The Rocket That Fell to Earth: Roger Clemens and the Rage for Baseball Immortality

Jeff Pearlman writes in his 2009 book:

* To those who had come to know [John] McNamara during his time in Boston, the shifting of blame was hardly a surprise. Though popular with a handful of Red Sox veterans, the 54-year-old skipper was a guarded, crotchety man who trusted few people outside his tight ring of coaches and friends. Upon being hired by the Red Sox, McNamara McNamara owned a lifetime major league record of 751-805 and had been fired three times. He saw himself as one of the geniuses of the game, and anyone who dared question his moves or motives was, in his eyes, a buffoon. “Everybody thinks he can do your job,” he snarled. “Everybody.” So when the press asked about Clemens’ departure from game six, what was he supposed to say? That he was wrong? No way. Not McNamara’s style. He would blame his ace before taking any personal responsibility. Clemens was livid. “Did McNamara tell you that he’s a drunk?” he later asked television announcer Tim McCarver in an unsubstantiated off-the-air rant. “Did he tell you that he had the clubhouse guys fix him a drink in the fifth inning? That he was completely clueless?” Upon reporting to spring training, Clemens’ mood hardly improved. Because he had slightly more than two years of major league service, Clemens was required to pitch one more season before becoming eligible for arbitration. Hence, while Yankees first baseman Don Mattingly, the MVP runner-up, was being awarded a $1.975 million salary via arbitration, Clemens was forced to accept Boston’s offer of $500,000—a mere $160,000 raise from 1986. “We decided to renew Roger’s contract at a figure we think is fair,” Lou Gorman, Boston’s general manager, said at the time. “This is fair.”

What frustrated Clemens wasn’t necessarily the paltry contract offer but that the Red Sox had lied to him. During the off-season, Clemens, his agents and Gorman had agreed to a one-year, $1 million contract that left all sides smiling. Yet when Peter Ueberroth, baseball’s commissioner, learned of the agreement, he called Gorman in a tizzy. “Lou, I’m reading that you’re going to pay Roger Clemens $1 million,” said Ueberroth. “Please tell me it’s not true.” “That’s right,” said Gorman. “I shook hands and made a deal with the man.” A lengthy pause. “Well, Lou, I’m ordering you not to give him $1 million,” said Ueberroth. “You can’t pay him more than $500,000. Not a penny more.” “But Pete,” asked a stunned Gorman, “what am I supposed to do here?” Over the previous two years, baseball’s ruling class had colluded to drive down wildly escalating salaries.

* As Jordan would later write of Clemens in a piece for The New York Times Magazine:

“A French dilettante once said, “I am such an egotist that if I were to write about a chair I’d find some way to write about myself.” Clemens’s egotism is more childlike and innocent. He doesn’t realize that he sees himself as the center of his small universe, at the center of every story he tells… Everyone is a bit player in Clemens’s universe, even his beloved mother, Bess, who reared him and his five siblings mostly without a father. She left her first husband when Clemens was a baby, and her second husband died when Clemens was 9. Bess has been fighting emphysema for years. “She has her good days and bad,” Clemens says. “I only hope she can hang on to see me go into the Hall of Fame.” Clemens assumes everyone’s pleasure revolves around him…. He says he hates to miss a start because that might deprive his fans, especially young boys, from the pleasure of seeing “the Rocket Man punch out 20.” The Rocket Man is his nickname. He sometimes autographs his book “Rocket Man” or “Roger ‘The Rocket’ Clemens” and then adds a list of his awards.”

When the Clemens family purchased a Porsche, Roger insisted on a CY-MVP vanity license plate. When Clemens ate out at a restaurant, he would look around, hoping someone would recognize him. (Then, when he was recognized, he would audibly complain about the lack of privacy.)

* As the hundreds of major league ballplayers who turned to performance-enhancing drugs throughout the 1990s did their absolute best to keep the media at arm’s length, Piazza took the opposite approach. According to several sources, when the subject of performance enhancing was broached with reporters he especially trusted, Piazza fessed up. “Sure, I use,” he told one. “But in limited doses, and not all that often.” (Piazza has denied using performance-enhancing drugs, but there has always been speculation.) Whether or not it was Piazza’s intent, the tactic was brilliant: By letting the media know, off the record, Piazza made the information that much harder to report. Writers saw his bulging muscles, his acne-covered back. They certainly heard the under-the-breath comments from other major league players, some who considered Piazza’s success to be 100 percent chemically delivered. “He’s a guy who did it, and everybody knows it,” says Reggie Jefferson, the longtime major league first baseman. “It’s amazing how all these names, like Roger Clemens, are brought up, yet Mike Piazza goes untouched.” “There was nothing more obvious than Mike on steroids,” says another major league veteran who played against Piazza for years. “Everyone talked about it, everyone knew it. Guys on my team, guys on the Mets. A lot of us came up playing against Mike, so we knew what he looked like back in the day. Frankly, he sucked on the field. Just sucked. After his body changed, he was entirely different. ‘Power from nowhere,’ we called it.” When asked, on a scale of 1 to 10, to grade the odds that Piazza had used performance enhancers, the player doesn’t pause. “A 12,” he says. “Maybe even a 13.”

* Perhaps his strangest away-from-the-family pursuit came in the form of Charlize Theron, the bombshell South African actress with the 36B-24-36 body and the form-fitting red-carpet outfits. Clemens had long fancied the starlet, who during the 2002 season came to New York to promote a new film. While eating dinner at Serafina—one of Manhattan’s snazziest bistros—an apparently intoxicated Clemens looked up and spotted his Hollywood crush. He approached the actress, introduced himself and asked whether she’d like to join him for a drink. When Theron—who, as a baseball ignoramus, likely had no idea who the pitcher was—declined, Clemens trailed her through the restaurant until a bouncer stepped in his way. “Take one more step,” he growled, “and there’ll be some real trouble here.” With that, Clemens stopped, looked up as Theron exited through the front door and yelped, “But Charlize, I’d do you right…”

* In the insular world of professional baseball, there exists a code of honor that, in any other sector of society, would make no sense whatsoever. On the diamonds and inside the clubhouses, loyalty means standing up for your teammates, no matter the circumstance. Boston outfielder Wil Cordero is arrested for beating his wife in 1997? He’s welcomed back with hugs and open arms. Mets pitcher David Cone allegedly exposes himself to female fans in the Shea Stadium bullpen in 1989? Most Mets laugh it off as wacky hijinks.

* The once-bashful kid now lived for the attention. He didn’t merely want it—he needed it. “You’re talking about the ultimate narcissist,” says Pat Jordan, the writer and former minor league pitcher. “Actors are fearful—their narcissism is a product of their fear. But an athlete’s narcissism doesn’t spring from fear, it springs from arrested development. A person like Roger Clemens has never cultivated anything but himself. Everything is about the arm, about maintaining the arm. The longer it goes on, the easier it is to become a Roger Clemens. You constantly call attention upon yourself, because you’re all you know. I used to be like that when I played, and I wasn’t one one-thousandth of the pitcher Roger was. It took me a long time to get out of the idea that if it rains on my parade, I’m the only one get

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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