Wednesday, January 30, 2008

A Dying Breed: Boy Scouts Need Your Help

My father was quick to remind me earlier this week that today marks the 98th anniversary of the Boy Scouts of America program. The Scouting program itself began with Lord Robert Baden-Powell in 1907 when 'LBP' opened a camp for boys on Brownsea Island. The following year, Baden-Powell created The Boy Scout Association. Then, in 1909 a scouting legend...'the scout in the fog' helped inspire W.D. Boyce to bring the principles of the scouting program back home to the United States.

A native of a suburb of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, W.D. Boyce jump-started the program on this side of the pond by establishing the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. Now nearly a century later, nearly three million young men participate in the program nationwide. But a quick check of the BSA's statistical breakdown shows a rising (or falling) problem. They are losing members. The numbers are down in Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts and in Venture Scouting. However, there is an increase in the amount of high school students participating which shows that older boys are valuing the program. However, there are less people to lead them because there is also a noticeable drop (1.4%) in total Scout leaders.

It's not a new trend. Here's the youth Scout totals over the last four years that the BSA has publicly reported to date:

2003: 3,200,218
2004: 3,145,331
2005: 2,938,698
2006: 2,868,963

Slight, but noticeable drops with each passing year. While the BSA has known about this issue for years, the country has yet to rally around their cause. It's because the government and our civic leaders are afraid to publicly support the program.

All of the negative press the Scouts have received, from membership controversies to an over-exaggerated history of sexual molestation cases, the Scouting program has been pounded with verbal salvos from the media and misinformed parents and/or community leaders. The message of the program has been lost.

College fraternities and 'old-boy' social groups like the Masons claim to value strong principles and to improve the lives of their members. But only the Boy Scouts consistently meet the challenge.

By simply reading the Scout Oath and the Scout Law one can see all of the qualities we would want our own sons to cherish. The qualities and principles that many of us adults forget to honor.

The Oath:
"On my honor, I will do my best to do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law. To help other people at all times; To keep myself physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight."

When was the last time you met those criteria everyday.

The Law:
"A Scout is Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean and Reverent."

Twelve points to live by that are seared into the memory of Scouts and Scouters across the world.

Scouts are taught to truly operate throughout their daily lives while applying the Law and Oath to every person, situation and obstacle they encounter. And it works.

I was born into a 'Scout family.' My father served as a Scoutmaster from the time he was 18 until last year. From 1964-2007. Think about that. And from 1984 until this very moment, he's watched me grow from Tiger Cub to father of two.

I know my father reads these blog entries. He's probably the only one. But here's something he may not now. When I was hovering between the ages of 11-13, I wanted to quit the Scouts.

I wanted to quit the program because I was tired of working on something non-school related. I went to my Mom about it. She told me to have an honest discussion with my Dad. I remember telling him once or twice that I needed to 'take a week off' from our meetings. I don't recall ever telling him what I really wanted to do.

But you know what...I'm sure he knew exactly what I really wanted. But he never relented. And he never took a week off.


And that taught me what I needed to know about the BSA and life in general. Life doesn't take a week off. And neither do the people who need you.

The Boy Scouting program needed my father. And he answered the bell every time.

I got the Eagle Scout award at the age of 16. My Dad (a lifetime Life Scout who uses the fact he never achieved Eagle as a way of inspiring his scouts) stood in the back of the room and wore one the biggest smiles I've ever seen.

Years later, I still remember that smile. I remember the joy of that accomplishment.

I remember making my father proud. I lived my whole life for moments like that.

Today I wear an Eagle Scout pin on my tie in celebration of the program that made me the man I am today. Along with the influence of friends and family, the Boy Scouts shaped my soul.

I owe the program for that. I owe my son the same opportunity my Dad gave me.

And you owe it to the men in your life.

The Boy Scouts may be one of the only programs left in our country that can truly help build the foundation for boys to become good men.

Do your part to keep it alive.

I will.

Scout's honor.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Walking a Fine Line: Pujols Ban on St. Louis TV Station Sets Dangerous Precedent

This past Monday, on a day our nation paused to remember a man who preached acceptance and forgiveness, the St. Louis Cardinals completed their winter warmups with a news conference. But before the first question was lobbed, Cards first baseman Albert Pujols went after the media.

The monstrous slugger asked the team's media relations director to ban one television station from covering his question-answer session. The reporter and videographer from KTVI in St. Louis then sheepishly stood in the corner of the room, camera off and tails firmly between their legs. Call it a visit to the 'media dunce corner.'

Pujols had his reasons. Just before the massive and sport-changing Mitchell Report was released on the afternoon of December 13th, there were rumors cooking on MLB 'Hot Stove' websites and message boards all over the country. And one of those items caught online report that claimed one of the soon-to-be-outed steroids users was the Cardinals Dominican superstar. The temptation to run the story was simply too much for KTVI. Their sports department and station management aired the story that morning. All of St. Louis was reeling over the idea that their hero was a cheater.

