Then-Boston Red Sox pitcher Roger Clemens charges at umpire Terry Cooney after Cooney ejected the fiery fireballer during game four of the 1990 ALCS.
AL umpire Terry Cooney could do no right that day – Oct. 10, 1990 at least, according to then-Boston Red Sox pitcher Roger Clemens.
It seemed much too early in the ballgame for emotions to boil – bottom of the second inning in game four of the 1990 AL Championship Series (ALCS) between Boston and the surging Oakland Athletics. But Cooney, working behind the plate in the third and final ALCS of his 18-year major league career, saw the warning signs of the soon-to-be bumping incident involving himself and Clemens.
“Whatever I called (his pitches), he thought they were the opposite,” Cooney said of Clemens, now with the New York Yankees. “If I called strikes, he thought they were balls. If I called balls, he thought they were strikes.”
Even before the bumping incident with Cooney, it had been a trying week for Clemens. His team was trailing in the series, 3-0. He had bruised his right hand in a clubhouse altercation – there were reports he had ongoing feuds with several coaches and teammates – in addition to coming off a nagging tendonitis injury in his right shoulder. Adding freak circumstance to injury, Clemens unintentionally struck a fan in the head with a pitch when it wildly sailed into the right-field stands during the game four warmups. Not to mention the fact that he was facing Oakland pitcher Dave Stewart, a longtime nemesis who had cleaned Clemens’ clock in seven of eight meetings prior to game four. Regardless, Clemens had the look of a man ready to go to war that day.
In the second inning, after Clemens walked Oakland batter Willie Randolph on a two-out, 3-1 pitch – which Clemens considered to be a strike – the high-strung right-hander snapped.
“When I walked (Randolph), Clemens’ whole demeanor changed,” Cooney, 68, said recently from his Clovis, Calif., home. “He was cursing and looking dead into the plate. So I said to the catcher (Tony Pena), ‘I hope he wasn’t talking to me.’”
Clemens was, in fact, talking to Cooney and his expletive-laden dialogue – heard by Cooney, Oakland batter Mike Gallego and others from 60 feet away – was far from complimentary (Cooney revealed Clemens used the phrase “gutless c—————“). So Cooney ejected the Red Sox’s ace thrower, inducing a 15-minute melee in sold out Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. Clemens later admitted to using profanity but said it was not directed at Cooney. He also said Cooney yelled at him first in an attempt to initiate an argument, but witnesses said Clemens taunted Cooney to remove his facemask.
“When I ejected him, all hell broke loose,” Cooney said.
“Everybody seemed to get together near the mound. I was going out there to explain to (Boston Manager) Joe Morgan why I had ejected Clemens. Morgan was out there stomping around. Clemens acted as if he didn’t know he was ejected. Then Morgan told him, and that’s when he really got angry and came over telling me that wasn’t what he said. That’s when he bumped me.”
Despite being restrained by teammates, Clemens pushed umpire Jim Evans during his attempt to clear a path to Cooney. The tirade later earned him a five-game suspension and a $10,000 fine, which he unsuccessfully appealed in the offseason. Boston reserve infielder Marty Barrett, ejected for heaving two Gatorade containers and a bucket of candy and sunflower seeds onto the field, joined a livid Clemens in the locker room.
“If I called strikes, he thought they were balls. If I called balls, he thought they were strikes.”
When play resumed, Cooney still had seven innings of baseball to work – and an hour-long postgame press conference to host – before punching out for the day.
“It was a different kind of situation than I had ever been in before,” Cooney said. “Those were the most difficult seven innings I’ve ever worked in my lifetime. That was a situation that happens very rarely in playoff situations, especially a person of his stature. I had to bear down on every pitch.”
Oakland went on to win the game, 3-1, completing the four-game sweep for the AL pennant and earning its third straight berth in the World Series. As Cooney changed in the umpires’ room after the game, nervous AL officials paced around him before ushering Cooney into the highly anticipated media interview session, held in the stadium’s basement.
“Some of them were telling me to hurry and change. Some were telling me to just take my time,” said Cooney, who later had to be escorted by local police officers from the stadium to his car. “So I went in there with a cool demeanor, dressed in a suit, answered all the questions that were asked of me and left it at that.”
After the incident was reviewed, Cooney absorbed criticism for failing to give Clemens a warning before removing him and for the clumsiness of his ejection gesture (some reporters felt Cooney’s thumb did not come across very self-assured). In response, Cooney said his refusal to remove his mask was a warning in itself to Clemens. “I’ve never second-guessed myself,” he said. “I know I was right. When you make a call, you have to stick to it. And I don’t know who would get the idea that I wasn’t demonstrative when I threw him out. I did it very emphatically. That’s the only way I ever threw anybody out.”
While the Athletics proceeded to be swept by the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series, Clemens prepared to throw a few curveballs at the hearing to appeal his punishment on April 19,1991. His defense representatives arranged for a deaf woman named Deborah Copeland to read his lips during a video recording of the incident – a futile attempt at vindication. In the end, however, Major League Baseball upheld the “Rocket’s” sentence after concluding he failed to provide clear and convincing proof of his accusation that Cooney and Evans falsified their incident reports.
“He’s never to blame for anything,” said Cooney, who coincidentally worked first base during Clemens’s first game back from serving his suspension, at Chicago’s Comiskey Park on May 3, 1991. “He won’t accept responsibility for anything he does. He’s a great pitcher; don’t get me wrong. But he acts like, 1 couldn’t have done that.’”
Cooney retired from baseball in 1993 after conceding defeat in an ongoing battle with knee problems. He had knee replacement surgery on his left knee in the summer of 1995 – just six months before being diagnosed with colon cancer. But after enduring eight months of chemotherapy, Cooney is back in good health. Each year, around playoff time, Cooney receives a few letters from fans in reference to the Clemens incident. And though he has dutifully responded to the approximately 100 letters and autograph requests, Cooney spends much of the time working in the garden with his wife, Joanne, and visiting his six children and six grandchildren. He has not spoken to Clemens since the infamous game, and he says he put the past behind him long ago.
“I’m out of baseball, and I have another life now,” said Cooney. “But I guess I’ll always be remembered for that game.”
*Terry Cooney died March 4, 2022*
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