Pitchers’ Duel

Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling, and Hall of Fame standards in the steroid era

Image: Jim Cooke

Dick Berardino has seen many pitchers come and go during his four decades with the Boston Red Sox, but few more memorably than Curt Schilling or Roger “The Rocket” Clemens. Berardino managed a raw, 20-year-old Schilling with the Class A Greensboro Hornets, a Red Sox farm team, in 1987, before Schilling was traded to the Baltimore Orioles the following year. A couple years later, as the Red Sox bullpen coach, Berardino got a prime view of Clemens, the team’s franchise pitcher, whom he watched closely until 1996, when the Sox declined to re-sign the Rocket, convinced that he was spent at age 34.

Clemens, of course, would go on to win four Cy Young awards after that, and help the Yankees win the World Series in 1999 and 2000. In 2004, a 37-year-old Schilling would return to the Red Sox and help soften bad memories of Clemens’s departure, delivering the team a World Series of its own, after 86 years in the wilderness, as Berardino, then 68, looked on.

Schilling announced his retirement this spring, and as the Hall of Fame prepares to induct its newest class, many observers are already looking ahead to 2013, when both he and Clemens will be on the ballot for the first time. Statistically, there is no comparison between the two. While both were right-handed power pitchers, strikeout kings who could handle heavy workloads year after year, Clemens won 354 games over his career, racking up a shelf-buckling seven Cy Youngs in the process; by the numbers, he was arguably the best pitcher of all time. Schilling’s 216 wins, like most of his career statistics, are very good; still, by the numerology that has traditionally governed Hall of Fame voting, he is at best a marginal prospect.

But baseball numbers no longer inspire the same faith that they used to. Clemens’s went out the window in the wake of credible allegations about his steroid use—believed to have begun after the Red Sox left him for dead. “Roger had this Texas mentality,” Berardino told me from his home in Waltham, Massachusetts. “More is better, bigger is better. I didn’t think he needed to work out like he did. After he went to the bullpen to warm up, it was like he had just pitched nine innings. ‘More is better. You gotta do what you gotta do.’ That was him.”

Schilling, when Berardino first met him, had a different outlook. “I knew Schilling was a gamer,” he told me. But “he was young, a little immature, high-maintenance. I pushed him a lot and I was hard on him. I know he didn’t like me a lot.” Clemens famously dressed down Schilling in 1991 during a chance weight-room encounter, telling the younger pitcher that he’d never amount to anything if he didn’t change his work habits. Schilling, who idolized Clemens at the time, counts the conversation as a turning point in his career.

“As he got older, [Schilling] became more and more a student of the game,” Berardino explained. He paid his dues in the weight room, but it was his mental preparation—meticulously charting opposing hitters, watching for tendencies he could exploit on the mound—that distinguished him. The “bloody sock” game, in which Schilling threw 99 pitches off a badly injured right ankle—beating the Yankees 4–2 and continuing the Red Sox’ improbable march to the 2004 World Series—was as much a testament to concentration and craft as it was a physical marvel.

“Everything is looked at differently now,” Berardino told me. As steroids have devalued statistical comparisons as measures of greatness, what remains is something more organic and impressionistic. If Schilling makes the Hall, it will be on the back of his particular iconography, something Clemens’s career largely lacked—the bloody sock; an electrifying pitching performance in the deciding game of the 2001 World Series that lifted the upstart Arizona Diamondbacks over Clemens’s mighty Yankees; and an overall knack for postseason brilliance, for coming up big, again and again, in the biggest of games. Even Schilling’s body, thin-legged and pot-bellied, might be an asset of sorts in an era where heaped muscle is viewed with suspicion.

In 2007, when the charges against Clemens came out, Schilling publicly demanded that his erstwhile hero forfeit his last four Cy Youngs, and that baseball erase his 162 post–Red Sox wins, if Clemens couldn’t clear his name. Will Hall of Fame voters be of the same mind? “I wouldn’t be surprised if Schilling gets in and Clemens doesn’t,” Berardino told me. “But I hope it’s not true with Clemens, all the steroid talk. Because there was no need. He was a Hall of Famer, in my book, a long time ago.”