But, according to what we think we know from the Mitchell Report, he didn't. That is the definition of a media flub, and unintentional bad press for Pujols. That night, KTVI ran an extended live report and refuted the early morning mistake. But Pujols, who is essentially a walking deity in St. Louis for all of the charity work he has done for the Gateway city, was livid. He immediately released a statement through his foundation, calling the report 'reckless.' Pujols added, "I have never had a problem with the media when they do their job correctly, whether it is positive or negative - just as long as they report truthfully."

It's important to note that Pujols, for all we know, is one of the good guys. Though he comes across as harsh depending on his 'media mood,' he has done wonders for Down Syndrome research in Missouri. His daughter Isabella has the genetic disorder and his family's work (and their Christian message) is quite inspiring. Pujols has used his fame and fortune for unselfish means and should be commended for that.

But he doesn't understand media. For as much as he's dealt with reporters, he's not familiar with the competitive and cut-throat nature of broadcasting. That report ran for a reason, because KTVI was trying to do their job. They took a chance, which happens often in today's 'saw it here first' media world, and they flat out blew it.

This is not to say that KTVI acted appropriately. They did not. They got the story from WNBC in New York City. The false report included several 'bombshell' names that weren't in the Mitchell Report. Pujols, Damon, Garciaparra, Pudge Rodriguez, Kerry Wood, and Mark Prior among others. The problem? None of them were listed in the Mitchell Report released just hours later.

Running the mysterious online report, complete with anonymous sources, was a risk NOT worth taking. What's worse is that though they retracted their report, KTVI station management did not properly apologize for their mistake. In fact, they were arrogant in defending themselves. Then news director Kingsley Smith violated any sense of journalism ethics by airing the story, then used his affiliated network status to protect his decision.

Smith said being a FOX affiliate "allows us a little more latitude" to essentially air rumors. Smith said doing so provides a "certain sense of edginess and aggressiveness." Who says? Does FOX condone this sort of reporting? Doubt it. Yes Fox is 'edgy'...that's been their M.O. since the days 'Married With Children' first hit the air. But that doesn't mean you run rumors as truth in special news coverage.

Here's the kicker, Smith actually got a better job out of this. From media market #21 in St. Louis, to #4 in Philadelphia. Another FOX maybe Smith was right. That is a scary thought.

Here's Smith's rise to becoming the news director in Philly:
1. Work hard, for years at stations all across the country. (Click for a linkedin resume)
2. Land a top-notch job at a great market.
3. Approve of airing a weak and bogus report with no substantial sources. (Don't bother fact-checking...we're in a hurry!)
4. Dedicate as much air time to this report as possible.
5. When you discover the report is completely false and potentially damaging, refuse to properly apologize.
6. Defend your actions by saying your station's network affiliation allows you to bend/break/bust any ethical standards.
7. Parlay it into a much better job.
8. Laugh on the way to the bank, while also praying the Philly media doesn't pay too much attention.

Journalists and media professors across the country should be outraged by this. But there hasn't been much backlash.

KTVI (and Kingsley Smith) deserve to share the blame with WNBC for going with this report. The responsible media organizations should roll some heads.

But Pujols' latest move is also wrong.

Athletes should not have the ability to limit a specific media outlet's access. If he's limited to one, he should be limited to all. The KTVI sports staff can not be expected to compete with others in the market if they can't interview the team's superstar. Cardinals media relation director Brian Bartow needs to grow a backbone and work this out immediately; and not just for KTVI's sake or for positive public relations for the club. Athletes and coaches do this sort of thing constantly...denying one reporter or another depending on an 'unfair' article or for writing anything negative.

We need to look at the big picture here. The sports media is there to serve the allow fans to be informed and entertained with the latest news and info regarding their favorite teams and players. By banning KTVI from his news conferences, Pujols is denying their viewers that opportunity. That carries with it some troubling consequences for KTVI.

Pujols believes he was damaged by the report...that he will somehow be linked to steroids. The only way that will happen is if he continues to act as a whining child.

Pujols publicly insists God is first and foremost in his life. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, "If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins."

Pujols needs to practice what he preaches. Forgive and forget. The rest of us will do the same.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Break Up the 'Jockocracy': Steroids Investigation Should Cause Media to Pause

As our elected officials in the U.S. Congress spent precious time interrogating Major League Baseball administrators and union representatives earlier this week, most fans probably did exactly what I did....tune out as much of it as possible. Frankly, I'm tired.

By now, for me anyways, it hurts. From players either ridiculously defending themselves (see Roger Clemens or David Justice) or admitting a limited wrongdoing (see Fernando Vina/Andy Pettite), it is too much to bear. And though it won't go away, I wish that it would.

