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 wants...to 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 thing...to 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.

1 comment:

Dad said...

Good Morning Son,

Very well done. The next "opportunity" will come before the U S Congress where Mr. Clemens is to testify. It will be interesting to hear what questions he is aked and how he answers the "high, hard ones".

Love, Dad!