Register Tuesday | January 21 | 2020

The Night Roger Clemens Came to Town

A Friday the 13th, It Was

I hadn’t anticipated going to a game so much in a very long time. It was almost as when I was a kid: I filled out imaginary line-up cards in my head; I heard the thwack of balls off bats and the supple pop when they found their way into the soft leather pocket of gloves; I considered all the possibilities of what I might remember the rest of my life, a play, a moment that I’d witness and that might go down in baseball lore, repeated over and over, starting, “That August night in Montreal, a Friday the 13th it was . . .”

And before I knew it, it was game night. Roger Clemens takes the hill for the Houston Astros and the numbers are aligned for something memorable. Friday the 13th, as I mentioned. The Expos have 13 losses on Friday the 13ths. The Rocket is shooting for his 13th win of the season. He stands 13th all time in wins and career starts. Took the loss in the All Star game exactly one month earlier, on July 13. This year, he became the 26th pitcher in history to start a season 5-0 and, you know, half of 26 is 13. And, his lifetime record against Montreal coming into this season was 3-1. Well, turn that around and you’ve got another 13. Okay, those last two are stretches, but it’s by stretching connections that you fabricate the most interesting coincidences, don’t you?

Seeing Clemens conjured one of my fondest baseball recollections. Fondest of any kind, truth be told. Almost twelve years ago to the day, on August 18, 1992, I attended a game at Fenway Park in Boston.

It probably has nothing to do with anything, but Stephen King is a huge baseball fan and Boston is his team. And, well, Friday the 13th would be his day. I surely wasn’t thinking about him that night at Fenway. But, I’m thinking of it tonight, while we’re on the subject of connections. If he were to write a baseball novel, I bet he’d set it up with a bunch of coincidences just like these.

Anyway, back to Boston. This was my first time away with the girl who would be my wife. Now, that first trip together, that’s tricky. You’re going to see things in each other you’ve never seen before, and show things you’d thus far managed to keep covered up. Well, I’d never set as a prerequisite in a prospective wife that she be a baseball fanatic; however, she’d have to accept that I was one. And, because of the nature of fanaticism, she wouldn’t be able to just ignore it away.

Boston seemed the ideal place to break it to her, to give her a glimpse of this side of me. I told her I wanted to take her to see the Red Sox. Made it sound as though I was doing it for her. She agreed without flinching. I explained it would be a beautiful night under the stars. She said that sounded nice. I told her Fenway was a legendary, magical place—a historic landmark, in fact. She smiled. She was showing me her indulgent side. And, I added importantly, Roger Clemens is pitching against California. She nodded, showing me the courtesy of pretending to care.

I can still smell that game. The grass and dirt and the warm air with the slightest hint of sea salt off the Back Bay. There was an electric surge radiating blocks away from the park, from where we encountered our first souvenir hawkers and sausage trolleys. Everyone wore Sox clothing of some sort. Everyone was engaged in a passionate conversation about baseball. The Green Monster was as tall and close as it appeared on television.

The Rocket, as I frequently remind my wife, was masterful. He pitched a complete game, four-hit shutout, striking out eight Angels. Remember when we saw Clemens at Fenway? I’ll quiz her out of the blue. Sure, she grimaces. Twelve years later, still tolerating me.

Clemens is one of those totally charismatic guys who commands the field of play, drawing your close attention on every pitch. Even from way up here, where you can’t make out his face to read his emotions, you can sense his intensity.

And whatever happens when he’s on the mound is going with him to the Hall of Fame as part of his story. Which, I guess, if you want to stretch connections again, makes me part of it. After all, without witnesses, recorders, people marking scorecards out in the bleachers, it loses its significance, its permanence.

Twelve years later I’m still clutching my score card. Pitching for the Montreal side is rookie Jon Rauch. His greatest distinction? Unseating Randy Johnson (another former Expo) as the tallest pitcher in major league history, at 6’11”. As far as I know, he hasn’t been compared to Johnson by any other measure.

The game starts unexpectedly, Brad Wilkerson cracking a double off the Rocket and eventually coming around to score. In the second, Roger walks Juan Rivera to lead off. His concentration uncharacteristically off, he allows Rivera to glide into second with a steal while he holds the ball in the stretch. Two batters later, he delivers his first pitch to Rauch, only to see it launched into the right field bleachers. His first hit, first homer. Only the second time a pitcher has ever homered off him. Next batter? Wilkerson sends another ball into the right field seats, and it’s 4-0 Expos.

All the while Rauch is flinging a no-hitter. Friday the 13th, indeed. In the fourth inning, Lance Berkman drives a ball high down the left field line, obviously curved foul around the poll. Obvious, that is, to all 8,593 of us who aren’t paid to umpire at third base. To his skewed vision it’s a home run. The home plate umpire beats Expos’ manager Frank Robinson out to him and immediately reverses the call. No-hitter intact, as is the night’s peculiar wonkiness.

Then, come the fifth, two outs, 0-1, the count on Jose Vizcaino and Rauch grabs his side after delivering a pitch. Out comes Robinson and the trainer. Rauch tries a warm-up fling, but he’s done for. Strained oblique, he’s onto the disabled list after the game. In comes T. J. Tucker. Vizcaino hits a come-backer that Tucker stabs and tosses to first for the out.

The no-hit bid ends the next inning when Brad Ausmus leads off with single. The shutout is lost an inning later. Clemens, meanwhile, only gives up three more hits before leaving after six.

Come the eighth, two outs, one on, Robinson sends in his closer, Chad Cordero. He’s going for his 13th save on the season. Well, he gets that last out of the eighth. To start the ninth, Carlos Beltran comes up for Houston. He works the count full and proceeds to foul off six pitches in a row before launching the next one over the right field fence. Of course, it’s his 13th shot since being dealt over to the National League by Kansas City.

Okay, it’s just 4-2, Montreal still in control. Cordero strikes out Jeff Bagwell, his fourth K of the night, to earn the golden sombrero. Then Berkman hits a double, bringing up Jeff Kent. He strides up with, yes, 13 home runs to his credit. He proceeds to collect his 14th, tying up the contest, and we’re on to extra innings.

Leading off the twelfth, Morgan Ensberg homers for the Astros. That figured to end it, you’d have thought. But then Alex Gonzalez, acquired by Montreal only on July 31 (that’s right, flip the numbers), comes up with two outs. He’s hit, yup, 13 home runs. And there goes number 14.

Now, if I was making this story up—or, I dare say, if Stephen King was writing it about his beloved Bosox—the game definitely would have gone one more inning. But, I don’t know, maybe that would sound made-up. That’s the trouble a novelist encounters all the time. Getting to his point without it being obvious he was aiming right for it all along.

Or, I’d have had the next batter Jose Vidro hit his 13th homer. That would have been subtler. But Chad Harville walks him. Then Tony Batista walks. We’re just slipping into the final hour of the day. Whatever forces converge whenever this fateful day comes around are all coming undone. Harville puts two strikes on Termel Sledge. Those forces, I feel it, are working hard to get one last laugh in. Oh no! Sledge punches a ball up the middle and Vidro runs with do-or-die abandon, bringing home the winning run.

It just goes to show, you head out to see one thing and end up seeing something completely different, and all the more memorable for being so unexpected.

Tod Hoffman is watching the 2004 Major League Baseball season from the stands of the “Big O” in Montreal. Read "Seeing Red" (Issue 10), Hoffman's presentation of the case for visiting Mars, on newsstands now. The Baseball Notebook appears every second Tuesday.