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Rocket's coming-out party was striking

It was 20 years ago today and relatively few Boston sports fans were paying attention.

On the night Roger Clemens set a major league record by striking out 20 batters in a nine-inning game, only 13,414 paid their way into Fenway Park. The game was not broadcast on AM radio because the Celtics were playinig the Atlanta Hawks in the playoffs at the old Boston Garden and the Green had control of the flagship station. The Globe had one reporter at the game. And our photographer left after the early innings to tend to another assignment.

Globe baseball reporter Larry Whiteside had the night off. The affable ''Sides" stopped by Fenway to have dinner in the press room, then stuck around for some early action before driving to the Garden to watch the only game in town. When the Garden scoreboard flashed a message that read, ''Roger Clemens has 12 strikeouts after five innings," Globe sports editor Vince Doria asked Whiteside, ''Weren't you over at Fenway earlier?"

''Yes, but he only had five strikeouts when I left," said Whiteside.

Tough guy to impress, that Sides. Clemens had five after only two innings.

There had been some indications that the Rocket might have a big night. The Mariners came to town with a lineup of whiff artists on a historic pace. Seattle had 166 strikeouts on the morning of April 29, a whopping 55 more than any team in the American League. It would go on to set an American League record with 1,148 strikeouts (a mark now held by the 1996 Tigers with 1,268). The Mariner lineup included former Brewers slugger Gorman Thomas, rookie Danny Tartabull, and a couple of guys who would later factor into Boston's amazing run to the 1986 World Series -- Spike Owen and Dave Henderson. Owen had been Clemens's teammate at the University of Texas.

Before the game, Bill Buckner, another ghost of '86, told Al Nipper (now the Boston pitching coach) that Clemens was going to strike out 18. ''The way he's been throwing and the way they've been striking out, 18 seemed like the number," Buckner said later. ''It's pretty tough to predict 20."

Clemens came into the game with a 3-0 record, which would eventually become 14-0 en route to a 24-4, MVP/Cy Young season for the young righthander. He was on the comeback trail from shoulder surgery in August 1985, and early reviews were encouraging.

While Patriots fans were digesting the résumé of SMU running back Reggie Dupard, who'd been selected earlier that day in the first round of the NFL draft, Clemens struck out the side (all swinging) in the first inning. Thomas lined to left in the second before two more strikeouts. Clemens fanned only one in the third and went to three balls on five of the first nine batters, but none of them walked. There would be zero walks to go along with his 20 strikeouts.

Owen singled to right on an 0-and-2 curveball to start the fourth. Don Baylor, who was playing first base and would factor into the magical 20, took a mental note to fine Clemens $5. Baylor was chief justice of the Red Sox' kangaroo court in 1986 and all pitchers faced a $5 fine when surrendering a hit on an 0-and-2 count.

After the hit, Clemens struck out eight in a row, tying an American League record. He got a big assist from Baylor, who dropped a foul pop off the bat of Thomas. After the misplay, Clemens caught Thomas looking at a 3-and-2 fastball for strike three.

About 1,600 miles to the southwest Clemens's mother and two of his sisters were watching the game in a bowling alley in West Houston. The place had a satellite dish and the ladies were getting pretty excited about Roger's performance when other patrons insisted that the channel be switched to the Houston Rockets playoff game. Sister Janet gave them a fight but was overruled, and the Clemens clan hit the road to find another place with a dish.

Back at Fenway, red K's adorned the wall behind the last row of the bleachers in right field. A group of kids from Newton had rushed into Fenway after hearing news of the strikeouts on FM radio.

In the seventh, Thomas drove a 1-and-2 fastball into the center-field bleachers to give Seattle a 1-0 lead. Amazing. Clemens was on his way to history, but was in danger of losing the game. Fortunately for the Rocket, Dwight Evans crushed a three-run homer to center in the bottom of the inning to put Clemens and the Sox ahead, 3-1 (the final score).

Clemens had 18 strikeouts after eight. By this time, Stan Grossfeld, the Globe's two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, was finished with work at the Garden and high-tailing it to Fenway. Others would follow. Most would be late.

Owen struck out on a 1-and-2 fastball to open the ninth, giving Clemens a record-tying 19 strikeouts. When Vic Voltaggio rang up Phil Bradley on an 0-and-2 fastball for No. 20, amateur photographer Joe Hickey snapped a photo from the stands behind home plate. Wade Boggs jogged to the mound from third base and shook Clemens's hand. In 111 years of big league ball, more than 150,000 games, this had never happened. Hickey's photo later appeared in Sports Illustrated.

After Ken Phelps grounded to shortstop for the final out (Clemens's 138th pitch), Debbie Clemens left her seat in the stands and went to the rail to greet her husband. When they got back to their Malden apartment that night, Roger made a batch of calls to family members.

''Sis, I'm in the Hall of Fame," he told Janet.

None of us knew that that he would continue for another 20 years and become one of the greatest pitchers in the history of baseball. He threw another 20-strikeout game (no walks again) in Detroit 10 years later and after the game told Whiteside, ''Thanks for sticking around this time, Larry."

The Sox are a lot more popular now than they were in 1986. There are no empty seats and every game is on AM radio. The Celtics have slipped into irrelevance and the Globe never staffs a Red Sox game with only one reporter. Amateur photographers are not likely to get the best shot of hardball history at Fenway.

But Roger Clemens is still able to pitch. Twenty years and seven Cy Youngs after his first great moment, he is being recruited to come home to Fenway where it all began.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is For an audio slideshow and a look back at Clemens's 20-strikeout game, check out

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