The seven-time Cy Young award winner intimidated batters throughout his 24-year major league career, winning a couple of World Series along the way.
But the 1980 Spring Woods High School graduate told athletes at his alma mater last week that it’s the mental part of a game that separates elite athletes from the rest.
“There are only 650 players in the world who can compete at that level,” Clemens said of Major League Baseball. “If you can’t retain information, you’ll be out of the league.”
Or as the late great Yogi Berra once put it: “Ninety percent of the game is 50 percent mental.”
Clemens said that as an athlete you need to work on your strengths, but you have to work harder on your weaknesses. “It doesn’t take any talent to hustle,” he said.
Long known as a workout warrior, Clemens could often be found in the training room, either making himself stronger physically or getting himself ready for his next start. But even more important, he said, is the mind game of professional sports.
“Mentally, I got you,” he said. “Most people can’t handle the high rate of failure in professional athletics. You’re going to fail a lot as a professional athlete.”
Another part of the mental game is keeping your emotions in check; he said he lost control about five times over his 24-year career. “I’m embarrassed … but I care (about teammates and winning),” he said.
Wearing a gold baseball cap emblazoned with a script “SW” logo on the front (“Let’s do this right,” he’d said while donning the cap before walking on stage), Clemens spoke and took questions for about 45 minutes on Friday, Feb. 17.
He was brought back to Spring Woods by the PTA, which constantly looks for ways to build parent networks between the PTA and the Athletic Booster Club, said Spring Woods High PTA President Theresa Rivera.
“Roger Clemens, a graduate of Spring Woods, has a heartwarming story coming from a single-parent home that many of our students can relate to,” Rivera said. “Who better than him to come and speak to our athletes about his journey that started at Spring Woods High School?”
Clemens played for longtime Spring Woods baseball skipper Charlie Maiorana, who Clemens said was a “great coach but a better teacher.” He added Wayne Graham, Rice University baseball coach who was Clemens’ coach at San Jacinto College, and Cliff Gustafson at the University of Texas as important male figures in his life.
His dad died of a heart attack when he was 9, he said, and his mother worked three jobs so he could have nice equipment while pursuing athletics. He was a three-sport letterman at Spring Woods, playing football, baseball and basketball.
Jimmy McNeil, one of Clemen’s football coaches at Spring Woods, said he thought Clemens was a better at football than baseball in those days. Clemens himself admitted that he might have been better at football but he “always thought I had a shot” at baseball.
Clemens played baseball at San Jacinto College then the University of Texas after leaving Spring Woods, foregoing a professional contract until drafted 19th overall by the Boston Red Sox in 1983. He played for the Red Sox, the Toronto Blue Jays, the New York Yankees and the Houston Astros over the course of his professional career. He played in six World Series, winning two with the Yankees in 1999 and 2000.
He told Spring Woods students that his life and fame as a professional baseball player has afforded him financial security and has given him access to any number of celebrities. He’s been friends with former president George H. W. Bush since his Spring Woods days. He’s appeared in several movies, in several episodes of the television show “Arliss” and in television commercials (“I was zestfully clean for a couple of years,” he said).
But other than his family, Clemens said the highlight of his life was being asked to go to the Middle East to support U.S. troops prior to the invasion of Iraq.
“I was blown away,” he told the Spring Woods students. “Those men and women weren’t much older that you guys … the last group, about 4,000 or so, were going into battle first. “I couldn’t believe the energy they had.”
“Out of all the celebrities I’ve met, it pales when going to the Middle East and seeing our troops,” he said. “I have total respect for those guys.” He implored students to always thank military members, law enforcement and firefighters when presented the opportunity.
Clemens said there will be plenty of days when you’re tired, or having relationship problems, or family or money issues, but set those aside and keep working hard.
“We’ve all got (problems,” he said. “You just have to deal with (them). Talk with teachers or other caring adults. Get to know them.”
And do your school work, he said.
“Get your work done in the classroom,” Clemens said, “so you can represent the Tigers well.”
By Rusty Graham