Yankees Magazine: Rocket Relaunch

Roger Clemens recalls his tenure in pinstripes

July 25th, 2019
New York Yankees

It has probably been a while since you’ve heard much from Roger Clemens. Since pitching his final big league game in 2007, the 354-game winner has maintained a relatively private existence in his hometown of Houston. But on his first visit to the current Yankee Stadium, the seven-time Cy Young Award winner and two-time World Series champion carved out ample time for an exclusive interview with Yankees Magazine editor-in-chief Alfred Santasiere III, reliving some of his biggest games from the six seasons he spent in pinstripes. From pitching against the New York Mets in the 2000 World Series to taking the hill in the emotional 2001 postseason following the tragic events of 9/11 to facing off against Pedro Martínez with a trip to the World Series on the line, the Rocket took off on an epic journey down memory lane.

Looking back now, what are your feelings on the time you spent pitching for the Red Sox and for the Yankees in two of the most iconic stadiums in the world?

I was very fortunate during my career because I got to pitch for two of the most historic teams in baseball. I will always hold that close to my heart. Red Sox fans and Yankees fans are so passionate about their teams, and when I run into them now, they ask me which city I like best. Well, I got my start and the nickname “Rocket” in Boston, so Beantown is like my second home. But when I was growing up, I had an old-school silk Yankees jacket, so from the time I was 12 years old, I loved the Yankees. What makes me feel good is when I see a highlight of Ted Williams or Carl Yastrzemski running around the bases at Fenway Park or Babe Ruth pitching there. It makes me proud to think that I worked there for 13 years. And, when I see highlights of Lou Gehrig’s farewell speech or any of the other great moments at the old Yankee Stadium, I think about how special it was to have played on that same ground. Those things really make me appreciate having played for both teams.

After 13 years with the Red Sox, you signed a free-agent deal with Toronto in 1996. What went into that decision?

First, I realized that the Red Sox didn’t want me back. (General manager) Dan Duquette came in and wanted to build his team. He let four or five of us go. That offseason, when I was a free agent, I met with Paul Beeston, the president of the Blue Jays, and we really hit it off. I was heartbroken because I realized that I wasn’t going to finish my career with one team, but he assured me that he was going to get the Blue Jays back to where they were in their glory days of the early ’90s. So, even though I had a great meeting with Mr. Steinbrenner, I ended up with Toronto.

What precipitated the trade to the Yankees in 1999?

During the end of my second season in Toronto, (Blue Jays pitching coach) Mel Queen basically said, “We’re probably not going to go anywhere. If you think you can get out of here, you probably should.” That offseason, the wheels started turning on trades, but nothing ever happened until Mr. Steinbrenner came calling again. When I was a free agent in 1996, my family had told Mr. Steinbrenner about the silk Yankees jacket I had when I was a kid, and he reminded me about what that jacket symbolized before the trade. He knew that I had always wanted to be a Yankee. Right before the start of Spring Training in 1999, the Yankees and Blue Jays put a deal together. They needed my approval immediately, and that’s when everything happened.

You had some contentious games against the Yankees during your time north of the border, inciting some bad blood with a few beanballs. How were you received during the first few days you spent with your new teammates in 1999?

In my first live batting practice, I was throwing to a group that included Derek [Jeter], [Jorge] Posada and [Chuck] Knoblauch. As I was jogging in from the bullpen after I got warmed up, I looked up and all three of them were in catcher’s gear. If I threw at them this time, they’d be protected. It was a great way to break the ice.

So, I guess it’s safe to say that you and Derek patched things up right away?

We did. When you have the same common goal -- to win -- and you also want to have fun, it’s easy to leave things from the past in the past. I think Derek got to see the softer side of me or the comedic side of me, but he also got to see how serious I was about doing my job.

Whether it was in Spring Training or when the team came back to the Bronx that April, what were your first memories of being around Yankees legends from the past?

Well, I think I got the best compliment of my life from Yogi Berra. Yogi and I were playing golf together, and out of nowhere, he looked up at me and said, “You could have pitched in our era. You’re that type of pitcher.” That was a huge compliment coming from Yogi Berra.

How would you describe yourself when you were on the mound?

