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Mar. 2 2010 - 10:07 am | 1,749 views | 4 recommendations | 12 comments

Roger Clemens Unplugged: The Rocket Breaks His Silence

Roger Clemens

Image via Wikipedia

“Jon, it’s Roger Clemens. Did I get you at a bad time?”

It’s a phone call I’d been expecting for a couple of days—and a conversation I’d been trying to have for about a year—but yes, it was a bad time. Clemens had reached me as I was returning home on the Long Island Railroad. Tough to talk sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with rush hour commuters.

“Actually, it is a bad time, Roger,” I said. “Can you call me back in a few hours, say 9 p.m. my time?”

Clemens said sure, and I was soon spending time reviewing my notes. He was calling to discuss his appearance at a charity event in Trenton the last day in February. The charity organization is Allies, Inc., which finds jobs, housing, and other services for people starting at age 14 coping with disabilities like cerebral palsy, down syndrome, and MS. The event organizer, a 46-year-old avowed Yankees fan named Mike Cestero, had called me a while back, telling me that Clemens was headlining his gig and hoping I’d be interested in writing a story.

Cestero told me Clemens would spend two hours taking pictures at his event and donating four autographed jerseys—one for each team he played on—for a silent auction. “We’re also auctioning off a round of golf with Roger in Orlando and tickets to an Astros spring training game,” Cestero said. I was intrigued. I knew Clemens did a lot of charity work, but Trenton’s a long way from Houston. And while Allies is a worthy charity, it’s hardly a household name. This was Allies third fundraiser; the two previous headliners were mixed martial arts stars.

Why Clemens? And how did Cestero make it happen?

“I felt Roger had been treated unfairly, and thought this would be an opportunity to get his good name out,” said Cestero, who contacted Clemens people last spring and got a call from Roger in August saying he’d do the event. “I thought he felt a connection to the materials I sent him. And I thought he saw someone who needed his help.

“So Roger is coming to help Allies. And hopefully Allies is going to help Roger.”

My cell phone rang again at 9:05. It was Clemens. He’d just finished throwing BP to his son Koby and a bunch of college players in his back yard batting cage, and was ready to talk. It’s been 10 months since Roger’s spoke to the media, and we’d agreed in advance to talk about Cestero’s charity event and see where the conversation went from there. So we talked about Allies, about his charity work for his foundation, about being Mr. Mom to his four sons and sending Koby back to spring training with the Astros. I’d been told Clemens might be a bit reluctant to open up, but once I answered the phone Roger starting talking and rarely stopped.

I asked if he was retired. “No comment,” he said quickly, paused, then laughed. “People keep asking me that and all I can say is that I’ve retired three times. Why would I have to say it again?”

The answer does matter, at least when it comes to the Astros, who signed him to a 10-year personal service contract back in 2004 which kicks in upon retirement. It hasn’t. A year ago, Astros owner Drayton McLane denied the team wanted to void the deal, but would not rule out the option. He spoke then about the importance of letting Clemen’s legal issues play out and hasn’t said much publicly about it since.

His relationship with the Astros? “I would not say I am working with the Astros, no,” Clemens said. “I would say it’s very informal right now.”

We talked about his Twitter account—“I need to tweet more often”—what he misses about not playing—“The competition. I don’t miss my body aching or the icing after games”—and the reaction he gets when he shows up to his younger sons’ games—“I’m not the Rocket, I’m Captain Video. I take the pictures, bring the band aids, wipe the tears, and give the occasional pep talk.”

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Our conversation was easy and relaxed. He talked about how much he likes Mike Cestero and the good work Allies does, and how he hoped the weather didn’t interfere with his travel. (It didn’t.) I told him that Cestero thought he’d been treated unfairly, and asked Roger how he felt about living in legal limbo—the Justice Department’s investigation into possible perjury charges from his Congressional testimony started two years ago March. Clemens wondered what I was talking about.

“I don’t think I’ve been in limbo,” he said quickly. “We went and did the best we could, and whether it satisfied some people or didn’t, that’s all you can do. You can get down about it, you can let people who want to come after you for different reasons break your spirit, but I won’t let that happen. The good outweighs the bad.”

Our talk was running close to an hour when I brought up Tiger Woods. The world’s most famous golfer had done his public penance on national television just that morning, almost two years to the day that baseball’s most famous righthander had refused to apologize before Congress. I asked if he had watched Tiger’s apology.

