04/01/09 11:05 PM ET
New book examines Clemens
Jeff Pearlman's new book, "The Rocket That Fell to Earth: Roger Clemens and the Rage for Baseball Immortality," is a hands-down winner in this essential category.
Clemens' reputation has suffered a very public demise due to charges of performance-enhancing substance use. These charges appear to be believed by everyone outside the Clemens household and selected members of his legal defense team. Thus, the public has had many opportunities to read many attacks upon Clemens and even the increasingly rare defense of Clemens.
Pearlman's book is neither an attack nor a defense. It is an explanation; of who Clemens is, and, how the same nature that lifted him to pitching greatness, led him down a reckless and ultimately self-destructive path. The Rocket, the reader comes to understand, went from being a sure-thing future Hall of Famer to a baseball pariah. The same traits that worked so well for him as a pitcher worked against him in the reality outside the ballpark.
What is valuable in this work is the balance. Pearlman, an author and former Sports Illustrated senior writer, forms a convincing, realistic portrait of Clemens. The pitcher's ability and his grim and singular determination are matters of public record, but the author does a fine job of detailing how Clemens the pitcher, and Clemens the competitor, developed.
And the pitcher's finer characteristics are also on display. There are frequent anecdotes about Clemens visiting hospitalized children. These acts of kindness are made nobler by the fact that Clemens, far from seeking publicity for these visits, took pains to make certain that they were not publicized.
And in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Clemens, then a member of the Yankees, was tireless in making personal appearances and fund-raising on behalf of 9/11 charities.
On the other side of the ledger is a man very much concerned with shaping his own legend. And in this endeavor, truth was not an apparent necessity. Long before the steroids/human growth hormone connection, Clemens had concocted some convenient untruths about himself. For instance, he said he was drafted out of high school by the Minnesota Twins. No, he wasn't. At the University of Texas, Clemens boasted that his teammates called him "Goose," after the hard-throwing reliever Goose Gossage. Pearlman reports that if his teammates called Clemens Goose, it was because Clemens kept urging them to call him Goose.
There is no shortage of material on the topic of Clemens turning fiction to fact from reporters who have covered Clemens. "A liar, plain and simple," says one. "Selfish, spoiled and seriously deficient in character," says another. With this kind of background, Clemens' performance on the performance-enhancing substances issue becomes less surprising. He was, after all, The Rocket. Whatever The Rocket said was true, simply because The Rocket said so.
But Clemens ran into people who were bigger than he was, at least in a figurative kind of way. This is why he is currently under federal investigation for allegedly perjuring himself before a Congressional committee. Pearlman again does admirable work explaining how the whole thing came apart for Clemens.
At the elemental level, Clemens might be a victim of his own stardom, or at least a victim of his belief in his own stardom. Pearlman quotes from a profile of Clemens written by Pat Jordan that appeared in The New York Times Magazine:
"Clemens doesn't realize that he sees himself as the center of his small universe, at the center of every story that he tells. ... Clemens assumes that everyone's pleasure revolves around him."
The more Clemens denied the steroid accusations, the worse his situation became. Those accusations became considerably more credible when Clemens' teammate and friend, Andy Pettitte, corroborated them and when it turned out that Clemens' main accuser, his former personal trainer, Brian McNamee, had saved physical evidence of The Rocket's use of performance-enhancing substances.
But Clemens kept going straight ahead with his total-denial approach. And his situation continued to deteriorate as stories of his extramarital affairs became a regular read for those still drawn to his case.
In his own adopted home, he went from being a genuine sports hero to a man who was scorned by the very people who used to approach him with something resembling adoration. "Clemens was Houston's baseball version of Enron -- an embarrassment most people wanted to forget," Pearlman writes.
And so the remarkable resurgence of Clemens' career in its second half, once perceived as the work of a man with a matchless work ethic, is placed in an entirely different context -- that of a cheater.
This is not a story with an ending that is anywhere near comfortable, as a former baseball icon's reputation goes south, probably for keeps. But Pearlman has done the necessary reporter's job, finding the reasons for both the rise and the fall.
In the end, Roger Clemens defined himself as The Rocket, who could beat you with the overpowering high heat and later the devilish splitter, and always with a seemingly endless supply of competitive fire. That was terrific on the mound, but the same competitive impulses led Clemens astray. And when he was called on his transgressions, being The Rocket, a character who could not be diminished by what he saw as lesser men, turned out to be the worst possible approach.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.