“So, first pitch I was going in on him, and it came up and in — that’s what set the stage for the rest of the at-bat,” Clemens said. “I may have got his attention.”
Six pitches later, Clemens — the 41-year-old legend making what he thought was the final start of his remarkable career — had earned the attention of Cabrera, who lifted a 2-2 fastball into the right-field seats for a two-run homer. Twenty years later, with Cabrera’s career winding down, Clemens can laugh about the showdown with a likely future Hall of Famer who was 21 years his junior.
“I knew that would probably be my last start,” Clemens said. “I remember throwing the first pitch, and the place just lighting up with flashbulbs. And then Miggy comes up. I’m going with my best stuff and here is a young kid who has a terrific at-bat.”
Pitching in the bottom of the first, Clemens retired the first two batters before giving up a single to Ivan Rodriguez. A fresh-faced Cabrera, who made his Major League debut in June of that season and was starting in right field for the Marlins, was greeted with a two-seam fastball that he had to lean back from to avoid hitting him.
Determined to show he wasn’t intimidated, Cabrera glared at Clemens.
“Ozzie Guillen, a couple other guys on the team, they already told me, ‘Hey, if he throws at you, look at him,’” Cabrera said. “I said, ‘No, no.’ They said, ‘Look at him.’ After three coffees, I said, ‘All right, I can do this.’”
Clemens quickly got the upper hand, though, getting Cabrera to swing through a pair of split-finger fastballs.
“I didn’t want to show him all my pitches right out of the gate,” Clemens said.
Cabrera took a ball low to even the count before fouling off two pitches to stay in the at-bat.
“It was a situation where the key was midway through that at-bat, I threw him a really good split-finger fastball and he barely fouled it off to keep it alive,” Clemens said.
The seventh pitch of the at-bat saw Clemens throw a two-seam fastball high in the zone. Cabrera hit it the opposite way for a two-run homer. Clemens allowed another run in the first but wound up throwing seven strong innings in the Marlins’ 4-3 win in the World Series.
“I threw a two-seamer to throw it away to try and pick off the outside corner, and he punted it into the first or second row there in right field,” Clemens said. “Basically, I really didn’t even blink. I stepped off the mound and was thinking, ‘Let’s get it together here. This is not the way you want to go out.’”
Clemens and Cabrera had a chance to relive the at-bat during Spring Training in Lakeland, Fla., in 2022, when Clemens’ son, Kody, was in camp with the Tigers. Detroit manager A.J. Hinch asked Clemens to come speak to the team.
“He goes, ‘I’m going to show this World Series at-bat with you and Miggy,’ — I said, ‘Whoa, that’s fantastic,’” Clemens said. “It almost turned into a roast, but what was great was I brought Miggy up. He was sitting in the back kind of smiling and chuckling. I said, ‘Bring the old man up here’ because he’s as old [now] as I was [then].”
The Marlins wound up winning the World Series and Cabrera went on to be one of the best hitters of his generation. He won a Triple Crown, and has slugged 511 homers and amassed 3,167 hits as he enters the final week of his career. Clemens’ start on that October night in Miami was far from his last, though. He came out of retirement to pitch for his hometown Astros in 2004-06, winning his seventh Cy Young, and later finished his career back with the Yankees.
In Kody’s first big league camp with the Tigers in 2021, Roger told his son to deliver a message to Cabrera.
“I told him, ‘Make sure you say hello to him because he’s [at] camp right now,’’ Roger said. “So he goes by and says, ‘My dad says you’re welcome for the two-seamer he threw you in the World Series a few years back.’”