However, as all of this unfolded over the past month I started to think about how several of the accused steroid users, in the Mitchell Report and beyond, currently held prominent jobs in media. Three decades ago, Howard Cosell warned the future journalists of the world about a 'jockocracy' occurring in sports broadcasting. Retired (washed-up?) athletes using their fame and knowledge, in that order, to gain entry into high-level analysis and commentary jobs across the radio and television mediums. Former stars on the field seeking easy money in the booth.

Cosell was right, and now we're seeing how dangerous putting ex-athletes into the broadcast field can really be. Why do I think this trend has become dangerous? Because first and foremost, they are supposed to be objective observers providing thought-provoking insight. But they have too much to lose now...and these accused cheaters have a platform to defend themselves which they don't deserve.

Looking over those listed in the Mitchell Report, there are four former players that currently hold positions in the media. (Though many players accused of doping in the report are or were active contributors on a local market setting.)

*Lenny Dykstra, the former tobacco-spitting superstar of Mets and Phillies fame, runs a business news website revolving around trends and info on the stock market. Dykstra is also an occasional contributor to Fox News' program, 'The Cost of Freedom.' But Dykstra's connection with steroids has been in the public eye for quite some time. And while he is indeed a sought-out media figure, he generally isn't discussing the game of baseball. But certainly, his fame from the game has led directly to his business success.

*Matt Williams, the gregarious third baseman who made his name during his time with the Giants and Diamondbacks, admitted to taking human growth hormones (HGH) while rehabbing in 2002. However, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Williams also purchased several steroids in May of that year. Williams is now an ownership partner with the D-backs and part of the squad's broadcast team, serving as a color analyst. He is a 'face' for Diamondbacks baseball at every level...they even named a baseball field after him in Show Low, AZ.

*David Justice, who may be more popular for his marriages to Halle Berry and Rebecca Villalobos, has been all over the media world since retiring in 2002. Justice has worked for ESPN and the Yankees YES Network, where he was serving as a game and studio analyst. After the Mitchell Report went public, Justice was quick to go public and vehemently denied ever taking HGH as a Yankee. He was linked in the report to Brian McNamee, Clemens' trainer and confidant, and former Mets clubhouse attendant Kirk Radomski. Justice has since claimed that he never used the HGH McNamee provided him and that he never dealt with Radomski. This morning, the NY Times reported that Justice lost his studio gig with YES, but will be retained as a columnist. However, both the network and Justice say this demotion (and that's what it is) had nothing to do with the Mitchell Report. Instead it was so that Justice could assist his wife in rebuilding their home which was lost in the San Diego wildfires. Nice story. I'm not buying it.

*Perhaps the most significant player/media member listed is current ESPN analyst Fernando Vina. Vina is significant, not because of his average major league career, but because of his current role as a contributor on the world's leading sports network. When the Mitchell Report came out on December 13th, Vina was mysteriously absent from his network's wall-to-wall coverage of the investigation. Four days later, he resurfaced and admitted using HGH...but not steroids. Vina admitted to being 'embarrassed' and denounced using HGH saying, "it didn't help either." Are we supposed to give him the benefit of the doubt or sympathize with his cause? Unlikely. ESPN gave him a break by not putting him on the 'frontlines' the day the report was released. Vina is paid to cover the hard stories, not hide from them.

But Vina isn't the only ESPN personality linked to steroid use. Mike Golic, the current co-star of ESPN's hottest radio show "Mike and Mike in the Morning," recently admitted using steroids during his days in the NFL. And he did so in passing on their program; here's an unofficial link to the show's transcript. To his credit, Golic discussed the reasoning and stupidity behind his decision at length on-air over the following week. But his admission was brushed over initially and was almost cynical in nature. While he noted that it was wrong and dumb, he did so with a defensive air. Like he was saying, 'Big's over now. Lots of guys did it...' Golic was never reprimanded by the network and the programs went on as scheduled. And, perhaps because he's former NFL not MLB, Golic's steroid admission barely made a blip on the national media's radar.

Some of you may be reading this and saying, "So what?" But, as members of the media, these former players should be held to the same standards that journalists would have to face. These accusations/admissions show that these men cheated during their playing days. Isn't that akin to a writer plagiarizing? Both are forms of cheating designed to make performing give one person an unfair advantage over another. If a journalist 'cheated' to do their job, wouldn't the penalty be swift? Why aren't these ex-athletes being held accountable as well?

Marion Jones is going to jail for six months, partly for lying to federal investigators about her use of performance-enhancing drugs. All of these men should have to face the same questions...and if they lie, the same consequences.

The major sports media companies should take notice. Be wary of hiring ex-jocks to give your product an easy boost. Yes, these former athletes and coaches may provide intriguing commentary. Analysts like Tom Jackson, Carolyn Peck, Charles Barkley (the ultimate love/hate ex-jock), Howie Long, Mark May, Ron Jaworski, Steve Young, Marcellus Wiley and Greg Anthony have proven that.

