The Day “The Rocket” Became a Yankee

The Yankees had just won two of the last three World Series, including setting an MLB-record 125 total wins in 1998 (counting regular season and playoffs). Surely they didn’t need to make changes. What did they do? They traded David Wells, who finished third in A.L. Cy Young voting in 1998. What they got in return was a larger-than-life persona.

In addition to fan-favorite David “Boomer” Wells, Brian Cashman included Homer Bush and Graeme Lloyd in the trade with the Toronto Blue Jays for Roger Clemens, who had won two consecutive Cy Young awards and led baseball in strikeouts three seasons in a row from 1996-1998. He had the lowest FIP in 1997 and 1998, and the best-adjusted ERA (ERA+). It ended up being one of the most controversial and successful trades in Yankees history.

This trade was facilitated 19 years ago yesterday. What followed was a tale of adding to the last great dynasty in baseball coupled with shortcomings. Thankfully, the former triumphed over the latter.

Initially, Clemens regressed almost inexplicably in his first season in pinstripes, as he posted an ERA+ of just 102 and a 4.36 FIP. His strikeouts per nine innings ratio nosedived from 10.4 in 1998 to 7.8 in 1999. He was overshadowed by Yankee mainstays Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez and Andy Pettitte. Despite the fact that he was 36 at the time, a normal retirement age for most players, Clemens maintained his famous, intimidating presence on the mound.

He did so by allowing just six earned runs in three playoff starts in 1999, which included a seven-inning shutout performance in Game 3 of the ALDS and a one-run performance against the Braves in the series-clinching Game 4 of the World Series. The Yankees won their second straight World Series and their third in the last four seasons.

The new millennium had arrived. Clemens returned to his usual self in the regular season in 2000 as he posted a 131 ERA+. Although this Yankees team was by far the “weakest” of the late 1990s-early 2000s dynasty (finished just 87-74 and lost 15 of their last 18), Clemens terminated any thoughts of a season without a three-peat. In his lone start in the ALCS against the Mariners, Clemens pitched a complete game by allowing just one hit in a Game 4 shutout.

In Game 2 of the “Subway Series” World Series, Clemens went eight innings while striking out nine batters, and had a confrontation with Mike Piazza. Clemens and Piazza already had a bit of an acrimonious history, as Clemens hit the Mets’ slugging catcher with a fastball in the head, which ended in a concussion for Piazza. Clemens claimed that he was unaware that Piazza was running after he fouled away the ball that broke his bat.

Whatever the case was, Clemens dominated in his only start of the 2000 World Series. The Yankees won in five games (albeit a very close series). They head their three-peat and solidified the legacy of the dynasty.

Sadly, their win in 2000 would be the last World Series win with Joe Torre and Roger Clemens for the Yankees. Clemens did win the Cy Young again in 2001, his sixth such award. He dominated again in the playoffs, as he surrendered just seven earned runs in three starts, though the Yankees lost to the Diamondbacks in seven games, ultimately faltering on a walk-off single.

Clemens remained with the Yankees for another two years, which saw them lose to the Angels in the 2002 ALDS and then fall short to the Marlins in the 2003 World Series.

He returned to the Bronx once more in 2007, and after a loss to the Indians in the ALDS, he called it a career.

Whatever the thoughts are about Roger Clemens, whatever people think about him, it is safe to say that the trade for him 19 years ago yesterday paid off. He was a very good postseason performer who may have generated controversy but he never failed his Yankees teammates. We will see Clemens in Cooperstown one day soon, regardless of anyone’s thoughts on steroids or PEDs.

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