Roger Clemens won three Cy Young Awards and an MVP during his time in Boston, yet his No. 21 still hasn’t been retired by the franchise. F. Carter Smith/Associated Press

Unlike basketball, which tends to underrate great players from bygone eras, baseball has been known to prop up its legends at the expense of the modern player.

As with any rule, exceptions exist. Michael Jordan, even before the popular “Last Dance” series introduced him to a new generation, got his due.

In baseball, not all of yesterday’s superstars are held in as high a regard as their accomplishments merit.

Exhibit A: Roger Clemens.

What seems like not so long ago, every fifth home game, Fenway Park took on an electricity befitting a Rolling Stones concert. How many cities could say the same? None. The atmosphere with Clemens pitching at Fenway Park could not be matched anywhere from the mid-’80s to the mid-’90s.

His power, his dominance, sometimes even his temper, made Clemens as must-watch a performer as there was in baseball. You never knew what was going to happen with Clemens on the mound. You always knew there would be a good chance you won’t soon forget whatever it was you were about to witness.


He won three Cy Young Awards, one MVP and faced zero steroid allegations with the Boston Red Sox. He struck out 20 batters in a game in his third season with his first team and again in his third-to-last start with the Sox.

Yet, the right-field facade in Fenway Park has 10 red numbers next to Jackie Robinson’s blue 42 and not a 21 in the bunch. There’s a 9 (Ted Williams), a 4 (Joe Cronin), a 1 (Bobby Doerr), an 8 (Carl Yastrzemski), a 27 (Carlton Fisk), a 6 (Johnny Pesky), a 14 (Jim Rice), a 45 (Pedro Martinez), a 26 (Wade Boggs), and a 34 (David Ortiz), but no 21.

We know why Clemens and the even more dominant Barry Bonds are not in Cooperstown yet. Links to steroids late in their careers have caused the delays. I’m among the 60 percent who vote for them, but 75 percent is required for admission. The Giants, by the way, have retired Bonds’ No. 25.

So what’s the holdup with Clemens? Waiting for him to get inducted in Cooperstown? He’s waited long enough. If Ortiz, who had his number retired by the Red Sox in a ceremony June 23, 2017, didn’t have to wait, why should Clemens?

No. 45 belongs on the facade, but it always has seemed strange that it was rushed up there before No. 21. Up until that point, the best explanation as to why Clemens wasn’t honored was that it was being delayed until after his induction in the Hall of Fame. That excuse vanished once No. 45 went up.

Ortiz is the only Red Sox player to win three World Series since 1918 and he’s the greatest clutch player in franchise history, boasting a .455 batting average with 14 runs and 14 RBI in 14 World Series games. The issue isn’t whether his number belongs. It clearly does. The issue is Roger’s omission.


The slight of Clemens can’t have anything to do with steroids. Those allegations didn’t come until after he had left the Red Sox via free agency after the 1996 season. Plus, that wouldn’t explain the Ortiz disparity. Ortiz’s name reportedly appeared on the list of players who tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs in 2003, his first season with the Red Sox, and his first of many seasons as an extremely productive hitter. Which factor juiced his career more: the source of his name appearing on that list, joining the Red Sox, or a combination? Whichever, Ortiz was nothing special in parts of six seasons with the Twins. He never drove in more than 75 runs in a season until knocking in 101 in his inaugural campaign with the Red Sox.

Ortiz denied he ever did steroids, of course. Everybody whose name appears on such lists denies, denies, denies. They know that doing so creates doubt, whereas a confession removes all doubt. My guess is most Red Sox fans don’t care whether he’s telling the truth or lying about that. He never served a suspension, and he helped the Red Sox to win three more World Series than they had won post-1918.

But it will be interesting to see what impact his name making the list has on his Hall of Fame candidacy. He’ll be on the ballot for the first time in 2022, the final year for Bonds and Clemens, if they haven’t already been inducted. Alex Rodriguez, on the 2003 list and suspended for the entire 2014 season for PED abuse, appears on the ballot that year as well.

Big Papi is the most beloved of the four, not that that should matter, but it might. I would love to hear someone try to explain voting for Ortiz and not for the other three controversial superstars. No explanation would suffice, unless someone leaves off A-Rod because he served suspension and the other three did not.

Before worrying about the Hall of Fame Class of ’22, the Red Sox need to right a wrong and retire No. 21. Things are too uncertain this season, but next season would be perfect. Retire 21 in ’21, and launch The Rocket onto the right-field facade, where the sight of his number will stoke memories of so many pedal-to-the-medal nights at Fenway Park.

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