The Needle and The Damage Done | Take Me Back Tuesday

Roger Clemens action figures
Various Startling Lineup figures of Roger Clemens show the admiration I used to have for him, before the Mitchell Report.

Throwback to 2008: Steroid Report Brings Down Baseball Heroes

Tonight is Major League Baseball’s annual All-Star game. I haven’t watched it in many years, and I won’t be watching tonight.

Baseball used to be a daily obsession for me, starting in my grade school years. From memorizing the names and stats of players, courtesy of my rubberbanded Topps baseball card collection, and later, Donruss, Fleer, and Upper Deck in the mix, to tracking the daily box scores as I watched the pennant races take shape, and then tuning into morning highlights on ESPN’s SportCenter, there wasn’t a day from Spring to Fall that I didn’t think of baseball.

And that stuck with me — through college, through my early married years, to about the time I became a dad.

That love of the game was fueled by my awe of its stories and statistics, going back over 100 years, and my admiration for some of the game’s greats — whether their physical skill or mad competitiveness — and local heroes and teams, like my Cleveland Indians, but other standout squads of the day, like Willie Stargell’s ’79 We Are Family Pirates (one of my earliest baseball memories), Gibby’s ’84 Tigers and ’88 Dodgers, the Bash Brother Oakland A’s (swept in the 1990 World Series by the Cincinnati Reds — I remember tuning in during my first date), the improbable Twins squads of ’87 and again in ’91, and those ill-fated Cleveland teams of the mid- to late 90’s.

I got caught up in the ’98 home run chase between McGwire and Sosa, same as everybody else. And began to smell something funny when Bonds shattered the record a few years later.

But the big thud was delivered — hard to believe — more than 10 years ago when the Mitchell Report was released in late 2007. It suddenly became very hard to care too much about a game that was found to be a sham for much of the time my passion for it grew. And that had a lot to do with the tarnishing of perhaps my biggest baseball hero of all, erstwhile Boston and Toronto and New York and Houston pitcher Roger Clemens.

Since then, I’ve tuned in occasionally. The Indians’ run to the Series a couple years back certainly had me on the edge of my seat and bleeding almost as much as I do with every Ohio State football play during the Fall. But something was lost. And as Clemens gains in hall of fame votes each year, I still haven’t come to terms with what he took from me, and what he took from other fans who followed his exploits and others during the Steroid Era and figured they were more than the cheap, chemical-induced sideshow they ended up being.

Today’s “Take Me Back Tuesday” takes a peek at a column I wrote back in April 2008 as Clemens was first battling allegations of PED use. Though he has never admitted using PEDs, and though he beat the perjury case against him, my feelings have stayed pretty consistent since then. I’m numb to it. And that’s a long way from fandom.

It doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy baseball or the current games and teams and players. It’s just that there’s a lingering sense of being cheated and seeing the greatest players of my generation as the scheming meatheads they really were.

Maybe we expect too much of our sports heroes. And maybe that’s unfair. Perhaps it’s good to know the human side of competition and the darker side of human nature.

But it’s also essential that we keep placing the highest value on fair play and honesty, holding up as examples those who play the game and live life the right way. That’s what I’m trying to pass on to my sons. And that’s why, regarding Roger’s legacy, or even when it comes to passing up idle enjoyment of tonight’s All Star festivities, it’s just not — and never will be — the same.

 

Roger Clemens baseball card tin action figure

Whoops, There Goes My Childhood

When I was 10 years old, I spread out my 1987 Topps baseball cards, into which I’d socked uncountable weeks of allowance, not to mention a sweaty wad of birthday money. Scanning the images of heroes arrayed there – Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, Dwight Gooden and Rafael Palmeiro among them – I plucked one player from the stash and decided right then and there he would be my favorite.

Roger Clemens, I thought then, even looked a little like me. He was slightly chubby in the face, with brown hair that curled under his Red Sox hat. He also was a native Ohioan, born in Dayton (though he would one day opine that the best thing about the Buckeye State was seeing it in the rearview mirror). In the awkward years while I waited for my athletic abilities to catch up with my aspirations – for those of us who don’t become pro athletes, they never quite do – pitching a backyard game of catch with the sycamore tree, I wondered: could I one day be like Roger Clemens?