But on the other hand, several members of the 'jockocracy' give broadcasting a bad name...Emmitt Smith, Vina, Keyshawn Johnson, Bill Walton (sorry Bill), John Barry, Dee Brown, Michael Irvin, Swin Cash, Mike Ditka (yes Ditka), Jalen Rose, Paul Silas, and Mark Malone just to name a 'few' of the undistinguished we've seen analyzing sports on TV or on radio. What are they adding to the broadcast? What does Emmitt say that a trained reporter couldn't say better? Want an example?

The ESPNs, Fox/NBC/CBS Sports groups of the world should recognize that placing former athletes on-air does in fact bring a heightened amount of recognition to viewers but is it worth the financial risk? Training these ex-jocks to smile for the cameras and spit out carbon-copy analysis...only to have them potentially be exposed as cheaters down the line.

Hold these former steroid abusers accountable, just as you would a journalist who cheated at their craft. Make them answer for their mistakes in the public forum which you have provided for them. Otherwise, what example are you setting?

Do the right thing. And do it now.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Remain on the Bandwagon: A "State of the Celtics" Address

Professor Jeff Halliday has called a 'Special Session' meeting of all hoops fans (especially those in Celtic Nation) to address the Boston Celtics and their recent on-court struggles. Wearing a green suit, with a white dress shirt and shamrock-adorned tie including a number '5' tie-pin, Halliday spoke fervently to the attending delegates.

The following is a transcript of his remarks:

"Thanks to one and all for meeting on such short notice. We are here to discuss the Celtics' recent 'losing streak' and the subsequent fallout across the league and media circles. The back-to-back losses to the Wizards this past weekend has caused many NBA experts, fans and concerned citizens to quickly and violently leap off of the proverbial Celtic bandwagon that began with the signing of Kevin Garnett on July 31st, 2007. I am here today to quell this uprising and assuage the fears of fans and pundits alike.

While it's true that Boston has lost three of its last four games, there is no need for panic! Two losses to a quality Wizards team, currently 20-16 and in second place in the East's Southeast Division, are not cause for concern. Last week's loss to the lowly Bobcats stung at first, but it's clear that a young Charlotte squad has played very well of late.

At 30-6 on the season, it is now virtually impossible for the Celtics to top or match the incredible 72-10 run of the 1995-1996 Bulls. But who cares? How can anyone construe 30-6 as struggling? Take a look at those six losses. To the Magic on November 18th by two, the Cavs by five in OT nine days later, the Pistons ten games later by a basket, Charlotte by a dozen on the ninth of this month and the back-to-back losses to the Wiz by a combined 12 points. Add it all up...6 losses by a combined 33 points. That's an average of just 5.5 points difference per loss. We're talking about a two-basket differential...nothing.

I would like my esteemed colleagues across the nation to recall this team's accomplishments, or total lack thereof, only a season ago. The Celtics finished dead last in the Atlantic Division at 24-58, winning just 12 of their 41 home games. As of this moment, this Celtics team is 16-3 at TD Banknorth Garden and has won 83% of their games. An incredible achievement...yet suddenly after dropping two straight games, the pro hoops world is asking, "What's wrong?" NOTHING IS WRONG. Last year the C's lost consecutive games ten different times including streaks of six, eighteen (Yikes!) and eight in a row. This season could go down as the greatest single-season turnaround in NBA history. From 24 wins to potentially 60 plus...unheard of in Beantown since 1979 when rookie Larry Bird led the Celtics to 61 wins a season after the franchise recorded only 29 victories in '78. The NBA 'turnaround' record is 36 games by the Spurs in 1997-1998. If Boston wins 61 games this season, they will break that record. They are on pace to do so. Hear me now and believe me later, that record will be theirs by the time they next face the Wizards in Game 78 on April 9th.

For those of you interested in history, this is the greatest Celtics team of the past two decades. Garnett is averaging 23 points/game, Paul Pierce is at 18/game and Ray Allen is at 16/contest. The Celtics lead the league in opponents points allowed, surrendering only 87 a game whilst scoring 98! Garnett is arguably the best team leader in basketball. Both Allen and Pierce share his desire for glory. This is a team without peers.

Yes, they will lose games. They could even lose twenty plus games (God forbid) if injuries and poor performances pop up from time to time. But to deny their dominance or seek to steal legitimacy from their legacy is just plain insane. This is a Celtics team with three superstars and a modest supporting cast. It's difficult to compare them to a deep team like the '95-'96 Bulls. That season Chicago had the greatest player of all-time in Jordan (averaging 30.4 pts/game), the best sidekick of his era in Scottie Pippen, a 51% 3-point shooter in Steve Kerr, the league's leading offensive rebounder in Rodman and a solid role player in Toni Kukoc. They were also coached by the second greatest (no one tops Red) in-game/mind-melding coach in NBA history in Phil Jackson.

