Rocket on course Roger Clemens: The three-time Cy Young winner was coming off four mediocre seasons with Boston when Toronto made him baseball's highest-paid pitcher. He has repaid the Blue Jays with a 9-0 start.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

There is the event and then there is the outcome. The Boston Red Sox could not have known that Roger Clemens would suddenly take 10 years off his storied throwing arm and make a bid for the 1997 American League Cy Young Award, but general manager Dan Duquette has become the object of mass scorn for letting him get away.

There is the cause and the effect. The Toronto Blue Jays could not have known that either, but they gambled $8.25 million a year on Clemens and are reaping a statistical and public relations bonanza.

Last week's headline: Clemens defeats Yankees for 200th career victory.

This week's headline: Rocket dominates Rangers, improves best record in baseball to 9-0.

How can this be? Clemens was 10-13 last year. He had averaged just 10 victories a year the past four seasons. He was 40-39 over that period and nearly a half-decade removed from the kind of performance that once defined him as the most overpowering pitcher of his generation.

"In the past, there were some times when things weren't what they might have been," is about all that Clemens will say about that.

He has regained his velocity, though he insists he never lost it. He appears to have a new lease on life, though he says that nothing has changed except the uniform. He is a walking encyclopedia of contradictions. The Rocket is back, and yet he never left.

There's really no great mystery here. Clemens had a nagging groin injury in 1993. His numbers were watered down by the players strike in 1994. He had a sore shoulder in 1995. And his won-lost record didn't really reflect his 1996 performance, which included the second 20-strikeout game of his storied career. Still, four off-peak years are four off-peak years.

The Blue Jays -- most notably major-league scout Gordon Lakey -- were convinced he was still the old Roger Clemens. What they couldn't know was how he would respond to the change of scenery and the pressure of having to live up to a contract that called for the highest annual salary ever paid to a pitcher.

Clemens has been spectacular. He is undefeated in nine decisions, leads the American League with a 1.81 ERA and goes for his 10th win this afternoon in Oakland. He is pitching like the guy who averaged 20 victories a year and won three Cy Young Awards from 1986 through 1991. Like a man on a mission.

"He's everything I thought he would be," said Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston, whose team is only 25-25, 10 games behind the Orioles in the AL East, despite Clemens' showing. "He's throwing all his pitches well and he is in command out there."

The question is, is he doing it for the Blue Jays or doing it to get back at the Red Sox? Clemens says he isn't looking back, but it's hard not to believe that he would love to embarrass the Red Sox front office.

"I can't say I'm unhappy about that, that's for certain," said Blue Jays GM Gord Ash. "After everything that has been said about him and written about him all winter, he has something to prove."

The pitcher clearly was unhappy with Duquette, who fired player-friendly manager Kevin Kennedy last year and angered most of the veteran players in the Red Sox clubhouse. Clemens also was upset that the club did not make more of an effort to keep him.

"I didn't have a whole lot of control over that," Clemens said. "I'm trying to do the best I can for the Blue Jays. That team in Boston is Dan Duquette's team and I wasn't part of that. I'm a Blue Jay now."

There have been disgruntled whispers in Boston that Clemens stepped up his off-season workout program when it became apparent that he would be pitching for another team this year -- that he didn't go about his conditioning with the same enthusiasm in the waning years of his Red Sox career.

Clemens denies that, but he definitely came to the Blue Jays' spring training camp in great shape, and -- by some accounts -- more focused than ever.

"That's the difference this year -- he's locked in on every game," said Blue Jays pitcher Paul Quantrill, who also was a teammate of Clemens' in Boston. "I don't know if it's his determination or what, but from spring training on, he was in a new environment, he was more outgoing. In Boston, maybe he just got a little stale. Boston is an awesome place to play, but it can wear you down."

Motivation is a complicated thing. The Red Sox could not justify spending nearly 20 percent of their payroll on a pitcher who -- for all practical purposes -- had become a 10-game winner. Clemens appears to be proving them wrong, but that doesn't mean that Duquette and the Boston front office made the wrong decision.

"It speaks so much to the mental aspect of the game," Ash said. "Who knows if he had stayed in Boston whether the same thing would have happened."

No doubt, the Red Sox hierarchy would love to cast Clemens as a guy who ran for the money, but it's not that simple. He probably could have gotten more money from the New York Yankees. Clemens likes to say that the main thing was a chance to win the world championship, but that opportunity also might have been better in New York or at home in Texas.

The whole truth is somewhere in between. Clemens probably didn't mind becoming the highest-paid pitcher -- a distinction he held until the Atlanta Braves' Tom Glavine signed for an average salary of $8.5 million last week -- but he wanted to go to a team he could help lead to the World Series.

The Yankees had just been there. The Rangers were coming off a division title. The Blue Jays needed him to flesh out a rotation that included 1996 Cy Young Award winner Pat Hentgen and American League ERA champion Juan Guzman. Clemens has done that, and he has done it without big-timing anyone.

"I think it [his presence] impacts you," Hentgen said. "I think good pitching is contagious and there is a healthy competition between the starters here. He definitely takes pressure off the other starters, but we take pressure off him as well."

Clemens is quick to throw some of the credit for his success to the other members of the Toronto rotation. Hentgen is not 9-0, but he has picked up where he left off last season, compiling a 5-2 mark with a 2.91 ERA. Guzman has struggled (3-5, 4.87) and is beginning his second stint on the disabled list, but he still rates as one of the best No. 3 starters in the game.

"I've really enjoyed watching Pat go about his business the way he does," Clemens said, "and I've had a chance to sit down and talk with Juan. It all rubs off, and I'd like to think I rub off on everyone, too."

The Hall of Fame may be a foregone conclusion, though Clemens does not anticipate staying around long enough to clinch his place in Cooperstown with 300 career victories. He is the only veteran pitcher with a chance to get there in the not-to-distant future, but on the occasion of his 200th win last week, he wasn't willing to look that far ahead.

"All I can say is that I know where I'm going to hang my hat for the next 3 1/2 years," he said. "I just want to give my team a chance to win."

5/8

Tracking the Rocket

Comparing Roger Clemens' statistics after 10 starts this season with the Blue Jays and at the same point last season with the Red Sox:

Season ..Team .. ..W-L .. .ERA .. ..IP .. H ..ER ..BB ..SO

1996 .. .Boston ...2-4 ...3.69 .. .68 1/3 ..57 ..28 ..32 ..78

1997 .. .Toronto ..9-0 ...1.81 .. .74 2/3 ..49 ..15 ..21 ..76

Pub Date: 5/31/97

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