two-thirds of me after the year.'"
Mickey Herskowitz, a reporter who covered the Astros for four decades, said that the Colt .45s were one of the most entertaining teams you'd ever see. He spoke about the team's travel attire -- light blue cowboy suits -- and said the team's Spring Training facility was a story in and of itself.
"Apache Junction was the strangest place any baseball team had ever held Spring Training," he said of Houston's first Spring Training home in Arizona. "It was out there in the desert, 19 miles away to Mesa and that was the nearest anything. ... The Red Garter saloon is where everybody did their serious training. There was a supermarket, and that was it. You couldn't get into any trouble unless it came to you."
SABR 44 will continue on Friday, and the morning will bring a panel discussion with members of the 1980 Astros, the first Houston team to qualify for the postseason. The SABR Awards luncheon will take place at midday, and there will be several interesting presentations throughout the day.
The final day of presentations for SABR 44 will take place Saturday, and one of the panel discussions will feature former big leaguers who later moved to the front office. Dr. Bobby Brown, former president of the American League, and former general manager Bob Watson will participate. Many of the conference attendees will go to the Astros game against the Blue Jays on Saturday.