I had a football mentality on the mound. I was very serious, and I loved being out there. I felt like I was going to crush the guys I was facing, physically and mentally. My emotions came into play over the 24 years in the big leagues, and I showed my backside a number of times. I wasn’t real proud of that, but I cared about what I did and how I did it. I wanted to make the fans happy, and I wanted my teammates to feel comfortable when I went to the mound. I wanted them to know that I always had their best interests at heart.

When was it most difficult to control your emotions?

In the eight World Series games I pitched, and especially in 1986 and in 2000. In 1986, I was really young, and I was experiencing it for the first time. It was an emotional series because it went back and forth. The Subway Series against the Mets was also emotional, especially on the night that I took the mound.

Before we dive deeper into that evening, tell me how you felt when you took the mound for Game 4 of the 1999 World Series, with the opportunity to sweep the Braves and to win your first championship.

Of course, that was an emotional night, but I felt like I was really in control from the first pitch. I wanted to get through eight innings and get the ball to Mariano Rivera. There aren’t too many certainties in this world, but Mariano was the closest you’re ever going to get to one. I was so comfortable watching him come in to save that game. As he was warming up to come into the game, I knew that I was going to finally be a champion.

How did it feel when that dream was realized?

It took a few minutes for it to sink in, but it was really special. We had an after-party at The Plaza, and we were just reminiscing about how it all came together. I also got to share it with quite a few family members and friends who came up from Texas. That was cool.

The following October, you pitched a one-hit shutout, striking out 15 Seattle Mariners, in Game 4 of the 2000 American League Championship Series. How were you able to dominate that vaunted lineup the way you did?

I had it all going on, and I still feel that I pitched the best game of my life that night in Seattle. It was a cool night, and as a starting pitcher, when the weather was like that, I felt like I could go for days without losing any stamina. My legs felt great, and I had all three of my pitches working perfectly. When you have all three pitches working in the same game, and you can throw them in four or five different locations, you should be striking a lot of guys out. That was a special game, no doubt about it.

After defeating Seattle, you and your teammates embarked on the first Subway World Series in more than four decades. How did you feel about facing the Mets for all the marbles?

I thought it was great for the city. There were a lot of things said about me that week -- stemming from the game earlier in the season when a pitch I threw hit Mike Piazza. I had to try to curtail my emotions in a positive way going into the World Series.

How did you feel when you were about to face Mike for the first time since hitting him in the head with a pitch that July?

I had to channel the emotions in a good way, but a player like Mike gains your respect. I was sitting at 91 to 92 miles per hour that night, and when Mike came up, I got up to 98 miles per hour.

You’ve been scrutinized for throwing part of Mike’s bat toward him after it shattered and then for claiming that you thought it was a baseball. What’s your take on that sequence of events all these years later?

First of all, I hate that the situation with Mike was bigger than the World Series because nothing should be bigger than the World Series. When I made the comment that I thought it was the baseball coming back at me, people were like, “What do you mean it was the ball?” Well, I shattered the guy’s bat in four pieces, and the head of it came toward me. I was trying to make light of it by saying that I was in great fielding form when I fielded [the bat head], and then I whistled it to our on-deck circle. That’s what I meant with the comment about thinking it was a baseball. But, really, I had no idea Mike was running [up the line]. Of course, it got blown up, and I understood that for national TV and ratings, that made sense. But, I basically wanted to get another ball and get that at-bat over with so that it didn’t take away from the magnitude of the World Series.

Looking back, do you regret throwing the bat toward Mike?

I would never have regrets. I took a great deal of pride in my work. I think that’s why I was super emotional. I wore my emotions on my sleeve sometimes. That’s the type of pitcher I was, and I loved it. I was very passionate out there on the mound. I got that from my mother and my grandmother. That was my livelihood. That’s what I did, but it’s not who I am as a person.

Did you think that things were going to escalate into a brawl?

I didn’t put much stock into it. I think it’s hilarious because you might get one or two good swings in during a brawl in a baseball game. Then, you turn on SportsCenter or the nightly news when you get home, and you see a brutal hockey fight, where two guys are really beating each other up. I don’t like that, but sometimes things just have to happen. During my career, there were a number of prominent players sitting next to me on the bench -- and one of them was our captain -- who I would ask, “Do you have a problem with this guy?” And, they would respond, “Yeah, I’ve got a problem with this guy, Roger.” So, I felt like I had to go out and clean the game up out of respect for my teammates. I don’t like it, but that’s part of the game now.

You were notorious for pitching inside and putting hitters on their backs.