Of more immediate concern to my 10-year-old self was acquiring every baseball card stamped with Roger’s image. No small task, I soon learned, since he was in the midst of becoming one of baseball’s hottest stars. He had already nabbed the1986 Cy Young, not to mention league MVP, and the 1987 Cy Young – plus a shelf more – would follow. There were dozens of his cards out there, from the 1986 season when he began to fulfill his promise, the 1985 rookie cards, even the fabled 1984 Fleer Update, first card to feature him as a major leaguer, but well beyond my price range at $80. Still, I socked more of my allowance, then college money, then salary, into filling the plastic sleeves of my card album with as much Roger Clemens as I could.

Sure, plenty of others counted themselves as Clemens fans, probably had more cards than I did, too. But this collection was mine, you know? Mine. And well into my 30s, I exulted at the turns Roger’s career took – the second 20-strikeout performance, the record win streak, the improbable surge in his twilight seasons, and when they came, the championships. Even the puzzling turns in his career, I accepted. His abdication to the Blue Jays? I didn’t quite get it, being the closet Red Sox fan who had rooted for them against the Blue Jays in those late 1980s pennant races. And then his playing for the hated Yankees? Even as my home state Indians put together the dream seasons we had longed for, I bore the insults of fellow Wahoos and rooted for Clemens to win on the days he pitched.

And for years, I had the upper hand in the race of “favorites” with my brother, who had unfortunately fallen in with Dwight Gooden in the mid-1980s. That is, until mid-December, when the Mitchell Report was published and my bro left a gleeful message on my cell phone: “So, I picked the druggie and you picked the cheater. Who came out ahead, do you think?”

I still don’t know what to think. Though I’ll tell you, as a 31-year-old adult and not a starry-eyed 10-year-old, my skepticism is alive and kicking. With cynicism not far behind.
I watched the Mike Wallace interview of Clemens on CBS in January. My laptop was warm on my knees where my 1-year-old son had just been, and I took notes like the city government reporter I recently had been.

The early part of the interview found Roger fuming. He was angry, he said, that after all he’d done for the game of baseball as a pitcher and in his private life, that he isn’t getting the benefit of the doubt. “It’s hogwash for people even to assume this… 24, 25 years, Mike, you think I’d get an inch of respect – an inch.”

Well, I’m sorry there, number 21, but the benefit of the doubt reigns before you’re investigated. Once people start naming names, start recounting how they injected your butt with HGH and steroids, well, that’s when the doubt kicks in. And hey, guess what? We’re still listening to you: you’re on 60 Minutes for Cy Young’s sake! Cure us of our hogwash, take away our doubts! But doubting is up to us, and frankly, you’ve been named in a major investigation of steroids. If we didn’t doubt you, then we’d be swallowing the hogwash, wouldn’t we?

The skinny, from the Mitchell Report, is that Brian McNamee, a former trainer with Roger’s teams, injected him in 1998 with the Blue Jays, and in 2000 and 2001 with the Yankees. Clemens showed marked improvement in those seasons, Wallace pointed out, and thus his performance could be viewed with suspicion about it being artificially enhanced. To which Roger rightly pointed out that he’d won the Cy Young in 1997, before these alleged injections took place, and also in 2004, after the allegations the Mitchell report details.

“It’s not impossible,” he said. “You do it with hard work. Ask any of my teammates. Ask anyone who’s come here and done the work with me.”

Well, Roger, you still haven’t answered anything or said anything unique here. Hard work combined with steroids and human growth hormone only amplifies the improvement you’d get. So, assuming the report is true, you’re basically qualifying yourself here as the ideal steroid lab rat.