“I saw little bits and pieces while working and throwing at the gym,” Roger said. “Like I said from the git go, to me Tiger Woods’ personal life is none of my business. I’m rooting for him to do what he has to do and get back on the golf course and entertain all of us. He’s Tiger Woods. He’s a golfer. I’ve been fortunate enough to play golf with him, play with his father. I want to see Tiger back on the golf course doing special things.”

There was time for one more. What did he think about Mark McGwire’s apology tour? “Mark’s a friend and he’s a sweetheart of a man,” Clemens said. “I didn’t  see any of his stuff. I know the soft side behind him. And I’ve gone up against him quite a bit. I want him to have peace. If Tony (LaRussa) asked him to come back to work, that’s pretty cool. I hope Mark doesn’t coach those guys too good because they’re in our division and I’m an Astros season ticket holder.”

(See outtakes of my conversation with Clemens here.)

I thanked Clemens for his time and we said our good byes. As I began to frame my story, I sent out a bunch of emails, looking to find consensus on Clemens and his place in history. What came back surprised me. I never thought Clemens was beloved, but the vitriol that colored most of the replies was unexpected.

“I was the biggest Roger Clemens fan alive,” wrote Seamheads.com founder Mike Lynch in an email that was typical of the few dozen I got back.  “Then he left the Sox and I was bitter, mostly at Dan Duquette for forcing him out the door. When Clemens trashed the organization on his way out of town, he pissed me off. Then he talked about how wonderful Toronto was, only to spurn the Blue Jays a few years later for the Yankees. I realized then that he was a liar, so I’m not surprised that he’s denied using PEDs.  Frankly, I hope he gets nailed to the wall.

“And I don’t think a confession is going to help him.  As far as I’m concerned, it’s too late.”

(See Victor Conte, law professor Mike McCann and others discuss Clemens here.)

Is it too late for Clemens to change his legacy? It’s clearly an uphill battle, especially with his legal issues still unresolved. There’s two schools of thought on the perjury investigation. One side still thinks Clemens will be indicted. The other thinks the last thing the Obama Administration wants is another steroids-in-baseball media circus and is looking for an exit strategy. The facts to date: there has been no news in two years.

It’s also clear that baseball has turned it’s back on Clemens—don’t expect Bud Selig to give Roger the same hug he’s giving McGwire, no matter how the perjury investigation goes. After all, Clemens was the star of the Mitchell Report; it’s hard for Bud to walk that one back. The Yankees scrubbed him from their memory in a hurry, and the Astros would rather he stay away from their spring training camp, even as Koby tries to work his way up through their system.

Has Clemens been treated unfairly as Cestero thinks? I have no idea what Clemens took or didn’t take. I have my suspicions, just as I have about many players who have not been put under the microscope. I think it’s safe to say that the use of performance enhancing drugs was widespread and well known both in and outside the game. We all turned a blind eye to what was going on, mainly because we were all having too much fun.

If I’m concerned about how the steroid era played out — and I am — I’m far more concerned with those in charge who threw Barry Bonds, Clemens and a handful of others under the bus to save themselves. No one has profited more from steroids in baseball than Selig, who sold his team for a fortune just before the steroid bubble burst and rode the popularity of a game built on PEDs to an $18 million yearly salary. Then he gave George Mitchell $20 million to pin the blame for steroids on an angry black man and an arrogant white Texan. Anyone who believes Selig’s spiel that he’s cleaned up baseball is both naive and foolish. As Victor Conte continually tells me, drug tests are little more than IQ tests—you really have to be dumb to flunk one. And there is still no proven test for HgH.

Of even greater concern is the abuse of power by the Bush Justice Department, which bent and broke the law for personal and professional gain. And the host of Congressional committees looking to score political points while bankers took the country over the economic cliff. Just a few of the other issues the Oversight Committee chose to ignore while chasing after baseball players: Abu Ghraid, Jack Abramoff, the Valerie Plame leak, the Downey Street memo, and the Katrina response.

And the next time a Congressman points a finger at a baseball player for leading kids to steroids, ask about the DSHEA legislation of 1994. This nifty little bill took the label off supplements, which now go to market without FDA approval. The result: a slew of pills stuffed with steroids, amphetamines, illicit street drugs and drugs that would otherwise require a prescription. It took the government six years to take Andro off the market after the McGwire flap. It is now classified as an anabolic steroid. The DSHEA bill passed the Senate 100-0. The majority leader? George Mitchell.

The Balco investigators gave two men caught dealing drugs a free pass so they could take down Clemens on evidence they couldn’t use in a court of law. Congress wasted taxpayer money to ask Clemens the same questions Mike Wallace asked him on 60 Minutes, then wasted plenty more running around Houston looking for evidence that Clemens lied when he said Andy Pettitte misremembered.