Yeah, I learned pretty early on how to pitch inside, and not just for strikes. But I didn’t pitch inside to hit guys; I pitched inside to make a 17-inch plate a 24-inch plate. When you’re pitching to good hitters -- guys who know what they’re doing with the bat -- you have to throw inside.

How did winning the second championship in 2000 compare to the first?

They felt the same. The best thing was that I got to share both with so many friends and family and teammates. The parades were unbelievable. They were so special, and I got to enjoy them with my sons. That’s what it’s all about.

What are your recollections of the morning of Sept. 11, 2001?

That’s the most vivid memory in my mind to this day. My buddy woke me up with a phone call, and he was saying that something happened at the World Trade Center with a plane. I was groggy and barely awake. I always remembered looking out of the bay window of my condo in the city and seeing those small four-seat planes flying around the Statue of Liberty. So, I thought maybe it was a small plane. I turned CNN on, and I saw what had happened. Our world changed. I mean, the next thing you know, you’re watching fighter jets come racing down toward the World Trade Center.

Where did you spend the next few days?

We went to my friend’s house in Danbury, Connecticut. We spent about two days up there. We wanted to fly back to Texas, but no one was flying yet. On day three, we decided to drive home because our family was panicking. Our boys were very emotional when we finally arrived home in Texas.

Speaking of emotional moments, how would you describe the atmosphere on Sept. 18 at Chicago’s Comiskey Park when your team took the field for the first time after the attacks?

There wasn’t a dry eye in the building. Everyone was crying during the national anthem and the moments of silence. Joe Torre and Don Zimmer were crying. I was trying to hold back tears; it was really hard to not start crying. I don’t even remember if we won that game.

Following your Cy Young Award campaign, you tossed a gem in Game 3 of the 2001 World Series at Yankee Stadium, giving up just one run in seven innings of work. What are your memories of that night?

Well, we got our butts handed to us in Arizona. Down 2-games-to-none in the World Series, we came back home, and I knew that I had to get after it in Game 3. I knew that I couldn’t have a hiccup in that game, and it was so emotional. President (George W.) Bush was there to throw out the first pitch, and Mr. Steinbrenner brought back so many police officers and firemen and people who had lost loved ones. I will never forget a moment I had with Mel Stottlemyre before the game. I was warming up in the bullpen when President Bush walked out to the mound. Mel and I had the best seats in the Stadium. I stopped warming up, and we watched the president throw that first pitch. I will also always remember Joe Torre coming up to me before the game and saying, “We need you tonight.”

Although you ultimately lost the Series, it certainly was thrilling. What was it like having a front-row seat for the walk-off wins in Games 4 and 5 at Yankee Stadium?

I hold the 2001 World Series close to my heart -- probably the closest of any that I pitched in. It was the hardest of times, but those games were unbelievable. When we came back, I couldn’t believe Yankee Stadium -- or any ballpark -- could be that loud. People were literally jumping up and down in the upper deck, and we could feel the Stadium shaking from the field. I was sitting with Andy Pettitte, and we were losing. Then, we hit a couple big home runs. Derek became Mr. November, we won Game 5 the next night, and we were on our way to Arizona.

Although you pitched well in Game 7, you didn’t get the ending you hoped for.

Yeah, I will never forget that game and the night before. The Diamondbacks hit Andy Pettitte around a little bit in Game 6, and we later found out that they had his pitches. Mel Stottlemyre came up to me in the fifth inning and said, “Why don’t you get out of here, get dinner and go to bed, because it looks like there will be a Game 7.” So, we go to Game 7, and I felt like I pitched my tail off. I was shocked that we didn’t win, but after what transpired in New York City, I’ll always be proud that I left it all out there that night. 

Did you look forward to the challenge of facing Pedro Martínez in Fenway Park and then again at Yankee Stadium in that epic 2003 ALCS?

Of course. When you’re facing someone like Pedro, you know that you have to be on your game. You know that if you make one or two mistakes, you’re probably going to lose. It’s like a heavyweight title fight. You want to pitch well. I took pride in being part of all of that hype that surrounded those games. You take that to heart. There was a lot of pressure in those games, but it was good pressure that you put on yourself.

Roger, how do you feel your legacy is defined?

As someone who loved the game of baseball and as a fierce, fierce competitor and big-hearted guy behind the scenes that always cared for others.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.