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Jonathan Mayo interview

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Jonathan Mayo, a writer for mlb.com, has a book coming out in March called "Facing Clemens." Each chapter is centered around a different hitter, and his impressions on what it was look to go up against arguably the greatest pitcher of our generation.

You can read more about the book at Jonathan's website, and he also graciously agreed to do an interview with me about the book, which you can read after the jump:

Q: I'll start out with an easy one...how did you decide to do a book about facing Roger Clemens?

A: I'd love to say it was completely my brainchild, but it's not. I had been discussing a variety of book projects with the publisher, Lyons Press. They had done two similar books with boxers - "Facing Ali" and "Facing Tyson" - and the editor felt it was a concept that would work well in baseball. Roger Clemens seemed to be the perfect subject because of the length of his career and his ability to both dominate and intimidate for the entirety of his career. It was a no-brainer, wasn't it, to pick the guy who's considered to be the most dominant right-hander of this, and perhaps any, generation? With all due respect to Greg Maddux, if you're picking one guy that combined excellence and just pure domination, Clemens is it. Once that was decided, it was up to me to determine who would make up each chapter.

Q: So, how did you pick the players who made up each chapter?

A: I have to give the fine folks at retrosheet.org a big shout out for help with that one. I was able to look at every single hitter's performance against Clemens over the course of his entire career. I started with the guy who's faced him more than anyone - Cal Ripken, Jr. Then I wanted to be sure that I got one player who had success against him in more than a few at-bats (Ken Griffey Jr.) and someone who really had abject failure (Torii Hunter). I also took a look at his Major League debut, wanting to find someone who faced him then, back in May 1984. When I saw Julio Franco in that box score, I realized he was a must-have since his career has spanned the length of Clemens'.

From there, I strayed from the purely statistical. I wanted someone from one of the 20K games and was able to talk to Phil Bradley, who struck out four times, including NO. 20 that night in Boston in 1986. I also wanted to get players who faced him on the biggest stage, the World Series. That led me to Gary Carter (1986), Chipper Jones (1999), Darryl Hamilton (2000), Luis Gonzalez (2001) and Juan Pierre (2003). In all of those chapters, I also got into these hitters' non-World Series experiences against the Rocket. Then I wanted some slightly different ones: I tracked down Dave Magadan to talk about the 1983 College World Series, Johnny Drennen, the Indians prospect who homered off of Clemens in that Minor League game back in 2006 and I finish the book off with a really interesting chapter with Koby Clemens, Roger's eldest son who's an Astros Minor Leaguer.

Q: Was there anyone in particular whose comments or thoughts about facing Roger really surprised you?

A: I wouldn't say there was anyone who truly shocked me, but there were some great stories. The one thing I was a little surprised to hear was that he did develop some good friendships with players on other teams. He had this reputation, fairly well-earned, for keeping opponents at arm's length. Even at All-Star Games, he would only pal around with his league cohorts to a degree for fear of losing his edge. He did seemingly mellow a little bit later on in his career, but still, that edge was something he used at all times. That's why it was a little surprising to hear that Ken Griffey Jr. had kind of been able to get past that and forge a friendship with Clemens, mostly through Clemens' children. When Junior first came up, he had more in common with them in some ways, especially a love of video games. Since then, the families have become fairly close. It's largely, I think, because Clemens and Griffey rarely, if ever, talk about baseball. Conversations have usually centered around off-the-field concerns.

Q: Did anyone display real animosity towards Clemens?

A: Not really. Of course, that might have been different had Mike Piazza been willing to talk for the book. Trust me, I tried, but his camp wasn't interested. That's why I ended with Darryl Hamilton's account of the 2000 World Series. I think Gary Carter was the only one who wasn't "wowed" by Clemens. But, to be fair, he faced him mostly in 1986, when Clemens was just getting started. Carter told me that he thought Clemens was plenty good, but didn't really get a sense from his brief time facing him - the '86 All-Star Game and then the World Series that fall were the keys to the chapter - that he was destined for the kind of career he had. Carter's frame of reference was Tom Seaver and Steve Carlton, so it's not like he was comparing Clemens to mediocrity.

Q: Besides Piazza, is there anyone else you wanted to talk to that you couldn't get for the book?

A: No one that was that obvious. I thought about Paul Molitor because, after Ripken, he had faced Clemens the most, and had success against him. But he wasn't interested. Ditto with Jim Thome, who's homered the most vs. the Rocket. I had wanted to explore a chapter on Spike Owen, who was Clemens' teammate at the University of Texas, faced him while with the Mariners in that 20-strikeout game in 1986 before being traded to the Red Sox that season for the postseason run in Boston. That one didn't work out. Finally, and this would've been one that might have interested your readers, I thought about a chapter on Geno Petralli. Go check out his numbers against Clemens. He didn't face him a lot, but he sure had success against him. It never ceases to amaze me in baseball when these non-stars/role players have a superstar's numbers (I always think of Joe McEwing vs. Randy Johnson). Alas, the Petralli chapter never came together.

Q: As a Ranger fan, I remember well Petralli's success against Clemens (including the game winning homer he hit against Clemens in the late 80s on national television)...

Okay, the inevitable question, in the wake of the Mitchell Report...did the dreaded "s" word ever come up?

A: Well, truthfully, one "s" word did come to mind when I saw the Mitchell Report, but I can't repeat that here. I can honestly say that over the course of the entire work on the book, steroids was never mentioned. Now I don't know if it was on players' minds when talking about Clemens's reinvention in Toronto, but more often than not, people talked about his splitter and him becoming a more complete pitcher at that time. So the subject was never broached and because the report was released so close to printing time, there wasn't the opportunity to address it in the book.

Q: I understand former Ranger Julio Franco is one of the players with a chapter in this book. What were Franco's thoughts on facing Clemens?

Franco faced Clemens when the Rocket made his Major League debut in May of 1984, less than a year after being drafted. Immediately, he was impressed with Clemens' poise and demeanor on the mound. He talked about how Clemens was in control of his emotions on the mound right from the get-go. But what would probably be of more interest to your readers are his thoughts when Franco was a Texas Ranger.

Franco had some good years in Texas, and from 1989-91, he won three Silver Slugger Awards and went to two All-Star Games. Some of the best stuff in the chapter is him talking about the Nolan Ryan-Roger Clemens battles. Here's a sampling of what he had to say about the marquee matchup:

"When Nolan got to the mound, he wanted to be perfect. His mind-set was that he wanted to throw a no-hitter. If you got a hit, then he wanted to shut you out, he wanted to throw a one-hitter. I guarantee you towards the end of his career, he was fearsome. I'm sure every time Nolan pitched, Roger was watching. [You know he was thinking,] this is my inspiration. This is the guy I look up to...They're both from Texas and I guarantee you he gave Roger a lot of points, a lot of input: pitch this way, pitch that way, especially at the end of Nolan's career. To play in those games, you see those two guys throwing 96-97, nasty B and sliders, you don't see those things anymore, two pitchers at the same time that dominant. Now, you can see a setup man or a closer like that. But to see two pitchers of that caliber going head-to-head, it was overwhelming...[When the two of them faced each other], it's a matchup of Nolan Ryan versus Roger Clemens. And that's all that it is. I want to beat you and you want to beat me. I'm going to show you that I'm still the king in town. And I'm going to show you that I'm coming, I'm coming to take your crown. To be a part of that, it was amazing to see those guys pitch."

Q: Great stuff. Thanks for your time. For folks interested in the book, you can go to http://www.jonathanmayo.net for more info.