Given all this, I have a lot of trouble getting worked up over what Roger Clemens may or may not have used to play baseball. At least Roger Clemens entertained us. The rest of these guys scare me. And whatever you think Clemens did or did not do, he has paid a hefty price.

So where does this leave Roger? He’ll be back in the news when the government finally decides his fate. And in three years Clemens will be part of a big morality play when he, Bonds and Sosa become eligible for Hall of Fame voting. Until then he’ll probably fly under the radar, working out with his kids, looking for business opportunities, attending charity events. Two nights ago he spent a few hours with several hundred people at a nightclub in Trenton, taking pictures, shaking hands and raising thousands of dollars for a good cause. Across the street from the nightclub is the stadium of the Trenton Thunder, the Yankees AA team Clemens pitched for on his way back to New York in the spring of 2007.

It may be the closest Roger gets to his past glory for quite a while.


Comments

2 T/S Member Comments Called Out, 12 Total Comments
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  1. collapse expand

    really enjoyed the article- amazing to think about what issues were missed since Congress spent so much time on the Mitchell Report

  2. collapse expand

    Great job, Jon. Your take on the steroid issue is the most level-headed and thoughtful of anyone in the media.

  3. collapse expand

    Just finished your piece, made me stand up and do a mini-wave right here in my office! I especially liked your take on Selig, “Then he gave George Mitchell $20 million to pin the blame for steroids on an angry black man and an arrogant white Texan.” (I’d start another mini-wave but I’m afraid I’ll spill my coffee!).

    Did you see the news coming out of the Bronx today about more A-Rod problems?

    • collapse expand

      Yes, I saw the A-Rod story. Not a good sign that he didn’t want to talk about it. Heard Carlos Beltran on the radio today. He was also interviewed by the feds, who cleared him. The story in the NY Times said the Yankees asked him about Dr. Galea when the story re-emerged in December. (Galea had been busted in September; the story was back in the news with his connection to Tiger Woods.) A tangled web. Sports is nothing if not a mirror to society. America has a huge drug problem; why would we think that drugs are not prevalent in sports?

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  4. collapse expand

    I agree with the other comments as per Congress and Selig. In my opinion, whether or not he used this or that doesn’t bother me. What he did on the field speaks for itself. A perjury charge or more investigations in my opinion is a waste of tax payer money. “I’m captain video,” now that’s funny.

  5. collapse expand

    Incredibly well written and researched. Five stars

  6. collapse expand

    There’s a constant in life when it comes to media and politics; we like to build people up and tear them down. If Roger used PED’s at a time when everyone looked the other way, so be it. If he got caught up in the circus in Washington DC and taken down for lying to congress for something that doesn’t change or national security or create jobs, that would be unfortunate. Given the issues facing us today with the financial crisis and terrorism, I could only hope the Justice Department gives this case proper consideration and drops it. There’s a lot of sports hero’s that get caught up in distractions. Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGuire helped rebuild interest in baseball at a time they needed help. Roger Clemens will always be remembered as a guy that threw hard, intimidated batters and lasted a long time. He deserves consideration for the hall, but needs to overcome the same perceptions as the hitters. An apology tour? I don’t think so.

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    About Me

    I’ve been a sports journalist for most of my 36 years in this profession. I’ve been a writer and an editor. I’ve covered little league games and Super Bowls, worked on a tiny paper in Manassas, Va. and helped start ESPN the Magazine. Now I’m writing for True/Slant, freelancing, writing a book, and teaching journalism at Stony Brook University. I’ve lived and died with the Jets, Knicks, and Yankees. That stage of life is pretty much over now, though what happens to all three teams still interest me. And the playoffs are still appointment television. I now see sports almost always as a metaphor for what is happening around me. I see college athletic programs exploiting poor minority athletes and wonder why it exists and what it says about us. I watch a former White House press secretary manage Mark McGwire’s return to baseball and wonder why we can’t have an intelligent conversation about performance enhancing drugs. I read about former NFL players committing suicide after years of playing with concussions, and wonder how the NFL owners, coaches, trainers—and fans—can sleep at night. This is pretty much the reason I continue to write about sports. You write what interests you, and reach a wide audience. Everyone read and heard about the Duke Lacrosse story. Everyone talks about the Super Bowl. Everyone has their take on steroids. Sports is a common denominator, second only to religion, and its closing in fast. For Tiger Woods, that was unfortunate. To those of us in the business, it’s amazing.

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