Played 24 years for four teams
Seven-time Cy Young winner won 354 games and struck out 4,672. 139.4 WAR, 94.6 WAA
Pro argument: By the numbers, the greatest pitcher in baseball history.
Con argument: The wide assumption that he used steroids.
Deserves to be in Hall?: Of course.
Will get elected this year?: 5-10% chance
Will ever get elected?: 95% chance
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Roger Clemens was awesome. He was unlikable. He had two separate careers that roughly equate with the two careers of Sandy Koufax and Pedro Martinez. He was involved in an incredibly nasty and contentious post-career fight over steroids. He was found not guilty of perjury. Most people believe he used steroids.
Blah blah blah. You know where you stand on Clemens.
* * *
Here’s one thing about Roger Clemens’ career that has always interested me: Why was he not taken until the 19th pick in the 1983 draft? Yes, it’s true that the baseball draft then was a mishmash of bizarre scouting techniques, varying degrees of incompetence and, in the case of some teams, a basic misunderstanding of what an amateur draft even is.
Even with all that, the Clemens thing was particularly strange.
Clemens pitched for two years at the University of Texas just as the college baseball was entering a new period of recognition. ESPN had only just come on the scene and was in desperate need of cheap sports programming. The College World Series was perfect for the new channel. In 1982, for the first time, ESPN broadcast the entire College World Series … and that year fortuitously had perhaps the most famous play in college baseball history, the Miami “Grand Illusion” play.
In the play, Miami pitcher Mike Kasprzak stepped off the rubber (the key so that it was’nt a balk) and pretended to throw the ball away, first baseman Steve Lusby cursed and ran after the phantom baseball, and everyone in the Miami dugout pointed to the phantom baseball. The pigeon was Wichita State’s Phil Stephenson, who saw all the commotion and jogged into the most embarrassing out of his life.*
*Stephenson had set an NCAA record for stolen bases that season with 86 — a record that still stands and one that is completely forgotten because of the one play. The thing is, that play was specially designed for him. It was his habit of taking huge leads and diving back into the base head first that set up the misdirection of the play.
In that series, by the way, Clemens completely shut down a very good Oklahoma State offense with Jim Traber and Robbie Wine, who we will meet again. Clemens was incredible that whole postseason — he threw what was then a record 35 consecutive scoreless innings. It was his first bit of national limelight.
Then, in 1983, Texas won the College World Series, Clemens was on the mound when it ended — it wasn’t his best game but he pitched a complete game, struck out nine, didn’t walk anybody. The point is: It was impossible, absolutely impossible, to watch Roger Clemens pitch and not see that he was a future superstar (the same could be true later of another Texas College World Series star, Greg Swindell). Clemens’ future greatness came through every cable-ready television in America. He was a 6-foot-4 force of nature with Nolan Ryan’s windup and the competitive fury of a cornered animal.
How in the WORLD did 18 teams pass on him?
And they didn’t just pass on Clemens; as you will see they passed on him in bizarre ways:
1. Minnesota took Mount Vernon Nazarene’s Tim Belcher with the first pick. “Right-hander Tim Belcher,” the Associated Press reported, “whose fastball has been clocked at better than 90 miles per hour, was the Minnesota Twins choice.” Whoo — 90 mph! The Twins offered Belcher no money and they were terrible, so Belcher chose not to sign. He went on to a fine big-league career, making 373 starts and winning 146 games — none of them for Minnesota.
2. Cincinnati took shortstop Kurt Stillwell out of Thousand Oaks High in California. They signed him right away and expected him to become a star, which didn’t quite happen though he did play almost 1,000 big league games and reach one All-Star Game.
3. Texas took shortstop Jeff Kunkel out of Rider University in New Jersey. Kunkel is the son of longtime big-league umpire Bill Kunkel, who pitched briefly for Kansas City and New York in the early 1960s. Jeff was a good athlete and he had a strong arm, but he could not hit well enough to get a regular big-league spot.
4. The New York Mets took Eddie Williams out of Herbert Hoover High in San Diego. This was a weird one. The Mets knew all about Clemens; they had taken him in the 12th round two years earlier and had apparently fallen $10,000 short of signing him ($10,000 that former Mets prospect and later GM Steve Phillips gleefully acknowledges he got instead). But the Mets did not take Clemens this time. They took Williams, a mercurial talent who hit .223 in two catastrophic minor league seasons which included more thrown bats than home runs. He was promptly traded to Cincinnati. Williams’ career seemed doomed, but he did put it together well enough to kick around for six big league teams. He hit 23 homers for San Diego over two seasons in the mid-1990s.
