TORONTO — Roy Halladay doesn’t own the record. Neither does Dave Stieb or Pat Hentgen or any other name that comes to mind.
In fact, it’s not even close. The mark for best consecutive seasons by a Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher, based on pitching wins above replacement (WAR), is held by Roger Clemens. The same guy who has half of the four American League Cy Young Awards in franchise history.
And yet his name doesn’t come up nearly as often as the three others mentioned above in discussions of the greatest pitchers in franchise history.
Hentgen is and always will be the patron saint of Blue Jays pitchers because of his mentorship as coach and advisor, as well as performance. There is Hentgen and his 8.5 WAR in 1996, sandwiched in the middle of the team’s top three pitching seasons between Clemens’s 1997 (11.9 WAR) and 1998 (8.1 WAR) seasons. No other single player has his DNA spread throughout the club like Hentgen. None. He will manage this team some day if he wants.
Halladay is a legend in this community, but the fact of the matter is that he forced the team to trade him according to his — not their — timetable. Nothing wrong with that. He was fully within his rights and will still go into the Hall of Fame as a Blue Jays pitcher.
Stieb was irascible, famous for grabbing his crotch in between pitches. Hardly lovable – never won a Cy Young Award.
So why, then, is it so uncomfortable to discuss Clemens’s time with the Blue Jays? Is it the fact that many of the sordid details in the Mitchell Report into baseball’s steroid scandal and Clemens’s role in it have their root in his days with the Blue Jays? Is it the way he left Toronto, by exercising a handshake “escape clause” that had quietly been put in by Paul Beeston when he was then president of the Blue Jays – forcing a trade to the New York Yankees for Homer Bush, Graeme Lloyd and the remnants of David Wells’s career? (That deal reportedly led to Beeston losing favour with commissioner Bud Selig, who had made him chief executive officer, and resulted in a hefty fine.)
Or is it simply that after back-to-back World Series in 1992 and ’93, the rest of that decade’s Blue Jays history gets lost in a .500 fog that can’t be pierced even by a rocket’s red glare? News flash: Baseball was played in this city between Joe Carter touching ’em all and Jose Bautista’s bat flip.
“It was a relatively short period of time and not a productive time for the team, so I kind of get that, and he’s kind of a polarizing figure,” said Gord Ash, the Blue Jays’ former general manager and the man who had to deal with and — ultimately — deal away the complex, larger-than-life personality and pitcher that was The Rocket.
“There’s no middle ground,” said Ash, now a senior advisor with the Milwaukee Brewers. “You’re either an advocate or you don’t care for him.
“It is,” Ash added, “a kind of a forgotten part of the history of the club.”
Which seems to be the way both sides want it. Clemens did not return numerous calls for this article, no doubt because he realizes that any discussion of his time in Toronto that doesn’t ask him about or deal with Brian McNamee and his introduction to steroid use is intellectually fraudulent. He is to pitchers and steroids what Barry Bonds is to position players and steroids; his alleged use of the drug is the sole reason that he was not a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
At some point, perhaps, it will be a loose end that gets tied up. After all, he popped up in a video tribute last season and was given a surprisingly positive reaction; his son Kacy was drafted and signed by the Blue Jays recently; and Clemens committed to playing in Joe Carter’s charity golf tournament only to pull out to be with his son on draft night.
But Clemens and Halladay also became involved in a tiff on social media over steroids – Halladay is an outspoken critic of users and the damage they’ve wrought – and it’s hard to see that ever being reconciled. The Blue Jays’ new management team is open to re-establishing ties with Clemens’s camp; but with Halladay the next Blue Jays player to go into the Hall of Fame, the timing does not seem right.
Truthfully? It might never be right.
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Only 30 pitchers in baseball history have a higher single-season WAR than Clemens’s 11.9 in 1997, with only Steve Carlton (1972) and Dwight Gooden (1985) doing so post-1920. Halladay’s best WAR year with the Blue Jays was 8.1 in 2003; Stieb’s was 7.9 in 1984, the last of three consecutive seasons in which he posted a WAR over 7. Clemens’s combined ERA in 1997 and ’98 was 2.33, two runs less than the American League average.
