Boston is now Mr. Raw-jah's neighborhood

JOHN EISENBERG

October 06, 1990|By JOHN EISENBERG

BOSTON -- He has little in common with the loyal, luckless New Englanders who cheer him so heartily these days. He speaks with a Texas twang, loathes cold winters, loves Hank Williams Jr. and spends the off-season halfway across the country in a suburb thrown up on a plain outside Houston, a place where there are few Democrats and even fewer traditions.

Hardheaded, slow-moving, not a joiner, not particularly complicated -- he is the antithesis of the native son in these parts, really, a Protestant in a Catholic town. Modern sports fans can't be guided by provincialism, though; the games are far too rootless, teammates coming together from everywhere, bonds so often temporary. You take what talent you can get, cheer your cheers and ask no questions.

Thus, much as the people here adopted a shy basketball player from Indiana a decade ago -- they called him "Laaaaaaary" in their idiosyncratic tongue -- now they accept as their own a right-handed pitcher whose celebrity is of such proportion that, in the manner of a rock star, he goes by one name: Raw-jah. That's with the accent included, and if it sounds like a king's name, well, that's perfect.

It is difficult to comprehend the grip the Red Sox's Roger Clemens has on these environs. His every move is annotated, collated and debated, every twinge in his arm monitored, every strikeout cheered as a masterpiece framed. The fans here may be pessimistic, but they aren't stupid. The Sox are in the playoffs for the third time in five years, and Clemens, with 100 wins since 1986, is the essential reason. The fans pay their respects with attention.

It isn't misplaced. There are a hundred reasons the Oakland A's should beat the Sox in the American League Championship Series, which begins tonight in Fenway Park. The outmanned Sox have only one hope, one reason for not giving up before the series begins: They have Raw-jah.

It is a measure of the disparity between the teams that the A's are countering Clemens in Game 1 tonight with a pitcher who won more games this season (Dave Stewart, 22-21) and isn't even the staff's top winner. But every upset has to start somewhere, and the Sox undergo a striking change in personality when Clemens is pitching. This is their chance.

They were 67-68 without him this year, a slow, powerless, bullpen-weak team hacking it out with only moderate success in baseball's worst division. When Clemens is pitching, though, they're crisp, decisive, authoritative -- truly a marvel. Clemens went 21-6 this year, and when Sox manager Joe Morgan was asked yesterday if his team was different, more confident, with Clemens on the mound, he said, "Absolutely."

It isn't just that Clemens is successful, see. It is his zero-to-60 style, fastballs, faster, faster, fastest balls. No pitcher in today's game can more effectively shut out a team without hope, just take away its spirit well before the ninth inning. Ben McDonald did it a couple of times this year, against the White Sox and Indians. Clemens does it often, and the players behind him get caught up in the exhilaration. He is their inspiration.

It was no coincidence that the Sox blew a 6 1/2 -game lead late this season when Clemens left the rotation for 25 days with tendinitis in his shoulder. To the sidelines went not only his arm, but the Sox's psychic center, their one reason to strut. When he came back and pitched six shutout innings in a critical defeat of Toronto last weekend, you could almost see the players swelling back up. There is a reason Clemens will get more MVP votes than any other pitcher.

Of course, as always, one must take the bad with the good. When the Sox got within a game of winning the division, Clemens wanted the press barred from the clubhouse for an extra 15 minutes while the players were given time to celebrate. Told no by Morgan, he gave a sharp punch to the manager's door -- with his right hand, on which only the entire team rests. Teammates rolled their eyes in disbelief.

Clemens' tenure has not been without a spate of such odd moments. He once gave an offseason interview in which he suddenly warned that he would hurt anyone in the press if they wrote about his family. No one had ever done so or ever threatened to do so. When the local papers had fun with it, one columnist writing about taking karate lessons, Clemens retreated. He gives interviews now only after he pitches.

Everyone here puts up with any of Clemens' whims, though, because he makes the baseball season far more interesting. Whether he can make this series more interesting is another matter. Searching for a reason to pick the Sox is fruitless. Even their best assets are slam-dunked. Yes, they hit 20 points better than Oakland, but the A's scored more runs. Yes, they played .630 baseball at home, but the A's won four of six in Fenway.

It's hopeless. The A's are just too good. But they were also just too good for the Dodgers in the 1988 World Series, and look what happened. The Dodgers had Hershiser. The Sox have Clemens. His tendinitis may limit him to two starts, and the Sox need to win both to have any chance. He is the thread onto which they hold as they try to climb into this thing, and you can almost hear the symphony of voices floating across the night sky, in unison: "C'mawn Raw-jah."

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