5. Oakland took Stan Hilton, a right-handed pitcher out of Baylor. Yeah … I don’t know. They A’s had a scout IN TEXAS … you would think … maybe Clemens? Maybe? Hilton injured his arm and never did make it to the Major Leagues. He went to work, remodeling kitchens, but he stayed around the fringes of baseball. He sort of re-emerged in the public eye as a pitching coach for Fort Worth’s independent team when Max Scherzer went there to pitch.
6. The Cubs took Jackie Davidson, a right-handed pitcher out of Everman High School in Texas. Again … right-handed pitcher IN TEXAS. I don’t know. Some scout looked at Jackie Davidson and looked at Roger Clemens and said, “I like Davidson.”
Davidson was just 18 when he was drafted but he was already married with a baby daughter. His son would be born less than two years later. It is a tough life, trying to raise a young family in the minor leagues. No money. Insane travel. Maybe if circumstances had been different he could have put it together but as it was Davidson was unable to harness his talent and soon went into real life, becoming a truck driver. If you were following closely you might remember that Davidson gave baseball one more shot — he was a scab player for Texas during the baseball strike. In fact, he was scheduled to start on Opening Day for the Rangers. When the real players came back, Davidson displayed no bitterness. “They made me realize the man I had to be,” he said.
7. The Mariners selected Darrel Akerfelds, a right-handed pitcher out of Mesa State College. What is the deal with picking all these right-handed pitchers ahead of Clemens? Akerfelds went to Columbine High, and in those Colorado days, he was the guy everyone knew would become a big sports star. He starred in football and baseball but it was his drive — the drive that pushed him to run nine miles a day and only then begin his workout — that made him look like a future star in whatever sport he chose. He was drafted in the ninth round by Atlanta but went to play football at Arkansas instead. He was a starting linebacker for Arkansas in the Gator Bowl but realized that baseball was his future, which is why he went to Mesa State.
It never quite came together for him as a pro baseball player. That drive, the stuff that made him a high school legend, kept him in the game. He managed to get into 125 big league games as a pitcher. He briefly pitched in Taiwan. He got into coaching and was bullpen coach for the San Diego Padres for 11 years. He died of pancreatic cancer in 2012.
8. Houston took catcher Robbie Wine out of Oklahoma State. Now, come on. Houston had to see how Clemens had shut down Robbie Wine — I mean, it was on television. Wine had some natural power but he just could not make enough contact. He hit .216 in eight minor-league seasons and only played 23 games in the big leagues. He became head baseball coach at Penn State and currently manages in the Padres minor-league system.
9. Toronto selected catcher Matt Stark, a high school catcher from Hacienda Heights, CA. Stark was a good young hitter, good enough that he made the Blue Jays as a 22-year-old after a fantastic spring training in 1987. Five games in, he developed a nasty case of tendinitis in his right shoulder, and he never could throw again. He eventually had rotator cuff surgery. After that, he tried to make it back as a slugging first baseman, and he hit well enough to make it up to the Chicago White Sox as a September call-up in 1990. He played for years in Mexico. Stark then scouted and coached and now is a high school coach back in Hacienda Heights.
10. San Diego took Ray Hayward, a left-handed pitcher from the University of Oklahoma. Hayward was supposed to be a high first round pick in 1982, but he had major knee surgery that year. That might have been a harbinger of bad things. He was a bit of a sensation when he went right to Class AA Beaumont, made 10 starts, struck out 71 in 66 innings and went 5-1 with a 1.76 ERA. Then he began treading water. He couldn’t stay healthy. He had shoulder surgery. He came back and had hernia surgery. He only got 15 big-league starts. He took it all in stride.
“Every Sunday, when I go to church, before the sermon starts, our preacher talks about the people we need to pray for,” he said. “And everybody’s got cancer. … I’m going, ‘I don’t have any problems.'”
Hayward is now pitching coach at Texas Tech.
11. Cleveland took Dave Clark, an outfielder out of Jackson State University in Mississippi. He was a legitimate prospect (he hit .340 with 30 homers one year in Buffalo) who just couldn’t quite break through with Cleveland. The Tribe was terrible then, but they had an outfield — with Joe Carter, Mel Hall and Cory Snyder (and Oddibe McDowell) — they were convinced was going to become the best in baseball. Sigh.
Clark played 13 years in the majors, though he never got more than 318 plate appearances in any given season. It’s unclear if his career might have been different if he was handled better as a young player. Either way he stayed in the game — you might remember he was interim manager for Houston in 2009 — and these days he’s third-base coach for the Tigers.
12. Pittsburgh took outfielder Ron DeLucchi out of Campolindo High in Moraga, California. I have to admit being stumped by Ron DeLucchi — the only really interesting thing I can find about him is that he was represented by the great football agent Leigh Steinberg, who sort of poked around as a baseball agent. DeLucchi was a big-time football and baseball player in high school but he was clearly not a baseball prospect — he never made it out of Class A. Again: I’m just not sure how a professional scouting despartment could look at Ron DeLucchi and look at Roger Clemens and think DeLucchi is the right choice.