Dig deep into the world of adjusted pitching wins and win probability added over his two Blue Jays seasons, and his dominance is even more pronounced. He struck out 28.1 per cent of batters faced. Twenty-eight! He holds the franchise record for strikeouts in a season (292 in ’97) and while this has never been a city that turns out to see a pitching matchup, Clemens’s starts drew an average of 6,365 more fans than the team average in 1997, when the club finished last in the AL East at 76-86. That number was down to 1,986 in 1998, when the Blue Jays finished 88-74, good enough for third place, 26 games back of the Yankees and four games out of the wild-card spot.
By the end of that season, Clemens had already taken advantage of the agreement with Beeston and asked to be traded.
“He asked us very quietly at the trade deadline (in 1998),” said Ash. “We talked to teams, but I told him there was nothing that made sense to us. He accepted that and went out and pitched well the remainder of the season.”
There was a specific clause in Clemens’s contract that allowed him to request a trade to the Houston Astros. That request was submitted in the off-season at a meeting at Clemens’s home. “Gerry Hunsicker (the Astros GM) and (Astors president) Tal Smith – and they’ll deny it to eternity – went on the offence because they wanted no part of him. At the winter meetings that year, Gerry went very public and said, ‘We don’t want the guy,’ ‘He’s not good for our team,’ etc., etc. So that became very difficult,” said Ash.
But owner Drayton McLane wanted Clemens. He was friends with Toronto businessman Michael Firestone, who arranged a dinner that led to a deal that would see the Blue Jays get pitcher Scott Elarton, shortstop Julio Lugo and outfielder Richard Hidalgo.
“Drayton seemed satisfied and I was certainly satisfied,” said Ash. “And then he went back to Houston and called me the next day and said: ‘I can’t do it.’
“Then it got messy with Colorado…. Then Cleveland…. Texas was on it big, wanted him desperately. But in the end the Yankees were the ones who wanted it the most.”
But the real mess was still to come. McNamee, a former New York City police officer, had parlayed a playing career at St. John’s University and friendship with Tim McCleary — who served as an assistant to Ash after a similar role with the Yankees — into a job as Yankees bullpen catcher and then as a strength and conditioning coach with the Blue Jays. It was here that he met Clemens — the men lived at the then-SkyDome Hotel — and where McNamee told Mitchell he injected Clemens in the buttocks with Winstrol, a steroid.
Part of the reason that the Blue Jays wrestle with Clemens’s legacy in Toronto is the same reason the rest of the game — including Hall of Fame voters — struggle with it: How you feel about Clemens essentially reveals how you feel about the steroid era. If you hate what it did to the game, you likely hate Clemens, too. If you’ve made peace with it, and simply accept that it was more widespread than we believed then or even know now, putting Clemens’s career into context becomes much easier. Only a pollyanna would think the playing field wasn’t level during those years.
Beyond the complexities of trading a player when everybody in baseball knows your hands are tied — something Alex Anthopoulos would learn later with Halladay — Ash’s memories of Clemens are varied.
Ask him to make an appearance for a charity?
“He was the best,” said Ash. “Right away he would know, and not that he was jumping up and down to do extra stuff but if you asked him to do it, he would do it. He knew exactly when he was available. He was a guy who had a lot of order.”
Ask him about the rotation?
“He finagled the rotation because he knew exactly when he wanted to pitch,” Ash said. “He knew what umpire was working the plate. He knew that [for] a late-afternoon game in Boston it was hard to see the plate because of the shadows. He had a lot of privileges and knew he could do what he wanted to do so it was a two-way street. But I got along with him fine.
“It was that transition period where players of his calibre had those privileges,” said Ash. “It was part of what was going on. Robbie [Alomar] was probably the first guy who practised when he wanted and did his own thing.
“But,” Ash added, “those of us in baseball operations didn’t get anything we didn’t expect in that regard.”
The deal with the Yankees took shape around Valentine’s Day, just before spring training. It was announced on Feb. 18, and Ash remembers taking his wife out for a belated Valentine’s Day dinner in Tampa.
“It was at a restaurant that all the baseball types went to — Melio’s, Maleo’s, Amelio’s… something like that,” Ash said, chuckling. “Finally, I had a chance to take her out for a nice meal. We walked in and were seated, looked around and there was Alan Hendricks, Randy Hendricks and Roger. Having dinner.”
That’s Roger Clemens and the Blue Jays, isn’t it? Connected forever because of the two best back-to-back seasons of pitching in club history… even if nobody wants to talk about it. A tough meal, to be sure; one that may never be fully digested.