By Jason Keidel
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The American game, framed in idyllic hues of endless blue skies and Coca Cola, Cracker Jacks and preteen innocence, has morphed into a netherworld of pretrial motions and trips to congress and courtrooms. Inside we found comically oversized men, with bacne and bulging necks popping the buttons off their silk suits, boldly stating their version of veracity, while flanked by attorneys half their size leaning into them to whisper some legal nugget.
But, truth be told, the Steroid Era has stripped our pastime of its eternal prerogative: innocence.
It was the game with no clock and no flaws. It was Babe calling a homer in the World Series and tipping his cap to the enemy dugout, while Grantland Rice applied his impeccable prose to the Bambino. Ruth and Rice spawned the mythology on which America’s youth would feast for decades, passing the passion and parables down the generations. And from Yogi’s charming malapropisms to Fisk nudging the ball fair to Kirk Gibson’s crippled trot around the bases to Schilling’s bloody sock, baseball’s resonant charm came with equal parts character and characters. Until something as small as a syringe altered the game and synthesized the record books.
Where has Joe DiMaggio gone, indeed?
CBS HOUSTON: Clemens speaks out in first post-trial interview
Before Paul Simon longed in song for Joe D., Ernest Hemingway idolized the quiet icon through Santiago: the old, noble, near-naked Cuban fisherman from “The Old Man and the Sea.”
But the Steroid Era has given that dynamic a darker reality. Just as the sport tries to shove the spotlight upon the new crop of kids – like Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg – who presumably bring clean veins to the game, there’s always some weed sprouting out from the new Field of Dreams. If it’s not the Mitchell Report being exhumed, it’s Barry Bonds on trial, or Ryan Braun’s mysterious journey through testing protocols, or A-Rod’s recent, record-tying grand slam, joining the Godfather of the Yankees, Lou Gehrig, where the contrast between men is stark and equally dark.
And now we have Roger Clemens, who just wrapped up his second trial on perjury charges. And, if you’ll forgive the campy baseball metaphor, Clemens pitched himself out of perhaps his final jam, with the bases full of lawyers, senators, and paparazzi.
Many saw it fitting that Clemens’s fate was decided in the one place more corrupt than baseball for the last twenty years — Congress. And while it seemed clear that Clemens had just “misremembered” his way into an orange jumpsuit, he was able to squeak out a win without his best stuff, something he’s been historically proud of. If only the rest of us could share his joy.
Let’s leave the legalese to Roger Cossack and crew. We, the laymen, know that Clemens was just acquitted of six counts of being a colossal jerk. And I applaud the decision.
“Are you nuts?”
Perhaps. But not in this case. The glacial pace of jurisprudence gave us a slow-mo replay of governmental ineptitude and attitude at its best. With unemployment at appalling numbers, terrorists to fight, jobs to create, and potential nuclear bombs to diffuse, America was in no mood for the first trial against Clemens, much less the second.
Did Clemens lie to congress? Of course he did, at least in my opinion. He went from Roger Clemens to Ed Whitson to Cy Young in his 30s, when Father Time always takes his cut. Instead of slowly sliding off the baseball map in Boston, a new Clemens emerged in Toronto. He was brilliant, if not bionic, bulked-up into a caricature straight out of a Stan Lee story.
He nestled nicely into the two-decade template of the juicer. Player A is dominant from age 22 until 32, finds his stats slip, then, through miraculous changes in diet, exorcise, and God – wink, wink – he returns not only to his youthful genius, but better. It hasn’t happened in the history of man, but we’re supposed to believe it happened to a handful of Hall-of-Famers, only in baseball, and only since the 1990s.
Courtroom machinations don’t interest the masses. But the symbolism is endless and priceless. Pick your metaphor. On the street they say, “game recognizes game,” which in this case means that politicians, the most gifted twisters of the truth, don’t like being deceived. It reminds you of the classic line from Billy Martin when asked to assess Reggie Jackson and George Steinbrenner. “One’s a born liar, and the other’s convicted.” So you could reasonably argue that Uncle Sam got what was coming to him.
Clemens appeared on WFAN’s sister station in Houston last night, on far friendlier turf, where he was tossed a few questions and lobbed back a few platitudes about gratitude and attitude. Indeed, it could have doubled as an acceptance speech for an Oscar. By the time Clemens was done stroking his family, buddies, and well-heeled barristers, the 20-minute spot was halfway over.
Clemens was properly asked that if given a Hall of Fame vote would he give the nod to his muscular brethren, if they admitted to or were accused of taking steroids. He instantly flexed four fingers on that one, taking an intentional walk, starting with a tangent about not having a father while his mother worked three jobs to get him a glove, then finished with a non-sequitur about not knowing many writers who have a vote. It was a fair question, one of many Clemens failed to answer since he retired for the third, fourth, or final time.
Though the burden of proof should always rest at the feet of government, and a proper verdict was announced based on the evidence allowed, no one wins here. We know what Roger Clemens allegedly did, that The Rocket’s fuel was synthetic. He became less about heart and more about hubris, flaunting his power and flouting the rules simply because he could. It’s the inherent privilege of seven Cy Young awards, World Series rings, and countless millions. But instead of landing softly on his riches after 23 years of sweat, he will be a target of torment until he either comes clean or goes under.
Clemens represents the chasm in classes, the difference between those who fly in Learjets around the world and those of us who live in it. When you see someone driving 85 mph in a 55, fuming down the highway, darting between cars, sans signal, it’s never a Hyundai. It’s a Porsche, Mercedes, or Beemer.
And that’s because the success has poisoned their worldview beyond repair. The rules just don’t apply to them. And while Americans don’t condone cheating, we understand why the career minor-leaguer sips the juice: the potion expands his portion of the American Dream. What we can’t wrap our small heads around is the notion that Clemens and Bonds – the dual, doomed faces of the epoch – were compelled to cheat despite their dominance without shooting equine cocktails that would make Seabiscuit blush.
Just as we learned that Clemens was a behemoth on the mound, capable of astonishing dominance, making a baseball do things only a handful of men in history could, we learned he’s not the most eloquent speaker. But not even Abe Lincoln could talk us out of what we saw, the drastic physical and statistical mutations over the last ten years of Roger Clemens’s career.
Meanwhile, America and Americans are waiting for Americana to return. Clemens pitched in four cities. I happen to be in one of them. Though The Rocket was respected by New Yorkers, he was never worshiped. He was a quintessential mercenary, something the Yankees and Yankees fans know well, from Reggie Jackson before him to Alex Rodriguez after him. There was always a palpable distance between Clemens and the rest of us, a metaphysical fence he imposed on the world. Part of that demonic focus made him great, and made him galling.
So you’ll have to decide what you think of the man, in full, out of his uniform, which, thankfully for him, didn’t include an orange jumpsuit with an entirely different number. That would have been something to misremember.
Feel free to email me: Keidel.Jason@gmail.com
Did the Clemens interview change your mind about whether he juiced? Be heard in the comments below!