The uproar this morning is that Roger Clemens, someone who everyone agrees is one of the best pitchers of all time, is a cheater, a steroids user going back to 1998. His reputation is ruined, he may not make the Hall of Fame, and according to Thomas Boswell, one of the deans of America’s baseball scribes, he’s like Pete Rose, Barry Bonds or maybe even Shoeless Joe Jackson in that his name will never be the same:
Now, Roger Clemens joins Barry Bonds
in baseball’s version of hell. It’s a slow burn that lasts a lifetime,
then, after death, lingers as long as the game is played and tongues
can wag. In baseball, a man’s triumphs and his sins are immortal. The
pursuit of one often leads to the other. And those misdeeds are seldom
as dark as their endless punishment.
Shoeless Joe Jackson, an illiterate outfielder who hit like a demon
in the 1919 World Series, but neglected to blow the whistle on his
crooked teammates, died with his good name as black as their Sox. Pete Rose,
who bet on his team, but never against it, finally confessed. It could
be good for his soul, and buys him dinner at my house any night, but
may never get him into Cooperstown. Now, they have company: two giants of our time, just as humbled, though no less tarnished.
Why does no one seem to understand that if many and maybe most of the batters are taking steroids, a pitcher who takes steroids is leveling the playing field, not getting an unfair advantage?
BTW, I’m a Red Sox fan. Clemens left the Red Sox in 1997 saying he wanted to be closer to his family in Texas, then signed with the Toronto Blue Jays, a team not known for its proximity to the Lone Star state. Red Sox fans have always resented his exit, particularly given what followed. He proceeded to have what was arguably his best single season as a pitcher, throwing 264 innings and posting an ERA of 2.05 when the league ERA was 4.53, An astounding steroids-free performance.
Halfway through the 1998 season, when we know that a lot of batters started using steroids, Clemens, according the Mitchell Report released yesterday, started using steroids as well. He pitched extremely well in 1998, but nothing close to his 1997 performance.
Clemens’s steroid use in 1998 tarnishes his reputation? How exactly? To suggest that his failure to blow the whistle on teammates or fellow players outside his team is to misunderstand the culture of athletes. And to compare him to Shoeless Joe Jackson for not blowing the whistle is a repugnant comparison. Boswell conveniently fails to mention that Jackson (who I do sympathize with, given his on-field performance in that 1919 World Series) took money under the expectation that he would deliberately play poorly. His failure had nothing to do with whistle-blowing.
Yesterday’s report shouldn’t tarnish Clemens or his teammate Andy Pettitte, or the other 80 or so names mentioned. The report relied on FOUR sources, a clubhouse guy for the Blue Jays, a clubhouse guy for the Mets, the Balco investigation and various news stories that have found evidence of steroid use. The number of sources wasn’t low because they were the main sources. The number was low because virtually no one wanted to talk to Mitchell. The sources he used were already under investigation. That means that we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg.
What we now know is that steroid use was widespread, extremely widespread, in major league baseball beginning in 1998. The effects of steroids and HGH (which was also widely used) on performance are unclear. Yes, great players took steroids to get an edge. But so did mediocre players. It didn’t make them great either because everyone was taking them or because the extra impact on performance was small.
When everyone cheats, it’s not cheating any more.
You can judge a man morally for having so much competitive fire that he flaunts the rules and endangers his health. I think that’s particularly strange when the rules are not enforced as they were not in 1998.
But even so, what yesterday’s report makes clear to me is that you can’t judge a man’s reputation as a baseball player because he used something that so many other people were using in search of an edge. For me, the "scandal" of steroid use is now a smaller story, even though it is all over today’s front pages.
Roger, you’ll never be as good as Pedro, but you belong in the Hall of Fame. I wish I could vote. And of course, in some sense, I can. I believe that in 20 years, the consensus among fans will be that Roger Clemens was one of the greatest pitchers of all time, without an asterisk. And Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire will join the same true pantheon of greatness even if they never get to Cooperstown.