#119) Classic at a crossroads: the 20th anniversary of 20 strikeouts (v 2.0)

There wasn’t much reason to attend the Detroit Tigers baseball game on Wednesday, September 18th, 1996. The Tigers had not had a winning season in three years and were currently mired in a 10-game losing streak, a whopping 36 games out of first place in their division. Yet whether it was to catch Alan Trammell in the final days of his illustrious Tigers career, to celebrate making it through “Hump Day” or maybe just due to pure boredom, 8,779 fans showed up to Tiger Stadium that night as their team took the field against the visiting Boston Red Sox.

The Sox season had been disappointing as well. They sputtered into Detroit all but mathematically eliminated from the pennant race, 8 games behind their rivals the New York Yankees, a team led by rookie all-star Derek Jeter and new manager Joe Torre. Pitcher Roger Clemens took the mound for Boston, in danger of posting the second losing season of his career with a record of 9 wins, 11 losses. Clemens was in the final year of his contract. Sox general manager Dan Duquette commented that he hoped to “keep him in Boston during the twilight of his career.” Perhaps some of the fans in attendance wanted a chance to see the 34-year old fastballer before he hung it up, but like Trammell, it would have been hard to watch Clemens without any sense of loss for the glory days. For Sox fans, Clemens’ three Cy Young awards must have seemed forever ago, as was the night just over a decade earlier that he set a major league record by striking out 20 Seattle Mariners.

My 1996 was about as uplifting as those of the Sox and Tigers. I’d just retreated to my parents’ house following a dramatic breakup. One of my best friends had just moved out of town and I’d been downsized from my band, which decided to have the rhythm guitar player take over on bass.  Like the fans in Detroit, I had little else to do that night. The game would distract me for at least a couple of hours so I plopped in front of the TV in the living room where I’d grown up, tuned to NESN and let announcers Bob Kurtz and Jerry Remy do their thing.

Jeff Frye popped up to start the game. The second Sox batter had a long name that I didn’t recognize and didn’t appear on the TV screen long enough for me to figure out how to pronounce. Like most people watching the game, I had no idea that Nomar Garciaparra, a shortstop who’d made his debut three weeks earlier, would become the first Red Sox Rookie of the Year since 1975 the following season. “No-Maah”, as he would soon become known, walked and stole second but was left on base when Jose Canseco grounded out to end the inning. The novelty of seeing the former Sox nemesis in a Boston uniform had long since worn off for me; I almost felt bad for the poor bastard. In Oakland he had been Rookie of the Year and become the first player ever to hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases in the same year. Since then his off-field shenanigans seemed to overshadow his play on the diamond, which included injuring himself during an ill-advised pitching stint and letting a fly ball bounce off his head into the stands for a home run.

In the bottom of the first, Trammell gave the fans a taste of the past with a base hit, but it was all for nought as Clemens struck out the next two batters. He struck out the side in the second inning and picked up two more in the third.

In the top of the fourth, Mike Greenwell got a hit and scored a run. “Gator” had been an all-star back in ’88 and ’89, but would play only 77 games in 1996, his last season. He and Clemens were the only veterans of Boston’s 1986 American League champion team still with the club. The Sox posted three runs before No-Maah struck out to end the inning.

Clemens remained strong, striking out five consecutive batters over the next two innings. After allowing a leadoff single in the sixth, he struck out the side, good for an impressive total of 15 as the game headed into the seventh. The hometown fans were starting to applaud each strikeout, the drudgery of the lame-duck season forgotten.

The Sox added an insurance run to make it 4-0 and Clemens picked up two more strikeouts each in the seventh and eighth innings. After Canseco struck out to end the top of the 9th, Kurtz told the TV audience, “Don’t go away, folks.”

I wasn’t going away. It had been a while since a Red Sox game had held me captive like this. I’d been too young to remember anything much of Clemens’ first 20-strikeout game. The last Red Sox no-hitter had happened in 1965. The last Red Sox World Series win…well, the less said about that the better. But tonight, in an otherwise lackluster season, Clemens was knocking on history’s door. I felt a wave of excitement and stood up, shaking myself loose before sitting back down. My recent  break-up and other tribulations suddenly didn’t matter; I had a chance to watch the most notable positive Red Sox moment in recent memory.

Trammell popped up to start the inning, drawing a smattering of boos from the crowd. After allowing a base hit to Ruben Sierra, Clemens got two strikes on Tony Clark but the Detroit batter kept fouling off pitches before finally sending a fly ball to Greenwell, deep in left field. As more boos rained from the stands from fans who now knew that no record would be broken tonight, Remy commented, “Well, it looks like the record is safe.”

I too was disappointed to know that I would not get to watch a record get broken, but at least the game had distracted me for two hours. I still had a chance to see Clemens match his record – a feat that might well be even more impressive and meaningful than the first time he did it.

Clemens, baseball and myself had all grown older. His record-setting game and Cy Young awards had electrified Boston but hadn’t been able to bring the city the one thing it wanted more than anything else. Now Clemens and Boston were a couple together for too long; for the last few years he’d made the news more for running his mouth at umps and reporters than for strikeouts.

Travis Fryman took the first two pitches for balls. Perhaps he was wary of being a part of history. Some of the fans who had been standing sat back down.

We often look back at the past with rose-colored glasses, but in 1996, it was hard not  to feel as if Clemens’ 20-strikeout game of 1986 was an event of a bygone era. The strike of 1994 was still a sore memory for many fans. Pete Rose was now known more for his gambling and tax scandals than for his record-setting career. Players’ salaries were already raising eyebrows in 1986, but by 1996, they had nearly tripled. Baseball’s new playoff format and division re-alignment had met with a response that was mixed at best; traditionalists were also upset about the onset of inter-league play, scheduled to start the following season.

Clemens’ 149th and 150th pitches of the night were strikes, bringing the count to 2-2 and once again sparking the interest of the fans. For the moment, the recent strike, inflated salaries, Clemens’ looming departure from Boston were forgotten. Clemens was one strike away from proving that even in complicated times, the game of baseball still has the power to thrill. No matter how disappointing the season may be, you can still go to the ball park and have a chance to see history. Even when a relationship had run its course, there could still be one last shot at glory. Even when a local hero’s best days seemed long gone, he could still add one last chapter to his legacy.

Clemens got the sign from catcher Bill Haselman. Peering in at Fryman, he set, wound up and delivered one last pitch.

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