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Clemens Trying to Peel New Label : Baseball: Red Sox ace intent on putting ‘bad news’ reputation behind him as quickly as possible.

WASHINGTON POST

It has been a spring of rebirth for Roger Clemens. A spring to smile and shake hands, to explain the ugly past few months and, finally, to try to enjoy the salad days of his extraordinary career.

It has been a spring to kick back in a golf cart as he did this cloudy morning and, between sips of orange juice, talk about himself. He looks a questioner in the eye and talks until finally ending some answers with a look that resembles a plea that says, “Do you see what I’m trying to say?”

And he answers almost every question.

“I opened up too much in my early years and got burned for it,” he said. “I got hurt and I probably overreacted by shutting everyone out. I won’t forget that, when I won my second Cy Young Award, I let photographers take my picture getting the call on the car phone of my Porsche. The next summer they started using that picture to show how I was spoiled and pampered. Come on. I’d dreamed all my life of having a car like that. I worked hard for it.

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“When Bruce Hurst wasn’t re-signed, I got mad and said a few things that were interpreted a lot of different ways. It seemed that the only things that were news with the Red Sox was the stuff that happened off the field, and I just decided to shut it down as far as being available. But when you do that, people start to perceive you differently. I didn’t like it.”

So this is where William Roger Clemens at 28 has begun to put the pieces back together -- by talking about last fall’s ejection from Game 4 of the American League Championship Series, his arrest in a Houston bar last winter and, finally his new contract, the one that will pay him $5.375 million per year for four seasons beginning in 1992.

He calls the contract “mind-boggling.” He signed it two months ago, during the Persian Gulf War, and only recently has begun to talk about it.

“To get on television and gloat would have looked so stupid,” he said. “People can’t comprehend that kind of money. I can’t comprehend it. I really didn’t think it was right with our guys fighting in the Middle East. That would have been totally inappropriate. My brother fought in Vietnam and I still see the effects of that.”

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He’s the highest-paid player in baseball history, and that may be appropriate. Clemens became the guy who cursed an umpire last fall, who got in a bar fight and who made people wonder why he acts the way he does.

That conduct made it easy to forget how special he is on the field. He went 21-6 with a 1.93 ERA and pitched seven complete games and 228 innings last season. He has averaged 20 victories the past four seasons and compiled some numbers that will stand up against any in baseball history.

His career winning percentage of .695 (116-51) is the second highest among pitchers with at least 100 victories, according to the 1991 Elias Baseball Analyst. Only Spud Chandler’s .717 is better.

He’s the first pitcher since Catfish Hunter (1970-76) to win at least 17 games in five consecutive seasons and only the second AL pitcher in the designated-hitter era to have a sub-2.00 ERA.

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And Clemens has done more than set a standard with his performances on the field. In the Red Sox’ clubhouse, he’s known as much for his work ethic as his 95-mph fastball. His daily running, weightlifting and exercise regimen has become legendary, and he doesn’t often come out of a game, having averaged 7 2-3 innings per start the past five seasons.

Yet the most recent memory of Clemens is when he cursed umpire Terry Cooney and was ejected from the ALCS. Three months later, he and his brother were arrested after scuffling with a police officer in a Houston bar.

American League President Bobby Brown suspended Clemens for five days and fined him $10,000 for the Cooney incident. Clemens has appealed and last month had a hearing with Brown to explain his side. This day, he tries again.

“That was going to be a fun day for us,” he said. “We were down 3-0 (to Oakland) in the series and had nothing to lose. I cut my beard into a Fu Manchu. I wore eye black. We’d had a team meeting the night before and decided, ‘Hey, let’s have some fun.’ We had guys wearing fluorescent batting gloves, that stuff. I threw a ball into the stands before the game, and all of a sudden I’m psychotic. I bumped a photographer and they say I was losing my mind.”

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He knows he’ll probably miss his first two starts because of the incident, even though dozens of baseball people, including some umpires, have privately said that Cooney, who reacted hotly himself, was at least as wrong as Clemens.

Clemens said he may miss the starts, but appreciated that Brown at least was willing to hear his side.

Clemens won’t discuss the Houston incident in depth because it hasn’t been settled or come to trial. But he does say: “It happened because of who I am.

“I do understand that people want a piece of your time, and I’ll try to accommodate them. It’s tough when you’re out to dinner with your family. But people ought to understand that maybe they see me and I’ve had a bad day. Maybe I’m in a bad mood. That doesn’t make me a jerk.

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“Again, I don’t want to make it sound like it’s all a hassle. It’s not. I count my blessings every day.”

It’s his arm and shoulder that have worried the Red Sox. He typically pushes himself hard, and because he won’t come out of games, ends up throwing 140 pitches in a game several times a season.

“About five times last year,” he said. “Once, it got up to 160. I know that’s too many and I’ve got to pay attention, but if it’s a 1-1 game in the ninth, I’m not coming out, I don’t care how many pitches I’ve thrown.”

He pays for it. A year ago, his shoulder was in such bad shape that he threw only 11.1 innings after Sept. 1, and by the playoffs he’d basically become a breaking ball-slider pitcher.

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“At times, the pain was unbearable,” he said. “I wasn’t scared because the tests showed there was no permanent damage. I stayed out there and tried to pitch through it because I thought I could still win. That’s the way I think. Joe (Morgan, Boston’s manager) and I had a little trouble communicating. I think he knew I was scuffling, even when I told him I wasn’t hurting.”

But now, after a winter of rest and conditioning work, the shoulder again appears to be strong. At times, he has thrown as hard as ever and says simply: “If I don’t win 20 games, the fans will be disappointed and so will I. We’re excited about this team and this is the time of year you can’t wait to get started.”


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