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Kerry Eggers on Sports/Portland Tribune/Former pitching ace talks Hall of Fame, state of baseball, life after the game

COURTESY PHOTO: PORTLAND PHOTOGRAPHY - Roger Clemens was in Portland Aug. 12 to participate in an event for the Children's Cancer Association.The most accomplished pitcher in modern times — and the greatest ever to not yet be enshrined in Cooperstown — whacked a different kind of ball around Oregon Golf Club Monday afternoon.

Roger Clemens participated as a celebrity guest at the 11th annual Children's Cancer Association Invitational, the first stop on three days of cross-country activity.

My conversation with Clemens, now 57, was short because he arrived later than expected for our interview and had a tee time to make. But Clemens was affable and accommodating, even when the talk drifted to the Hall of Fame and the controversy surrounding his (so far) exclusion.

After flying from his hometown Houston to Portland on Sunday, Clemens was bound for a corporate event at Medina (Illinois) Country Club — site of several U.S. Opens and PGA Championships and the 2012 Ryder Cup — then on to the Sunshine State to watch his two youngest boys, Kody and Kacy, play minor-league baseball in the Florida State League.

"Usually when I leave Houston to do charitable stuff, whether it be for a local community or if it joins with my foundation, I try to hit two or three stops," he said. "That's what I'm doing this week."

The CCA event joined with the Roger Clemens Foundation, and it proved fruitful for both entities. At a Sunday night live auction at OGC, a batting practice session with Clemens in Houston went for $50,000, with the two organizations splitting the bounty.

Clemens has offered a similar auction prize the past five or six years, he said, when attending such charity events.

"Sometimes we've been doing golf outings, golf experiences," he said. "I love the game of golf. I have met some wonderful people through the game of golf.

"I also do these batting-practice experiences. I can still chuck it in there. I throw room service and try to hit the guys' bats, if you will. There are a few guys every once in awhile who want me to try to crank it up. Thank goodness for ice. I get a little sore doing that."

Clemens is a bit paunchy these days, but in good enough shape that he pitched an inning in a University of Texas alumni game in February.

"I think I got up to 85 or 86 (miles per hour)," he said. "I work out about three times a week. My oldest son (Koby) has twin boys. They keep me active and flexible. I run. I try to keep the body moving as best I can."

Clemens spent the first 13 seasons of his remarkable 24-year major-league career in Boston. Every year, the Red Sox auction off a prize to take batting practice off Clemens at Fenway Park.

"One year, a gentleman brought his son's team of 15-year-olds," he said. "(The auction winners) get to hit at Fenway Park. I get to throw BP there. It's fun for me to be back on my old stomping grounds. There's so much history in Fenway.

"Most of them do pretty good in the batter's box until I walk up there and tell them, 'You're standing right where Ted Williams stood.' Once you put that in perspective ... but it's a pretty cool deal. I still love doing that, and going back to where I started my career."

Clemens' four sons were all given "K" names to reflect Roger's propensity for strikeouts ("K" on a scoresheet). He ranks third on the career strikeout list with 4,672, behind only Nolan Ryan (5,714) and Randy Johnson (4,875).

I find it interesting that while three of the boys have played pro baseball — Koby rose as high as Triple-A in eight minor-league seasons — all were position players.

"They pitched some in high school and college, but they wanted to hit," their father said with a chuckle. "They get on me when I try to give them any kind of hitting tip. I like to give them bunting tips. I was a good bunter."

Clemens' career record is 354-184, ranking him ninth on the MLB's career win list. The last pitcher to top 300 wins was Johnson, who retired with 303 in 2009. Nobody in today's game is close. With the increased use of relief pitchers, have we seen the last 300-game winner?

"That's a good question," Clemens said. "They protect the guys today. It goes back to the huge dollars they're paying the big-time guys. Early in my career — the first seven or eight years — they protected me on pitch count. The middle of my career, not so much. When I got closer to (age) 40, they kept an eye on my pitch count because they wanted me fresh for the playoffs.

"You have so many specialty guys now. A starter goes five innings, gives up four or five runs, and it's almost an, 'Attaboy, way to go,' and you turn loose the bullpen guys who throw extremely hard. Some teams are starting a reliever (called an "opener") right out of the gate. Different strokes for different folks."

Then it was time to cut to the chase. Clemens, who played from 1984-2007, was first eligible for enshrinement into the Hall of Fame in 2012. And there's no doubt Clemens' credentials are Hall of Fame-worthy. He won seven Cy Young awards; no one else has won more than five. Clemens was an All-Star 11 times. Despite being a power pitcher, he seemed to get better with age. He had a 20-3 record with the Yankees at 38 in 2001, won his last Cy Young at 42 and made his final All-Star team at 43, when led the AL with a 1.87 ERA in 2005.

But, like slugger Barry Bonds, Clemens has been denied entry because of accusations of performance-enhancing drugs. Neither failed a drug test, and both have adamantly denied using illegal substances. In the fabled Mitchell Report investigating the use of drugs in baseball, Clemens' former trainer — Brian McNamee — claimed he injected Clemens with steroids during three seasons. Former teammate Andy Pettitte testified that Clemens told him that McNamee had injected him with human-growth hormone, which Clemens has steadfastly denied.

A federal grand jury indicted Clemens in 2010 on charges of making false statements to Congress about his use of performance-enhancing drugs, but the judge declared a mistrial when the prosecutors presented evidence they had been told not to show. Clemens was declared not guilty in the second trial.

Many Hall of Fame voters believe Clemens got away with something, and it's shown in the balloting through the years. But it seems they are growing more forgiving.

To gain entry, a player must draw 75 percent of the vote. Clemens' share has gradually risen each year since 2014, from 36.4 percent to 37.5 percent to 46.2 percent to 54.1 percent to 57.3 percent to 59.5 percent in 2019.

I asked Clemens if he is encouraged by the trend.

"I appreciate the guys who vote for me, who look at the facts," he said. "We did it the right way. We had a guy out there (McNamee) trying to take advantage of me, running around the country saying things about what he was to me or what he wasn't. None of it was true and we proved it. We deal with facts. The guys who don't vote (for me), I have zero control over it.

"The Hall of Fame is a cool place, but I didn't play the game to make the Hall of Fame. I played because I love to play it. My first couple of years I was doing it, I realized I could seize this and make some money and support my family. After that, it was about winning championships."

I asked if he has any regrets about things he did during his career. I didn't expect any kind of confession, but you never know.

"No. No, no, no," he said, not meanly.

"The emotional part of my game ... in 24 years, there were a couple of times where you reach for emotions ... the mental part of your game is really important in baseball, and emotions come into play sometimes ... but I don't have any regrets. I played 'til I was 45. I was lucky. I played for a lot of great teams, two that are rich in history — Boston and New York."

I finished with this: What would you like your legacy to be? His answer came quickly.

"I don't think it's written right now," he said. "I'm 'Poppy Rocket' now. I get to be a grandfather. I'm really loving it. I need a rope to keep an eye on those twins. They go in different directions.

"But the people who know me and my teammates and everybody else — that part of it has been written."

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Twitter: @kerryeggers


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