The '07-'08 Celtics have three differing levels of talent. The second coming of the Big 3 in KG, Pierce and Allen...the "I hope they positively contribute" group of Rondo, Perkins, Davis, House and Posey...and the "If these guys are out there, I'm biting my nails and cursing under my breath" group of Tony Allen, Pollard, Scalabrine, Powe and Pruitt. This Boston team is coached by Doc Rivers whom, despite this 30-6 start, has a career coaching record of 303-318 and was 57-107 in his last two seasons in Boston. Though he is a great locker room guy and a source of motivation, this team isn't winning because of Rivers' skill or knowledge. They are winning on guts and talent alone. Phil Jackson he is not. Everyday Rivers should kiss the shoe-tops of Allen and Garnett...without them he would have coached himself out of a job by now.

In closing friends, let us all relax. This Celtics team, barring injury or tragedy, will win the 2008 NBA Championship. It's already decided. Can any team beat them in a seven-game series? The answer is no.

And just so you're aware, this team will be challenging the record books for a while if history tells us anything. After the Bulls' infamous 1995-1996 run, they proceeded to go 69-13 the following year and 62-20 in 1997-1998. An awesome stretch of three straight NBA titles.

By the way, Garnett is signed until 2012, Allen through 2009-2010 and Pierce until the summer of 2011. Get used to it.

Thank you for your time today. I will no longer comment on this issue until after I have purchased my Celtics '2008 NBA Champions' hat sometime in June. Thank you...and God Bless the United States of America."

Post Address Notes:
Halliday left the podium to mostly cheers and some jeers (mostly from bewildered Knicks fans who thought Isiah Thomas was being fired; and from jealous Lakers fans screaming for a 'KG for Kobe' trade). Others in the audience began to sing...

'Because I love that dirty water
Oh, oh, Boston, you're my home'

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Rocket Now a Dud: Clemens In His Darkest Hour

Growing up a son of two ardent Bostonians, my childhood was filled with heroic figures. Fortunately for me, the greatest of all of my role models lived under the same roof. My Dad. Unfortunately at times, I also clung to sports figures for inspiration and foremost among them was then Red Sox fireballer Roger Clemens.

When our family moved from Boston to Pittsburgh in 1984, Clemens was an up and coming rookie in the Sox system. We all knew about his days with the Texas Longhorns. He was going to be 'it' for Beantown.

Our love of sports was borderline fanatical. My Dad would attack the morning papers to see how his hometown teams fared. Whenever Dad traveled to Boston for work or family, articles from the Boston Globe and Herald would arrive in the mail addressed to me. Dad would tell me about his favorite players of yesteryear. Orr. Williams. Russell. Cousy. And I grew up watching Boston's greats of the era, Clemens, Boggs, Greenwell, Bird, Parish, McHale, Neely, Bourque and Moog.

But as a kid, I loved baseball. I was too short and skinny to play football that well; I couldn't skate to save my life. And while I enjoyed basketball, the diamond was my favorite place to be. And on the mound, I wanted to be Roger Clemens.

When I threw in the backyard and on the field, I patterned his slow delivery, the way he used his entire body to throw. His shoe-top glance as he powered his motion to the plate. The way he exhaled between pitches at the mound, standing straight on to the batter's box, flicking his glove up to catch the return throw. And his intense glare.

He was like some mythical figure. This straight-shooting, cocky kid from Texas with wild hair and a controlled craziness. He was a 'throwback' player that my Dad appreciated, which made me love him even more. 'Rocket' threw high and tight. 'Rocket' wouldn't bat an eye when he brushed you back. And then he would close with the split-finger. And when that pitch was working, he was lights out. He was a sure-fire Hall of Famer by the end of the 1990 season when he went 21-6 with 1.93 ERA.

But he threw so damn hard that eventually it had to fade didn't it? Surely God only made one Nolan Ryan. How could a man throw that hard that long before destroying his arm? There were signs he was slowing down...his waist and his numbers ballooned. In '93, Clemens went 11-14 and his ERA jumped a full two runs from the previous year. He bounced back to have a solid 1994 before the strike shut things down, and was good once again in 1995. But by my senior year of high school in 1996, Clemens was a shadow of his former self. Though he struck out 257 batters in 242.2 innings, his record was 10-13, his ERA 3.63 and his interest/intensity level appeared way down.

And then, the Sox management made a league-altering mistake. Dan Duquette essentially let the Rocket take off...they wouldn't re-sign this faltering hurler. But that release did not come without one final infamous dig on Boston's on/off again hero. Duquette claimed that Clemens was in "the twilight of his career." And though the Red Sox wanted to keep Roger, it was clear they thought he was sliding into retirement.

