March 25, 2008
Book Excerpt: Torii Hunter on "Facing Clemens"
Jonathan Mayo is a senior writer for MLB.com and has been working for the official site of Major League Baseball since 1999. His focus is on the minor leagues and the draft, but he has covered MLB for a number of years. He wrote "Facing Clemens" prior to the release of the Mitchell Report, so the work is free of performance-enhancers. It takes readers into the batter’s box and provides insights from hitters on the challenges of trying to succeed against Clemens over the course of his career. One of the chapters is on former Twins star Torii Hunter and the following is an excerpt from that chapter.
Torii Hunter knew he had been given a gift once he heard the news. It came by way of an announcement from the owner’s box at Yankee Stadium on Sunday, May 6, 2007. Roger Clemens made it official, speaking to the Yankee faithful in the Bronx that afternoon via the video scoreboard. “Well, they came and got me out of Texas and I can tell you it's a privilege to be back,” Clemens said. "I'll be talking to y’all soon.”
There was no surprise that Roger Clemens decided to make another late return to baseball for the 2007 season. And it would be difficult to find someone shocked that he chose to return to New York over the Red Sox or Astros. Hunter may have been more interested than most, especially once he perused the Twins schedule and saw that Minnesota would be heading to Yankee Stadium for four games in the beginning of July.
That would give him another chance--perhaps his last one--to accomplish something that had eluded him throughout his very successful career. He’s logged over 1,200 games of big-league time, surpassing the 1,200-hit plateau. He’s slugged over 190 home runs and stolen over 125 bases. He’s been to the postseason with the Minnesota Twins four times, went to two All-Star Games and has a shelf full of Gold Gloves for his play in center field (six entering the 2007 season, to be exact).
But there has been one achievement that has eluded the veteran star, the thing he hoped he’d finally be able to pick up in that visit to the Bronx in July 2007. Without including one playoff meeting, Hunter entered the 2007 season with an albatross-around-his-neck 0-for-22 against the Rocket. Then opportunity knocked one more time with Clemens’ decision to return to the American League after three seasons over in the National League.
Clemens had rushed back to help rescue the Yankees in 2007. A series of injuries had decimated the pitching staff and New York was under .500 with the Red Sox threatening to run away with the AL East. So the Rocket accelerated his timetable, made a trio of minor-league starts, got delayed slightly by a balky groin, and made his season debut against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Saturday, June 9, just a month after announcing to the Yankee Stadium faithful he was coming back.
Clemens got the win against the Pirates, but it was an uneven performance, as he allowed three runs in six innings. He was up-and-down for the rest of the month, finishing June with a 5.32 ERA. There were more than a few whispers saying the Yankees had made a costly mistake in bringing back the 44-year-old. But Clemens would show he had more than a little left in the tank when the calendar turned to July.
It did seem like a perfect opportunity for Hunter. Clemens still looked very rusty and the Twins center fielder was having his best season since being an All-Star back in 2002. Hunter hit .302 up until the game against the Yankees and Clemens, with 17 homers, 63 RBIs, and 11 steals. He was optimistic, yet philosophical, about the opportunity to face his nemesis one more time.
“For me, I get a chance to get that hit I need. I’m excited,” said Hunter, who signed a big free-agent deal with the Los Angeles Angels following the 2007 season. “Me as an athlete, you don’t want to be the guy who has no hits off anybody. I’m a better hitter, better player. I think I have a good chance getting that hit off him.
“I’m not that young kid any more. I’m older. I have more experience, I’m more under control. I understand the game. You get a hit three out of ten times, you’re a hero. It’s a game of failure. I’m going to try my best to get my hit, but I won’t let it get me down. He’s the only one who gets my number. He’s struck out lots of people. If it’s going to be one guy, I’ll tell my grandkids Roger Clemens got me. It’s something you have to cope with. If it doesn’t happen, it was a good run, a good race. He’s a Hall of Famer. Hang with ’em.”
It didn’t happen. Clemens, it seemed, chose July 2 to look like the pitcher the Yankees signed to help them climb back into the race. The right-hander went eight innings and allowed just one run on two hits. Once a strikeout machine who put up fairly big pitch counts, this Clemens was extremely efficient. He only threw 97 pitches in the game, 67 for strikes, while striking out four. It was win number 350 in Clemens’ storied career and he hit that stratified air with the second-lowest loss total in the history of the game (only Cy Young had fewer losses when he reached the 350-win plateau).
Once again, Roger Clemens was redefining the kind of pitcher he was based on what he could still bring to the table. Hunter knew ahead of time this wasn’t going to be the guy who dominated him--and everyone--in the American League early on and probably not even the pitcher who found success in the National League over the previous three seasons.
“I think he’s a different pitcher now,” Hunter said before facing him. “He probably has a different way of getting it done. He’s probably smarter. If I jumped at the first pitch all the time, he might go slider off the bat. I may have to watch how he goes at other guys like me. I’ll get my game plan from that. That’s how you feel them out. You watch and see what they’re doing. Once he gets on the mound, I’m going to watch to see what he’s doing. And trust me, I’ll have the scouting reports from everywhere.”