BASEBALL is a game that rewards the doggedly faithful among its fans. They can never be sure just when greatness will strike. Greatness struck Tuesday night at Boston's Fenway Park, where Red Sox pitcher Roger Clemens smashed a major-league record by striking out 20 batters, the most a pitcher has ever fanned in a nine-inning game. The previous mark, 19, was first reached in 1969 by Steve Carlton of the St. Louis Cardinals. The record of 18 strikeouts (Bob Feller, Cleveland Indians) had stuck since 1938.
Baseball, of course, is a sport of records, but this is one of the big ones. It is by nature, though, the achievement of a single game, not one that fans can expect over the season. Clemens set his record on a weeknight when many of Boston's sports fans were across town watching Larry Bird and the Celtics; Fenway Park was only a third full.
But Clemens's triumph is all the sweeter for having come after missing much of last season owing to injury. He was ``throwing heat,'' fastballs clocked at 97 m.p.h., at the end of the game.
Boston has been known as a hitting team rather than a pitching team. But pitching draws more fans than casual observers may imagine. The face-off between the pitcher and the batter is the classic confrontation of baseball, and the great pitchers -- Feller, Ron Guidry, Tom Seaver, Sandy Koufax, and others -- have packed 'em in over time. Still, no one had ever struck out 20 batters in one game before.
At this point, the mavens don't see Clemens as a pitcher of quite the same overall stature as a Feller, a Guidry, or a Koufax. But on one night, he has proved that he can do it with the best of them.
And P.S. -- the Red Sox won the game, against the Seattle Mariners, 3 to 1.