BOSTON -- "Are you crazy?" they asked him. "Are yo stressed out? Overworked? Losing control?"
Roger Clemens stood silently, defiantly, black smudges under his eyes, a goatee on his chin. On his shoelaces, plastic Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles glowed green.
"What happened, Roger? What went wrong? What made you act that way?"
It was a late afternoon in October. Oakland had tossed the Red Sox from the American League Championship Series. Umpire Terry Cooney had tossed Roger Clemens from the game. Clemens left Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, the game, and the season with a string of expletives and an elbow to an unsuspecting photographer's chin.
It was a most disturbing end to a most promising Boston season. The city had been embarrassed, the team had been swept, and the team's superhero was losing his mind.
Or so the papers said.
It got worse in the winter. On a warm January night in Houston, Clemens' brother was involved in an argument at Bayou Mama's, a downtown nightclub. When an off-duty policeman tried to arrest his brother, Clemens jumped on the officer's back and tried to choke him, police reports said.
"Do you need help?" reporters asked him. "Some counseling, perhaps?" Columnists called him a brat, a baby and a "borderline psychotic."
His life became The Topic for radio talk shows. "Is Roger OK?" an elderly woman from South Boston asked a call-in host, tremulously, days after the Houston incident.
"Time will tell," the man answered. "I think so, but we'll have to wait until the season to see."
* It is April 13, Clemens' first Fenway Park start of 1991. In two days, a federal grand jury will start deliberations on his aggravated assault charges in Houston. (He was indicted Wednesday for hindering arrest, a misdemeanor, rather than the felony charge.) In six days, he will travel to New York to meet with commissioner Fay Vincent and appeal the five-game suspension and $10,000 fine he received for ALCS incident.
On this day, however, Clemens says that baseball -- and baseball only -- is on his mind.
"When I'm on the mound, I'm very intense," he says. "I don't worry about those other things. I concentrate on the game."
He had pitched a beautiful game in the season opener in Toronto, holding the Blue Jays to six hits and one run in eight innings of a 6-2 Red Sox win. The team has fallen apart since then. There were two painful losses in Toronto, then a third consecutive loss last Thursday when the Sox hosted Cleveland for Fenway's Opening Day. Team hitting, supposedly the strength this season, has been dismal. Wade Boggs has been off; Jack Clark, the newly acquired slugger, is on a strikeout binge.
Clemens takes the mound -- to cheers, not boos -- and uses just 10 pitches to retire the side. In the Red Sox dugout, the silent Sox bats have been given a brief reprieve.
"This stuff about everything hinging on me, about the personal goals I can reach -- that's the stuff the media writes," Clemens says. "I don't think too much about it, until the media points it out."
He started hating the publicity in the winter of 1986. The year he won his first Cy Young Award and the Most Valuable Player award. The year of The Picture.
When he won the awards, he was happy. He was friendly. He let the press and the public climb all over his life, his family and his furniture. Roger and his wife, Debbie. Roger and his son, Koby. Everywhere, there were photos and stories about Roger Clemens, Family Man.
But then there came The Picture -- the oft-reproduced shot of Clemens behind the wheel of his brand new red sports car. "It was a gift to myself, for winning the Cy Young," Clemens says, "but people saw that and started saying I was spoiled and all kinds of stuff. Debbie and I aren't like that."
He seethed, but not yet in silence. That came later, after The Interview. In the winter of 1988, Clemens went on the air with a Boston TV reporter, shortly after word got out that fellow pitcher and close friend Bruce Hurst had left Boston for the San Diego Padres as a free agent. In a rambling interview, Clemens left viewers with the impression that he hated Boston, hated the team management and hated all Red Sox fans. The long-suffering Sox faithful -- and the local press -- were not amused.
Clemens was crucified, and he responded with silence. He gave few interviews and made even fewer appearances. Since spring training 1989, he has made himself available to the press only once every five days, on the days that he pitched.
"It was to the point where people were writing things about me who didn't really know me," Clemens says. "Life gets taken through the spin cycle sometimes."
But with this spring there dawned a new era in Clemens Communications. It cannot be called a media-friendly attitude, but it is media-tolerant at least.
Part of it comes with his stepped-up role as clubhouse leader. With Dwight Evans' departure to Baltimore, Clemens has taken over Dewey's prized corner locker, the one that once belong to No. 8, Carl Yastrzemski. When he first took over the locker, a teammate taped a hand-lettered sign above it. "Possessed Rebel," it read.
And when he saw it, Roger Clemens laughed.
"It's OK if they think of me that way," Clemens says. "It's because of my intensity on the mound."
Clemens has added his own locker decorations -- baseball cards featuring Hurst and Evans, Jim Rice and Al Nipper -- all departed Red Sox friends. There are also cartoon characters, chief among them those turtles that caused such controversy last fall.
"The whole thing was blown out of proportion," says Clemens, who is wearing a Batman T-shirt with his number, 21, stenciled on the chest. "I don't think there's anything strange about [the Turtles]."
Indeed, Clemens loves the Ninja Turtles. He has taken his sons, Koby, 4, and Kory, 2, to see both movies, and wouldn't mind seeing them again. He admits, with no embarrassment, that cartoons are a passion. If watching the Tasmanian Devil with your kids -- and loving it -- equals insanity, then Clemens pleads guilty with glee.
"I really don't care what anybody says about anything anymore," Clemens says. "I'm just concentrating on baseball. I want to do the best I can and win as many games as I can for this team."
Despite all the insanity, Clemens seems to have reached some sort of peace over the off-season. Let them call him a child, let them call him crazy . . . as long as they remember to call him the best pitcher in baseball. Let them say anything, as long as they remember this: When Roger Clemens is on the mound, Roger Clemens is king.
Some might have forgotten, but Clemens was "The Rocket" long before a fleet-footed football player in South Bend, Ind., awed the sports world. In 1986, when Raghib Ismail was a high school junior, Roger Clemens struck out 20 batters in a single game. In 1987, Clemens won his second consecutive Cy Young Award, become only the third major league pitcher to accomplish the feat.
His numbers are astounding: He has the second highest career winning percentage in American League history (.695, behind Spud Chandler's .717) and a career 2.89 earned run average. Entering Thursday's start against Kansas City, he has not given up a homer in 123 innings.
"I'm not even amazed anymore," says Boston pitcher Greg Harris, the former Phillie who charted Clemens' pitches last Saturday. "It's like every time out he does something different to beat the opponent. No matter what, there's nobody in the league, in baseball, who has his control."
* It is now late in the afternoon at Fenway. Clemens' fastballs have
been low, his sliders smooth. He easily retired the first 14 men to come to the plate.
The Indians' Carlos Baerga was left marveling at a fourth-inning slider that sent him back to the dugout. Jody Reed, Boston's second baseman, calls the pitch an "Eight-nine slider," after the 89 mph at which Clemens is capable of throwing it over the plate.
"That," Baerga says, "is why he makes five million bucks."
Danny Darwin, the free-agent signee who had a disastrous first start for the Red Sox last Thursday, has retreated to the clubhouse, where he can watch Clemens on television and thus get a better angle on his delivery.
"He's the best pitcher in baseball," Darwin says, shaking his head. "I wanted to see how he could throw the ball. There's nobody around who can throw four quality pitches like he does."