PawSox Rich Gedman on Roger Clemens: “He Was Very Special”

Roger Clemens
Roger Clemens signs autographs before making rehab start with PawSox in early 1990s. Photo courtesy of the PawSox.

The PawSox take on Indianapolis Friday, June 21st starting at 7:00pm ET on YurView, Cox channels 4 and 1004 in Rhode Island.

On a chilly April night in 1986, a star was born on the mound at Fenway Park, and Rich Gedman was behind the plate for the true launching of Roger Clemens’ career – one that will be celebrated this Friday night when the PawSox induct the power-throwing right-hander into the club’s Hall of Fame.

Gedman went into the record books as the catcher who worked with Clemens when the pitcher achieved a 20-strikeout masterpiece at the expense of the Seattle Mariners. Now in his fifth season as Pawtucket’s hitting coach, Gedman gladly pointed out that the older he gets, the greater he appreciates just how talented Clemens was.

To have a front row seat for baseball history … to Gedman back in 1986, it was more about Clemens finally realizing the limitless potential he possessed. Gedman was in his fourth year with the Red Sox when Clemens first arrived on the scene in 1984. Injuries coupled with a lack of control kept Clemens grounded during the 1985 season, one that saw him limited to 15 starts.

“Back then, he would miss up in the strike zone by a lot,” Gedman recalled.

When everything finally clicked for Clemens, the Mariners absolutely had no chance during an outing that featured one strikeout after another, and another, and another.

“You don’t strike out people in the big leagues like that,” Gedman said. “He was very special, but the thing that Roger Clemens always reminds you of is that he almost didn’t make it to the game that night.”

Rich Gedman with Roger Clemens
Rich Gedman with Roger Clemens, photo courtesy of the Boston Red Sox.

The culprit was traffic on Storrow Drive just as Fenway Park began to appear in Clemens’ line of sight from his car. Clemens may have shown up late to the ballpark, yet per Gedman, “he was still determined to pitch.”

The details from the pregame bullpen session are a bit hazy. From Gedman’s vantage point, it wasn’t like he had an inclination that something memorable was about to happen – or that Clemens could be in store for an early night.

“Sometimes when pitchers come out of the bullpen and they’re feeling great, they can get careless and make bad pitches,” Gedman said.

It didn’t take Clemens long to serve notice that he was on top of his game. He fanned the side in order in the first inning, then struck out two in the second and one in the third before recording his next eight outs via strikeout.

“Roger was mentally tough that night. He was locked in,” Gedman said. “There was a chance of him not being there, then he’s into the game. It was full throttle for him.”

The 1986 Mariners were a free-swinging club, which played into Clemens’ bread-and-butter pitch: a blazing fastball that flummoxed Seattle at every turn.

“He was able to expand the zone. He commanded the fastball and was ahead in a lot of counts,” Gedman said. “When you’re throwing the ball the way he was, you might be anticipating a breaking ball when you’re behind in the count, but he was challenging hitters from the first inning on.

“It was a game of catch. They weren’t fouling many pitches off,” Gedman added. “They took a lot of strikes and when they swung, they missed by a lot.”

Legend has it that the only time Clemens shook off Gedman, the result was a base hit by Spike Owen, a teammate of The Rocket at the University of Texas who later joined Boston via trade in 1986. Gedman set the record straight by saying that on a few occasions, Clemens disagreed with the pitch that was being called.

The single in the fourth inning by Owens is a source of playful ribbing on Gedman’s part whenever he’s in the company of Clemens.

“I always kid with him about the breaking ball to Spike. He spun one and left it up in the zone and it ended up as a base hit into right field. Are you doing him a favor?” Gedman said. “In today’s game with shifts, that’s definitely an out.”

All the strikeouts began to blend together after Clemens registered his 10th punchout. Is it 11? Really, he’s up to 16? Where he’s at now?

Focusing on the primary objective was the easy part as the Red Sox trailed 1-0 heading into the bottom of the seventh. With one powerful swing that resulted in a three-run home run, Dwight Evans provided Clemens with a chance to become the winning pitcher.

“First and foremost, it’s always, ‘Let’s secure the win,’” Gedman said. “There was magic happening, but you’re not really paying attention to it. You’re going along.”

Clemens went on to ring up two more Mariners in the eighth inning. Up until 1986, baseball had yet to see a pitcher hit 20 strikeouts in a regulation game. With three outs remaining, Clemens needed two more Ks to become the record holder.

“I think Roger knew that he needed one to tie the record going into the ninth,” said Gedman about BoSox pitcher Al Nipper informing Clemens that he was on the threshold of entering exclusive company.

Clemens started the final inning with a strikeout of Owen, placing him at 19 for the game. Next came Phil Bradley, who struck out for the fourth time to put Clemens at the magic number. The final batter, Mariners first baseman Ken Phelps, also came to the plate with three strikeouts in three at-bats. Philips managed a harmless 6-3 groundout to end the game.

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As impressive as the 20 strikeouts were, Gedman was equally impressed that the outing was accompanied by zero walks.

“His life as a baseball player forever changed. From there, it was, ‘Oh my God, look at what we have here,’” said Gedman. “Now you’re sitting there wondering what he’s capable of doing next. Is he going to have a no-hitter? Is he going to strike out 15?”

Clemens did not slow down after he stopped the Mariners dead in their tracks. He became the indisputable Red Sox ace, a title that was his until he left Boston via free agency after the 1996 season. Before trading in his red stockings, Clemens captured three Cy Young awards – two of which came with Gedman serving as Boston’s primary backstop – and authored another 20-strikeout masterpiece in 1996 against Detroit.

“He had the chance to do something special every time he took the hill. You felt good that there was a good shot that he was going to win, and he certainly did that,” Gedman said. “Moving forward, we had somebody who commanded attention. He took us to a new level.”

Rich Gedman
Rich Gedman coaching 3rd Base at McCoy. Photo courtesy of Louriann Mardo-Zayat.

As for his own slice of infamy, Gedman says the privilege that Clemens afforded him back in April of 1986 gives him goosebumps when he thinks about what unfolded. He was part of what? Twenty strikeouts? That’s positively incredible.

“You usually don’t get the chance to spend a night like that. They don’t come around often. When they do, it’s special,” Gedman said about reliving history with someone he considers a dear friend. “Your claim to fame, your spot in the game when you’re part of something special like that … it only grows and grows with time.”

The PawSox take on Indianapolis Friday, June 21st starting at 7:00pm ET on YurView, Cox channels 4 and 1004 in Rhode Island.

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