John Thorn is a contributing writer for The Business of Sports Network
“You think I played my career because I’m worried about the damn Hall of Fame? I could give a rat’s ass about that.” Thus spake Roger Clemens in a memorable press conference on Monday, highlighted by the playback of a taped 17-minute conversation with his accuser and professed injector of banned substances into his buttocks, trainer Brian McNamee. “If you have a vote,” Clemens said to the reporters in the room, “you keep your vote. I don't need the Hall of Fame to justify that I put my butt on the line and I worked my tail off. And I defy anybody to say I did it by cheating or taking any shortcuts.”
Well, ever since the Mitchell Report was issued, McNamee has hardly been the only one on Roger’s butt. Sportswriters, fans, and culture pundits have done their best to kick Roger off the pedestal he had attained by winning seven Cy Young Awards. Prior to the report, I had not been the only one to claim that he — not Walter Johnson, Cy Young, Lefty Grove or Christy Mathewson — was the greatest pitcher in the history of baseball. The Hall of Fame was a foregone conclusion, for like his partner in purported infamy, Barry Bonds, Roger had been a lock for Cooperstown if he had retired ten years earlier.
That could not have been said about Rich “Goose” Gossage, who was elected to the Hall the day after the Clemens press conference in Texas. After having fallen short on eight previous tries of the required 75 percent of the ballots cast, this time he sailed in on a love boat of 85.8 percent. Falling short in the 2008 election were Jim Rice, who polled 72.2 percent in his 14th try, as well as such worthies as Andre Dawson, Bert Blyleven, Lee Smith, Jack Morris, Tommy John, Tim Raines, and — bringing up the rear of those who were named on one-fifth or more of the ballots — Mark McGwire. When he hit 70 and then 65 home runs in 1998-99, he too became a lock for the Hall, but then a stumbling appearance in March 2005 before the House Oversight and Government Affairs Committee convened to examine the steroids issue made him a pincushion for the noble knights of the keyboard.
As a new member of the Cooperstown Club, a partnership between elite players and the lowly scribes who covered them, Gossage the former flamethrower tossed only bouquets when asked his opinion of the swirling steroid accusations. “I have a lot of empathy for [the voters] on how to go about this. I'm glad I'm not voting.” Asked to comment on Clemens, Bonds and McGwire in particular, Gossage mused, “What we have here at stake is the greatest part of the game, the history of it.”
An active player would not typically say such a thing, though a retired one — or wistful writer, sympathetic fan or dotty historian — might. On the day before Gossage fluffed the writers who had just given him a career extension that will run the rest of his years on earth, Clemens had snarled the snarl of a player, one who from the time he was a boy loved the game for itself and the rewards of the playing field. “This is not about records and heroes and numbers,” he spat at those assembled at his press conference. “I could give a rat’s ass about that.” Rodentia redux.
What Clemens was saying, in effect, was that he pursued accomplishment for its own sake and for the contribution it might make to his teammates, and ultimately to winning — which is THE drug for players and fans alike and, despite the mandate of journalism for dispassion, most beat writers and hometown electronic-media types too.
We who love baseball might reflect on what we talk about when we talk about fame. If one required proof that fame is fleeting and fortune fickle, consider that at the All-Star Game in 1999, when Major League Baseball announced the fan balloting for the 25 spots on its All-Century Team, four then active players were elected: Cal Ripken, Ken Griffey, Clemens, and McGwire. Lacking the charm (i.e., character) factor even before the drumbeat of steroid-use allegations started, Bonds did not come close to making the cut despite three MVPs in the decade.
Enduring fame may ride the wind, like that of Abraham Lincoln or Paul Bunyan. But earning a plaque in Cooperstown has proven beyond the reach of some of the enduringly celebrated names in the game—Bobby Thomson, Roger Maris and Don Larsen, of one honorable but insufficient sort; Joe Jackson and Pete Rose of quite another, a group to whom one day we may add definitively Bonds, McGwire, and Clemens. What kind of pantheon is this? The answer may be found in the fifth among the rules for election by the Baseball Writers' Association of America (BBWAA): “Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.” Apart from a scary aversion to pronouns, this provision has opened the door for termites to judge themselves greater than the tree upon which they have fed, simply because they could bring it down.
Heirs to the traditions of the Star Chamber, the Salem Witch Trials, and Senator Joe McCarthy, George Mitchell and the publicity maggots in Congress have found an apt chorus in the conduct monitors of the BBWAA. While I recognize as well as anyone the societal value of scapegoats and propitiatory offerings, there can be no doubt that in the Steroids Era we have all gone quite mad.
Whose life is it anyway? The great player thinks, as long as he is in the game, that his achievements and his struggles belong to him and to his team. Once he retires, however, he finds, by way of the Bowdlerized Baseball Hall of Fame election process, that it belongs to everyone but him — fans, politicians, paragons of morality in the press box. He loses control over the life he thought he had created —he is no longer the central actor, let alone the author, of his own life drama.
Dan Shaughnessy wrote in the Boston Globe on January 9: “Clemens dismissed the Hall of Fame in his ‘60 Minutes’ interview and again Monday. It’s part of his Profile of Defiance. Clemens’s insistence that Cooperstown means nothing is harder to believe than any of his other statements and denials in recent weeks. Clemens knows his place in baseball history. He knows a case can be made that he is the greatest pitcher who ever lived. He knows that his reputation — his Hall of Fame worthiness — is what he is fighting for today and in Congress next week.”
What Roger Clemens truly knows is that if his reputation, like his Hall of Fame worthiness, is to be crafted by others, he won’t give a rat’s ass about it. That’s what Ted Williams and Muhammad Ali thought too.
John Thorn wrote his first book thirty years ago and since then has produced dozens more. His next book, Baseball in the Garden of Eden, will be published with Simon and Schuster in Spring 2008. Thorn writes "Play's the Thing," a column for the Woodstock Times. He is also a columnist for Voices, the publication of the New York Folkore Society, and 108, a new baseball quarterly. Recently announced is a new scholarly baseball journal that he will edit for the publisher McFarland & Company; it will be called BASE BALL: A Journal of the Early Game. View Thorn's complete profile at the Business of Sports Network.