The downward spiral of Roger Clemens

Roger Clemens Heading for the Hall Leaf 93

Heading for the Hall? Not anymore.

I wouldn’t have remembered the date if not for every article lately, but I do remember where I was on Feb. 13, 2008.

I was living in Arizona and working from home that morning, and I had Roger Clemens’ Congressional testimony streaming in one corner of the screen while I worked. Even then, most of what he was saying didn’t jive — taking vitamin B-12 shots and nothing else because he heard from his mother once that it was good, that he’d never spoken to anyone about drugs ever in any sense, that his best friend misremembered gigantic details of their relationship, that he had no idea his trainer and his wife ever spoke to each other, and so on.

Immediately following the testimony, a few things were already clear.

  1. Partisan politcs knows no bounds in Washington, as the Democratic members of the panel were hard on Clemens, while the Republicans came down on Brian McNamee. Disgusting in its own right, but certainly not  surprising.
  2. Nothing particularly new or Earth-shattering was revealed in the proceedings.
  3. Roger Clemens had just opened the door to a perjury investigation.

Yesterday, the indictment came down. Two years in the making, it certainly wasn’t surprising.

♦ ♦ ♦

Steroid use in baseball bothers me, of course. But I don’t lose sleep over it. Most of the fretting occurs because it skews the numbers, making it harder to judge players from the 1990s to their counterparts in the ’70s or ’30s. I don’t see the issue there, to be honest. Whatever Barry Bonds might have done shouldn’t diminish what Hank Aaron accomplished in his time. From 1994 to 2002, or so, it was the culture. It’s no different than the game’s pre-1920 Dead Ball, when 10 home runs would lead the league.

But the issue remains of what to do with the best players from this era, most of whom seem to have become embroiled in performance enhancing drugs. Sammy Sosa. Mark McGwire. Bonds. Clemens. You know the names.

Clemens ascended to absurd heights well into his forties, and there is now a mountain of evidence that he reached those peaks by nefarious means. Sosa has remained quiet on the issue, McGwire has admitted to drug use and Bonds admits to using steroids as well (though not knowingly). Clemens has made it a point to scream from the highest reaches that he is completely innocent, that everyone is out to ruin his good name, and that he will fight anyone who says otherwise, all in the face of a wealth of evidence that says otherwise, and anything resembling sanity.

Maybe it’s just that long-touted desire to win. Maybe it’s a bull-headed Texan mentality. Maybe it’s just gross arrogance at its worst. Or, maybe Clemens is just a bully who can’t stand to be proven wrong.

♦ ♦ ♦

The baseball card included comes from a 1993 Leaf insert set. I can distinctly remember looking at it towards the end of his Red Sox days and thinking, “he’s not a guarantee for the Hall of Fame anymore.” From 1986 to 1992, he averaged 19 wins a year with a 2.66 ERA, a 1.089 WHIP, and 239 strikeouts a year. He was a stud, the unquestioned best pitcher in the game, and for that he was rewarded with a four year, $20 million contract from the Sox for 1993-96, the richest in club history at the time.

During those years, Clemens spent a good deal of time injured, and when he was on the mound, he looked overweight and lost. He went 40-39 in that span (though the team wasn’t great). His 3.77 ERA was solid, but a full run higher than in the previous run. His WHIP was up (1.289), his walks were up (3.7 per 9 innings compared to 2.4), and he wasn’t the other-worldly pitcher he had been.  There was a good chance he would leave when he entered free agency, which was still bad, since it meant that the Red Sox best starters would be Tom Gordon and Aaron Sele.

When he received a record contract from Toronto, there was some sadness at losing a Boston lifer, but also the understanding that he probably wasn’t worth what the Blue Jays were paying him.  He would be 34 years old in 1997, 37 at the end of the contract, and the last four years ranged from disappointing to solid.

That he became superhuman from 1997 to 2005 and still very good in 2006 and ’07 should have raised more eyebrows than it did initially. He adamantly stood behind his training regimen, his work ethic and his integrity. But what good is integrity when considering a bully? From 1997 to 2007, he went from has-been to Hall of Famer to shamed idol. My 14-year-old self might have been correct that he wouldn’t be heading to the Hall, but I had no true idea why.

♦ ♦ ♦

The two most compelling reasons why kids should grow up playing sports are:

  1. They encourage physical fitness.
  2. They instill humility.

At the end of a baseball season, 29 teams are sent home humbled, while one stands alone. Not everyone gets to be the champion. There’s a lesson to be learned from falling short of your goals, retooling, trying again, not giving up, and coming to terms with loss. The lesson is to learn humility, to know to be humble, to be kind to your opponents and teammates alike.

If there’s one trait that Clemens has never, ever displayed as part of his public persona, it’s humility.

Enter Andy Pettitte, who testified to authorities that Clemens admitted his drug use in 1999 or 2000. Pettitte, finding himself in the harsh glow of the steroid spotlight, took the time upon arriving at Spring Training in 2008 to answer every single question that came at him, and was seemingly honest. He never deflected a question, he never skirted around an answer. He did something he felt was wrong, he fessed up, he apologized, and since that day, he’s moved on with his life, resuming his place as an iconic Yankee.

Clemens, meanwhile, insisted on a Congressional hearing to proclaim his innocence. It’s important to remember that he did not appear under subpoena, and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) offered him the chance to skip the hearing entirely. Clemens turned that down, and appeared anyway. He needed to push around his accusers. He needed to win.

In his moment, Pettitte revealed himself as utterly human, earning sympathy and benefit of the doubt that, yes, he was truly sorry, and did intend to play clean. Clemens, at no point in his career, has been able to display any sort of humility. From refusing to carry his own bags through customs with the Sox in the early ’90s, to forcing his trade out of Toronto, to throwing at players’ heads, to slinging a bat at Mike Piazza (who had the nerve to swing at an inside pitch), to … really, will it ever end?

♦ ♦ ♦

It’s very hard to feel anything resembling sympathy for Clemens. Perhaps he deserves pity, but he forfeited that long ago, as well. He’s not a tragic hero, he’s a bully who pushed too many, too hard. If there’s a moral to the story (beyond “don’t lie to Congress”), it’s to be humble. Be good to people. Don’t treat people like bumps on the road to personal glory. Don’t act above the law, or above the standards of everyone else. It will all catch up, and there won’t be anyone left to pick up your shattered pieces.

Be humble. Be kind. Admit fault. And know that the next pitfall could always be around the corner, and when it comes, folks won’t be willing to lend a hand to the bully.

One response to “The downward spiral of Roger Clemens

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention The downward spiral of Roger Clemens « Kick Saves and Shutouts, by Nick Tavares --

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