A bitter, irritated and insulted Clemens retorted by signing with the Toronto Blue Jays. Suddenly, both his spirit and his dominance were reincarnated overnight. He won back-to-back Cy Young Awards and was an astonishing 41-13 in his two years with the Jays. In 1997, he started the season 11-0, struck out 297 batters and carried a 2.05 ERA. All of those are still team records, and the 2.05 ERA was his lowest total since his incredible run in 1990. On the surface, the story was easy to write. An embattled soul rises above his human limits to greater heights we never thought possible. The 'Rocket' was back. His ERA the following year, an equally impressive 2.65. Another Cy Young...Clemens was inspiring a nation of little-leaguers and baseball enthusiasts. 21 was my favorite number...still is.

But that is the season in question. According to the Mitchell Report, (pages 169-170) it is the year that Clemens decided that working out and working hard wasn't enough.

In '98, steroids poster boy Jose Canseco joined Clemens on the Toronto roster. That same year, Brian McNamee was hired as a strength and conditioning coach. According to his testimony to Senator Mitchell and his gang, McNamee engaged in conversation with Clemens about the ins and outs of steroid use. Clemens even physically presented steroids (Anadrol 50, the baddest, most potent of 'em all) to McNamee, which the 'trainer' actually refused to inject. But he did shoot the Rocket up with Winstrol that year. To see the results, just check out box scores. In his second start of the season on April 7th, Clemens walked two and gave up two runs without recording an out. He was hurt...and what helps an athlete heal quicker and stronger? He returned ten days later, went six and two/thirds innings and won the game with 7 strikeouts. By May 7th, he was cruising and his record was up to 4-3...he finished the season 20 and 6. After starting out 2-2, Clemens won 18 of his next 22 decisions, including 15 straight! Something kick-started that run. Clemens was always a streaky pitcher, but this seemed out of place. Regardless, the Rocket became the hottest pitching commodity in baseball. And he went to the highest bidder, the Yankees.

And according to the Mitchell Report, Clemens wanted his former trainer with him ASAP. He got his wish. McNamee joined the Pinstripes in 2000. McNamee reportedly injected the Rocket with steroids four to six times that season. After going 14-10 with an ERA of 4.60 in NYC in 1999 (without McNamee), Clemens went 13-8 with a 3.70 ERA in 2000. A marked improvement.

With McNamee no longer a Yankee after the 2000 season, Clemens kept this 'assistant' on his personal payroll and continued to receive injections throughout the 2001 season. A miraculous year in which he became the first and only pitcher in MLB history to start a season 20-1. McNamee recently told Sports Illustrated that Clemens mostly took steroid cycles during the offseason, meaning a hot start would be expected. But 20 and 1? Clemens finished the season 20-3 with an ERA of 3.51. His 213 strikeout total that season eclipsed those of his last two years with New York, and he won his sixth Cy Young Award. He was 39 years old...and getting better.

According to the Mitchell Report, McNamee never injected Clemens after the 2001 season. In '02, Clemens' numbers dropped dramatically. 13-6, 4.35 ERA. After going 17-9 with a 3.91 ERA in 2003, Clemens retired. He was the King of Baseball. Ovations wherever he went...including Fenway Park. Even Boston wanted to love this man...this Yankee.

A year later, Clemens began a long journey of destroying his legacy by putting franchises and fans through a tortuous game. He would return to the majors at a hefty and team salary-killing price. 'Unretiring', Clemens was back in the bigs with Houston. He went 18-4 with a 2.98 ERA, his best earned run average since his last year in Toronto. He won his 7th and final Cy Young Award. The Rocket pitched essentially half-seasons with Houston for the following two years, dancing a retirement hokey-pokey during each offseason. And last year, Clemens made a not-so triumphant return to New York. Announcing his 'comeback' from George Steinbrenner's luxury box in the MIDDLE OF A GAME no less. But even his stage savvy couldn't bring his game back to form. Last season he was 6-6 with a 4.18 ERA and an unRocket-like 68 strikeouts in 99 innings. He was done. Maybe...finally...he heard the applause and saw the curtain call.

But all good things must come to an end. And this end is so disappointing and comically tragic, I struggle to put it into words. Clemens' brash approach to baseball, life and the media has been well documented...including racially-laced diatribe and laughable contract stipulations. But, arguably worse than all of those misgivings has been the way Clemens has attempted to defend himself to these most recent steroid allegations.

When the Mitchell Report was released on December 13th, the Rocket was the biggest and brightest name on the list. A lock-down Hall of Famer who flat-out owned the mound during the ever-changing primes of his career. But now the seasons of 1998-2001, at the very least, were under intense scrutiny. Who was this McNamee and did 'the Roger Clemens' really cheat?

Friends, let's not avoid this crucial point. Altering your ability/skill level illegally or without forthright honest admission is cheating. Period.

