Loons skipper Haselman was part of history as Rocket Man’s catcher
Loons manager Bill Haselman caught a perfect game but can say it wasn’t the best pitching performance he was part of.
Haselman, after all, was behind the plate when Boston Red Sox pitcher Roger Clemens struck out 20 Detroit Tigers on Sept. 18, 1996. Clemens allowed five hits in a 4-0 win, but the way Haselman describes it, the Tigers really didn’t have a chance.
“He had it all going that night,” said Haselman. “He had a 96 mph fastball and a split finger that was just nasty. I mean, that thing came to the plate and just dropped. It was basically unhittable.”
Haselman caught a perfect game thrown by Bronson Arroyo of the Pawtucket Red Sox in 2003. Arroyo was so sharp that day that he only went to a 3-ball count three times. Haselman certainly doesn’t diminish Arroyo’s gem, but he still thinks Clemens’ masterpiece at Tiger Stadium seven years earlier was a cut above.
“Don’t get me wrong, (Arroyo’s perfect game) was special,” Haselman said. “But I think Clemens was more dominant even though he gave up some hits.”
The 20-strikeouts in nine innings tied Clemens’ own MLB record that he’d set 10 years earlier. It would be tied again by the Cubs’ Kerry Wood in 1998, as well as lefty Randy Johnson , who also struck out 20 in nine but in a game that went into extra innings.
Clemens had 19 K’s entering the ninth against the Tigers. He’d struck out at least two batters in every inning, and fanned the side twice. The game meant nothing in the standings – both teams were out of playoff contention – and only 8,779 fans were in attendance, but a dialed-in Clemens had plenty of incentive.
“It was an emotional time for him,” Haselman said. “He was a free agent and I think he knew that the Red Sox didn’t plan on bringing him back. He also knew that he was closing in on some records held by Cy Young.”
Clemens entered the game one win and one shutout shy of Young’s Red Sox records. He was also looking to throw his 100th complete game. The possibility of breaking his single-game strikeout game probably never crossed his mind, says Haselman.
“I don’t think he knew how many strikeouts he had,” Haselman said. “I didn’t know until after the eighth inning when someone told me he had 19. But I didn’t want to tell him and blow his focus.”
Haselman said he’s convinced the Tigers knew. The possibility of being involved in a record they wanted no part of affected their hitting approach in the ninth.“I’m pretty sure they knew. It sure seemed like it,” said Haselman. “They were just trying to put the bat on the ball.”
Detroit’s Alan Trammell led off the ninth by popping out to first base. Ruben Sierra followed with a single to center, and then Tony Clark flied out to left. That left it up to Travis Fryman, who’d already struck out three times. Clemens made it four with a split-finger – and 20 overall.
“When I went out to the mound he said, ‘I think we got it,’” Haselman said. “But he was talking about the shutout. So, I said, ‘Do you realize what you’ve done? You’ve struck out 20 batters.
“And he’s like, ‘I did?’”
Haselman, who caught 13 years in the majors, worked well enough with Clemens that he became the right-hander’s only catcher for the second half of the ’96 season.
“He was an intense guy, very well-prepared, and a very emotional type of person,” Haselman said. “He went after guys, I tell you. He was comfortable working with me and we really worked well together.”
He was also, said Haselman, the kind of guy you wanted on your side.
“He was an awesome teammate – one of the best I’ve ever had,” said Haselman. “With him, it was always ‘we.’ It was, ‘We did this.’
“After the 20-strikeout game he called me out to do an interview with him. That’s how he was.”
Haselman also did his part that night on offense. He went 3-for-4 and drove in two runs against a team he would join three years later.
“I did OK,” he said. “I always hit well in Tiger Stadium. It was one of my best ballparks to hit in.”
Clemens finished the ’96 season with a 10-13 record, 3.63 ERA and a league-high 257 strikeouts. He signed with Toronto after the season, and won 20 games in each of the next two years.
“He was probably the best I ever caught,” said Haselman. “Him and the Big Unit (Randy Johnson). Those guys were something else.”