13. The White Sox took right-handed pitcher Joel Davis out of high school in Jacksonville. Funny, every time I look at this draft I keep confusing Joel Davis with Joel Skinner, the big catcher who was on the White Sox at that time. Skinner was taken by Pittsburgh in the 37th round a few years earlier. Skinner was actually behind the plate when Joel Davis made a start against Texas on September 5, 1985, making what might be the only Joel-to-Joel battery in baseball history.*
*Or it might not be — I’m not looking it up … I can’t believe I decided to do this draft thing in the first place.
Joel Davis was a big pitcher, 6-foot-5, with a good fastball and he got 41 big league starts by the time he was 23, at which point he blew out his shoulder and never pitched in the big leagues again. He is a high school baseball coach in Jacksonville.
14. Montreal took Rich Stoll, a (you guessed it) right-handed pitcher. He was a big-time pitcher at Michigan, going 30-5 and carrying the Wolverines to the College World Series. The Detroit Free Press reported he had a fastball “in the high 80s.” That should give you an idea of how different the time was; that was reported as a POSITIVE thing.
Peter Gammons once quoted someone in the Red Sox organization saying that it was Stoll, not Clemens, that Boston really wanted. This leads to one of those baseball questions that people inside the game talk about a lot — were the St. Louis Cardinals SMART for getting Albert Pujols in the 13th round of the draft or were they DUMB for passing on him 12 times. If the Red Sox really would have taken Stoll over Clemens, well, they’re no smarter than the Expos, they just got lucky.
Anyway, Stoll showed real promised and then did what most pitching prospects seem to do — he tore the labrum in his shoulder. After trying and failing to come back, he returned home to Attica, Indiana and became a pastor.
15. Detroit took Wayne Dotson a (no, not again) right-handed pitcher from (no, don’t say it) a high school in Texas. Dotson was a sensation in Lubbock, so much so that the Lubbock newspaper basically covered him the way that Japanese papers covered Ichiro his first year in the United States. Dotson apparently considered skipping out on baseball and going to Oral Roberts, but the Tiger came up with the money. When he signed, his mother said: “I look forward seeing him on TV now.” It didn’t work out that way. Dotson could not adjust to professional baseball and topped out with eight starts in double-A.
16. The Expos (again!) took a (no!) right-handed pitcher not named Roger Clemens. Yes, the Expos get the prize, picking TWO right-handed pitchers not named Clemens in the first-round of the 1983 draft. I’m sure there’s an alternate history where the Expos take Clemens and stay in Montreal.
This time, at least, the Expos took a pitcher who did make it somewhat. They took Brian Holman, a high school star at Wichita North and the best pick taken before Clemens (top pick Belcher would have been the best pick before Clemens but, alas, he did not sign).
Holman took a little while to get going, which meant that he rose more or less in perfect sync with a lefty pitcher Randy Johnson. They were the top two pitchers for Class AA Jacksonville in 1987 and Class AAA Indianapolis in 1988. They both made their big league debuts for Montreal in ’88, Holman on June 25, Unit on September 15.*
*Man could you imagine if that was Clemens and Johnson? There’s probably an alternate history where if THAT had happened, MLB would have moved more teams to Canada.
The Expos, in their infinite wisdom, promptly traded Holman and Johnson to Seattle for Mark Langston, who pitched 24 games for Montreal and got the heck out of Canada. Holman was a moderate success for Seattle — he won 32 games in three years with a better than league average ERA. An arm injury ended his big-league career when he was just 27. He coaches baseball now in Olathe, Kan.
17. Seattle took catcher Terry Bell out of Old Dominion. Teams sure liked drafting catchers in the first round back then. Bell was viewed as something of a defensive phenom and the concern was that he would not hit. It was a well-founded concern. Bell hit .231 in seven minor-league seasons with a grand total of eight home runs. He did get nine games and six plate appearances in the big leagues. He then returned home to Dayton where he has taught baseball and helped out the Dayton Flyers.
18. The Dodgers took left-handed pitcher Erik Sonberg out of Wichita State. It was Sonberg’s misfortune to be the pick RIGHT BEFORE Clemens and so he gets outsized play in the various stories about that 1983 draft. Sonberg, like Clemens, was a College World Series star in 1982. Sonberg had a somewhat disastrous season in Albuquerque in his first full minor-league season, going 5-13 with a 7.34 ERA. And then came the shoulder surgeries — five of them in all. He tried again and again with four different teams but could never quite break through into the Majors. He retired and went into business.
19. The Boston Red Sox took right-handed pitcher Roger Clemens.