When the report came out, Clemens waited to make a public statement. He then released a well-thought out and clearly controlled and scripted response through his own website. He would not face reporters/detractors face-to-face. This past weekend, Clemens then appeared on '60 Minutes' in an interview with CBS' Mike Wallace. Why, nearly a month after the Mitchell Report was released, would Clemens wait to grant Wallace an exclusive? Because they were buddies from Rocket's time in the Big Apple. And Roger knew that while Wallace would bear down with a tough question or two, he would not be berated or interrogated by an 89-year old friend.

That brings us to yesterday's 'press conference.' Clemens shocked the media by playing an extensive, 17-minute recording of a 1/4/2008 phone conversation with McNamee himself. A bizarre and unique defensive ploy. In the twisting and frustratingly vague recording, Clemens wants McNamee to help him. McNamee begs and pleads for guidance. But Clemens never tells his friend what he really be exonerated. Clemens never says what his fans and the public really want to hear.

We, no... I, wanted to hear, "I'm innocent. You know I never took steroids. Why did you lie?" Clemens tries to bait McNamee in a call which, by the way, Roger never tells his 'friend' is actually being recorded. All the while during the pseudo-interview, Clemens is constantly receiving instruction and guidance from his attorneys. A sad state of affairs. We hear a pathetic McNamee cry out for help, lamenting the injury of his young son. We hear Clemens adamantly stick to his talking points..."I just want the truth." McNamee says, "I'll go to jail for you." Clemens doesn't respond. We are left to wonder why McNamee would say such a recant his accusations, or to deny further testimony and do for Clemens what Greg Anderson has done time and again for Barry Bonds. Take the rap.

After playing the call, Clemens spat vitriol to the reporters on hand. Pausing between the expected barrage of questions, he bellowed and taunted the press. "Can I drink water? Is that good or bad? Can I drink water? .... And I can swallow, thank you." As if answering these questions required some sort of Herculean effort or that he was doing us a favor.

Clemens claimed that his whole career had been tainted, all his hard work thrown aside over a false accusation. Judging by that comment, one would assume that the evaluation of his body of work mattered to him. Then a reporter asked if indeed his career, and his shot at the Baseball Hall of Fame was important to him. Clemens replied, "You think I played my career for the damn Hall of Fame? I could give a rat's ass about that also."

This, despite everything I had already known about his exploits, was the moment I lost my faith and concern for Roger Clemens. If he didn't care about the Hall, why did he come back time after time? If baseball history wasn't important to him, why did he speak so eloquently about the pride of being a New York Yankee? Why, before every start at Yankee Stadium, did he see fit to kiss and caress the bronzed image of Babe Ruth in Monument Park? History and tradition have been important to Clemens since he came up with the Sox. After being denied a championship, he embodied that sense of history as a Yankee when he finally won a World Series title.

As a Bostonian-at-heart in so many ways, I had to watch Clemens win the Series with the Yanks and Bourque win a Cup with the Avalanche. And in both of those moments, I shed tears for these men. Despite their willingness to leave my beloved franchises, they won the ultimate prize.

But, for Clemens, at what cost? His floundering defense and volatile reaction to questioning is evident that this is a man who wishes to control and dominate all aspects of his life. And baseball is his life. He even named his children with baseball in mind as all of their names begin with the letter K...the box score representation for a strikeout.

Clemens gloated in his success and now he is seething in his demise. He got what he wanted...a ring and a legacy as a larger-than-life living legend. And now it seems tainted. However, the Rocket points the finger of blame at someone else.

So now, it should be the fan's turn. Now I deserve to get what I want.

I bought your T-shirts, read every box score, spiritually sank at every missed opportunity and wept/celebrated with your victories. I cared enough to emulate you. I cared enough to bring you into my life every single day.

What do I want? The real and ultimate truth. So let's ask him...

Roger, are you still the superhero I thought you were? Are these really lies? Or are you another washed-up athlete who chose to cheat rather than to see his pristine image tarnished? Are you the latest 'star' to bean the game of baseball?

Answer me and make me hope again.

Or don't answer me...and then help me put some more dirt on baseball's grave.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Thanks for Reminding Us:WVU's Fiesta Bowl Shocker Truly Inspiring

For the majority of sports fans flipping through the channels this morning, the ticker score of Tostitos Fiesta Bowl: WVU 48 Oklahoma 28 likely merely elicited a 'huh' or a head shake. But West Virginia's stunning throttling of the Sooners represents much more than just the latest college football upset to blindside fans and experts alike. The Mountaineers' win over the traditional powerhouse from Norman symbolizes all that is right in sports.

This game reminds us why we cheer. We cheer for the underdog to do the unlikely. We cheer for the 'good guys' who finally get their due. We cheer for the men and women we strive to emulate. We cheer for the triumph of human spirit.

