The other day old friend Ian Browne of MLB.com put up this poll:
A poll to go with an upcoming story I'm writing. Which number should be the next to go to the right-field facade at Fenway Park?— Ian Browne (@IanMBrowne) April 7, 2020
Talk about a hard choice! You have to figure Dustin Pedroia will end up there eventually, though maybe the fact that neither Dewey Evans nor Luis Tiant has made it yet throws some cold water on that, given that they were earlier Red Sox legends and have yet to be recognized. That could also be because the criteria was lowered from the onerous standards of being in the National Baseball Hall of Fame — and spending one’s entire career in Boston — to accommodate Carlton Fisk, putting Evans, who finished his career with a lone year in Baltimore, and Tiant, who started in Cleveland, back in play. The Boston thing is not, obviously, an issue for Pedey, though the Hall might be, but the same is true of Evans, Tiant and Clemens.
This brings us to the arguably the best pitcher of all-time, a player so good no Red Sox player has worn number 21 since he left, a player whose cartoonish qualities made him a local hero-turned-villain of biblical proportions. For reference, Bill Simmons’s first-ever viral ESPN column, the one that launched his career and led to 12,000 oral histories and character brackets, was entitled “Is Roger Clemens the Antichrist?” and landed like a meteor into the sportswriting landscape more than 20 years ago. The column more or less set the terms for Online Discourse thereafter, wherein everyone just followed what Simmons said and didn’t think too much about it, a condition that lingers.
I was not immune — I was hooked! I had never felt that type of passion about Clemens but I adopted the anti-Rocket stance because it was the Thing To Do, even and especially as he won and won and won through and beyond age 40, taking home his seventh Cy Young Award at age 41 for the Astros with seemingly obvious help from performance-enhancing drugs. I could not deny the talent, because who could? I also loved watching Barry Bonds, seemingly obvious drug use also be damned. I was softening if only because I never really hated Clemens in the first place.
From there, fast-forward a decade-plus and there’s Clemens on NESN, doing color and doing it eagerly and well. There’s Clemens wearing a Red Sox jersey in a Hall of Fame game in Cooperstown, even if he’s not yet in the hall. He’s got two shots to get in the old-fashioned way before he is kicked over to a committee that decides whether or not to keep its head in the sand about What Really Happens in baseball, even if the rest of us know. We like to have a big old Talk whenever Curt Schilling comes up short year after year, glossing right over the fact that Clemens is basically Curt squared.
Of course, Curt Squared is not always a good thing, and Clemens has made enemies wherever he’s gone, intentionally or unintentionally. In George Will’s “Men at Work,” Tony LaRussa says very early on his only condition for speaking to Will is they not conspire to piss off The Rocket, because it’s the last thing he’d need to deal with, the same way a manager now would avoid making Mad Max Scherzer, well, mad. Of course, the damage from Clemens’s bull-in-a-china-shop approach goes far beyond clubhouses and front offices — it has poisoned his relationship with a generation of Boston fans just older than me, from Simmons to our dear Twitter pal Chad Finn, who’s not having it:
The most bummed out I've ever been as a fan was after the Boone homer in '03. Clemens and Wells rubbed the Sox history in their face more than anyone that night. He said he's only go to Texas. He went to Toronto, then bullied his way to New York. He can wait.— Chad Finn (@GlobeChadFinn) April 7, 2020
All good points, but I have a hard time holding “acting like you play for the Yankees” during the 2003/2004 clashes against him, especially because Johnny Damon, a supposed resistance hero at the time, eventually decamped off to the Bronx himself, illustrating that whatever we think of our heroes, they may not view “being a Red Sox legend” the same way we do. They’re all just moments in time. And for the love we show, say, Pedro Martinez, who also left Boston for the other New York, and regularly and correctly celebrate his brilliant 1999 and 2000 seasons, look at this chart:
That’s the Baseball-Reference page for WAR by a Red Sox pitcher. You’ll note that above the name of the player with the best pitching seasons ever is the guy for whom the best pitcher trophy is named, and above *him* is Rogers friggin’ Clemens. I think that’s way more than enough to retire the number, but I understand the opposing view based on the actions of his past... but only so much. Just as I’m confused about complaints over the Chris Sale extension after Sale declared he wanted to stay in Boston, which is exactly what we asked of Mookie Betts, who didn’t get a new contract, sparking complaints... well, we’re not the most consistent, is what I’m saying.
To that end, Browne sorta lets the cat out of the bag when he says the team is more or less waiting for Clemens to get into the Hall of Fame before going inducting him, likely as a way of keeping their hands clean with respect to his former attitude and pharma regimen. I might caution if we applied exacting standards of PED suspicion to everyone our memories would be a lot different around here, but I also might not. I don’t need that anxiety in my life, and without it, the decision to memory-hole Clemens’s time here, and ignore his absolute-value contributions to making Red Sox fans who they are, is impossible. The only way to move on is to actually reckon with it, but not everyone is ready, even if it’s far past time.