Roger Clemens Blue Jays Action Figure Roided Up

Hero Takes a Fall

He defends himself by asking the person who provided him with steroids to please come forward. The report says McNamee injected Clemens with needles Clemens provided. I’m not sure: does that mean that Clemens himself provided the drugs? So that seems to clear McNamee of providing the drugs, and seems to indicate that Clemens got them from another source. Hey, even so, isn’t what Clemens is asking practically impossible? A person dealing illegal drugs is not going to come forward: “Hey! Yeah, I provided Roger with the drugs. Now arrest me, please.” And yet, the improbability of a criminal implicating himself or herself doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

Clemens goes on to invoke what I’ll call the Bobblehead Defense to claim there is physical evidence he didn’t use steroids or HGH. “My body never changed. If he’s putting that stuff in my body… if he’s doing that to me, I should have a third ear coming out of my forehead. I should be pulling tractors with my teeth.” Wow. Overshot there a bit, didn’t you, Rodge? No, man – no third ear, no tractor-pulling necessary. Dominating Major League Baseball in your 40s would probably be enough.

He claims not to “believe in (steroids),” that “it’s a quick fix.” But so are some of the other “remedies” he admits to indulging in throughout his career to keep his dominance honed to a razor’s edge, to battle through injuries and pain, which steroids has been shown to help athletes do. For instance, there is the lidocaine and B12 shots – both legal – and remedies such as his Toradol shot before a game with the Yankees that Joe Torre was ready to scratch him from.

Clemens threw a three-hitter and won that game, illustrative of how far he is willing to go to compete.

“That’s the things I put in my body…” Clemens said. “I’m not ashamed of that, because I get paid a lot of money to go out and perform.”

Illustrating that philosophy was his consumption of Vioxx, a painkiller since pulled from the market as possibly causing heart attacks and strokes. Clemens claims he “was eating (Vioxx) like it was Skittles.” Although he claims that he didn’t want to put anything into his body that was harmful, he did, didn’t he? The main intention, it seems to me, was going out and performing, winning. That was the motivation. Not watching out for his health.

Wallace, maybe not in his classic, hard-hitting style, but grating enough, put Clemens on the hook several times, asking him specifically whether he took steroids, testosterone, HGH. “Never. Never. Never,” was the pitcher’s response. Add that to his litany of “It didn’t happen.” But I thought his response to Wallace’s question about appropriate penalties for baseball drug users was more telling. It’s a great technique, putting the onus of deciding the punishment on the accused. Clemens said: “I think it’s a self-inflicted penalty. (Players using steroids) break down quick. It’s a quick fix. They’re in and out of the game.”

Yet in the famous example, one record-smashing Barry Bonds, there was no in and out of the game. No breaking down, except of the records and the public trust. Ultimately, it’s the backlash that forces drug users and alleged drug users from the game – as an as-yet-unsigned Bonds is discovering this spring – a backlash Clemens railed and fretted about in the closing minutes of the interview, when he said he would never pitch again and likely never prove his innocence. “That’s our country, isn’t it?” he said. “Guilty before innocent.

“I think the people that know me, believe me, and know what I’m about. … The people that are out there that have been saying the things they’re saying, I don’t know if I’ll ever change their opinion. … I’ll do everything I can to prove them wrong and I still don’t know if that’s good enough.”

Well, it’s “good enough” if it’s the truth, if the people out there accusing you are proven wrong, proven to be liars. How many years in the face of a mountain of testimony both public and private did Pete Rose deny his gambling, only to eventually admit it all? How Palmeiro wagged his finger before Congress denying steroid use only to be caught with a “tainted” B-12 shot months later? How a mountain of evidence, compiled mainly by the “liars” in the media, has led to Bonds’s perjury charge, in effect telling us he probably lied about his denial of steroid use? Maybe, hopefully, Roger, you didn’t use. But we’ve seen so much in the last several years. The doubt is thick, and justifiably so. Prove ’em wrong, then, if you can.

As for my baseball card collection, a quick perusal of Tuffstuff.com and other outlets that rate the value of memorabilia shows those cards I socked my allowance into years and years ago have proven to be worth the cardboard they were printed on. That is to say, far less than they were worth in a more innocent time.

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