Consider all the West Virginia football team had been through over the past several weeks. With a trip to the national championship on the line, WVU choked at home to super-rival Pitt in the Backyard Brawl. They were out-coached by a floundering staff and out-played by a team with only pride to play for. No win (not even this Fiesta Bowl victory) will permanently erase the bitter taste of that loss for those loyal to the Mountain State. But that wasn't the most bitter pill the Mountaineers and their faithful had to swallow.

Soon afterwards, WVU's poster boy suddenly darted out of town. Head coach Rich Rodriguez, a state native and one of the most embraced coaches in the country, parted ways with West Virginia for greener (the color of money) pastures in Ann Arbor. He felt it would be easier, and more personally satisfying, to win there. He said goodbye at a very brief team meeting which some players stormed out of, curse words flying. Rodriguez left for Michigan that very night while students and fans followed his car to the local airport and verbally assaulted him, two members of his staff and their wives as they boarded the plane. Signs in Grant Town (Rod's hometown) promoting their pride of his accomplishments were removed for fear of vandalism and theft. Boosters threatened to withdraw millions in donations. Players and fans watched Rodriguez shuffle through his introduction as Michigan's new coach, and later grimaced as Rich strutted the sidelines during the Wolverine's excellent Capitol One Bowl victory over Florida. Rodriguez even agreed to an 'in-the-booth' interview during Lloyd Carr's final game. The Mountain State literally seethed. Mixed feelings of bewilderment, rage, anxiety and despair. But Rod, the ultimate upstager, was upstaged.

Back in Morgantown, the team was undaunted. Team. Is there a better word? Can any other word summon such strong emotion and comradery? While fans pulsed with anger, these young men remained focused on a singular objective. Performing superbly in their final game. They were led by Bill Stewart. WVU's 'aw-shucks' good guy assistant coach. The last man many thought could lead them to victory.

Always the bridesmaid, only once the bride. Stewart's only head coaching stint came over a decade ago at VMI were he went an underwhelming 8-25. Stewart had since traversed the entire football world, returning to his home state to play a small role as an assistant coach. He became as associate head coach but was then relegated to coaching the tight ends this past season. Coaching tight ends at WVU is like coaching fullbacks at Hawaii or Texas Tech..."stay on the other end of the practice field and we'll call for you when we're finished." All the while, Stewart remained the grounded, humble and sincere man he has always been. 'Stew' hands out hugs as if he expects he'll never see you again. That's his life and those in it. He gives direction to his players, following it up with 'Cub and Boy Scouts Honor.' He is the assistant coach that every player adores but never makes the paper. Until now.

Last night, WVU went up against a team that many experts felt was among the top 3 in the country. Oklahoma, along with Georgia and USC, was supposed to be playing their best football of the season. While WVU was supposed to quietly lick their wounds and exit stage left. Someone forgot to tell them. The Mountaineers played with a consistent passion that had not been seen on their sidelines in quite some time. Gone was the timid team we saw against Pittsburgh. This was a team playing with purpose and with energy, something Rodriguez struggled to bring out of them when it mattered most. But Bill Stewart found a way. Like a modern day Lou Holtz, Stewart rallied his team by talking, smiling and genuinely enjoying his players. He told them to play with heart and to play for each other. Damn (or, if you're Stewart...Darn) the odds. Beat OU and prove once again that WVU is home to an elite football program.

48-28. The Sooners never matched WVU's strength, commitment, determination and grit. They were out-hustled, out-coached and out-hearted by a team that wasn't supposed to even show up. Oklahoma was embarrassed by a team that desperately wanted to win. As time ticked down, players drowned Stewart in Gatorade and each took time to hug their man. After the game Stewart acknowledged it was his first 'Gatorade bath' and said it was for all of the assistant coaches out there. He called the moment, 'special.' As fans cheered in the stands at Arizona, hulking fullback and comic book-esque hero Owen Schmitt apologized to a reporter for nearly weeping during an interview. A super-jock with a mohawk brought to very rawest of emotional highs.

Right this moment in Arizona, WVU has hired their new head coach. After chasing down highly-touted assistants and 'big name' candidates all across the college football world, the university is about to hire a man they didn't formally interview until after he hoisted the Fiesta Bowl trophy. Bill Stewart. The New Martinsville, WV man who apologized for stealing turnips and throwing snowballs at train cars as a child during a pre-bowl press conference. Stewart is to college football what 'Ralphie' and The Christmas Story are to our holiday memories. He is all that is good in human nature. He isn't perfect but, like Goldilocks' porridge, he's just right.

On FOX's stage after the game, WVU's legendary junior quarterback and leader Pat White (the games deserved Offensive MVP) told the crowd and a national TV audience that Stewart was the team's choice to be the next head coach. He reiterated that in a press conference minutes later. White may have been the most influential source in the entire coaching search. WVU administrators immediately made up their mind. Bill Stewart is their man. He is a Mountain State man. He IS the Mountain State. Hard-working, humble, sincere and kind.

He inspired his team. His team inspired all of us.

I, for one, am grateful.