Originally published in Official Artur Davis
Roger Clemens without steroids is still not a deeply sympathetic character. Even before his brain and emotions might have been corroded by substance abuse, he could be graceless to an extreme: the ever declining camp of black baseball fans winced after Clemens stupidly said he wished he could crack Hank Aaron’s head open: Aaron had the temerity to suggest a pitcher shouldn’t win a season MVP award, and Clemens took umbrage. It was a dumb, brutal joke that echoed the savage letters Aaron received in the throes of his home run record chase. There was also no grace in the Roger Clemens who could erupt at umpires or batters, and who tended to do it most when his skills weren’t working. There are a host of fans who see nothing but an evader of responsibility in Clemens. This is the camp that would shed no tears if he never got to the Hall of Fame, regardless of whether it can be proven that he shot substances into his body.
I differ on the grounds that the Hall of Fame is a baseball venue—a place for the game’s historians to weight records-and it shouldn’t be enlarged into more. Therefore, the only misdeeds that should matter are the ones that might have distorted the stats that make the player’s candidacy (I would say the same for Pete Rose, whose tawdriness never included betting to influence his own games, and who should have been given his shot at a ballot).
But the conventional wisdom, that the baseball case for Clemens is a no-brainer, and that blocking his admission depends on crediting evidence that a jury rejected, is an overstatement and a function of how time can re-frame facts. It’s a budding myth that deserves scrutiny before it gets too much headway.
One version of the pro-Clemens case freezes his candidacy as of 1998—in other words, pre Brian McNamee. Accepting that criteria, the decision is a cliff-hanger. Clemens’ Red Sox career approximated 16 wins a years for twelve years—exceptional and consistent, but there were outlier years like the masterpieces in 86 and 90 balanced against a stretch in the early to mid nineties when Clemens seemed past his prime, and an undeniable pattern of erosion. Then there is the mediocrity of his post-season work for the Red Sox, when the rap was that Clemens seemed to fatigue by October (a precursor of why he might have turned to enhancers). The two Toronto Cy Young years (and 41 additional wins) are clouded, perhaps unfairly, by the proximity to his alleged introduction to steroids, and the murkiness around when the cheating might have started.
Resolving the Toronto uncertainty in his favor, four Cy Youngs through 1998 are probably enough resume material to push Clemens through; if the Toronto years are discounted as too flukish an aberration from the trend in the final Boston years and too close to the accounts of his first steroid use, the case that is left is infinitely more fragile. Either set of results might be weighty enough to lift him past, say, a contemporary like the 254 win Jack Morris, who never won a single Cy Young, and a one time winner like Oral Hershiser, who simply didn’t shine long enough. But the rationale is not iron-clad: there is a way of seeing the untarnished Clemens years as two early seasons of brilliance and (giving him the benefit of the doubt) a couple of seasons of late revival, interrupted by a run of seasons where strikeout power didn’t always equate to dominance or wins, and where Clemens seemed to wilt when it mattered most. There is an element in Clemens of Curt Schilling, a 216 win pitcher who reversed Clemens’ legacy with a record of post-season brilliance and string of unsuccessful Cy Young bids; who matched seasons that were remarkable with seasons of relative mediocrity, and who is not considered a Hall of Fame lock.
Perhaps sensing the vulnerability of claims that end with the pre-Yankees time in Clemens’ world, his allies have suggested an alternative argument that Clemens’ candidacy should get full credit for the second phase of his career, which is really the phase that shaped the Clemens legend: the aura of super-human durability, the breathtaking years with Houston that belong in a time capsule, and the intrigue of the fact that his best postseason work came in his third decade in the league. The theory is that the jury’s verdict is adequate exoneration, that Brian McNamee is hopelessly tainted as a witness, that unproven allegations shouldn’t be credited, etc. There is even a more muted version that the up and down trajectory of Clemens in New York undercuts any perfect correlation between steroids and achievement.
I don’t buy it for a simple reason: the second phase of Clemens’ career is the point when he seemed to lick the significant decline in his performance in the mid nineties, and when he reversed his propensity to falter as the season dragged on into the playoffs. That revival surely has a physical component–Clemens, the workout devotee, certainly said it did–and it is impossible to separate the physical feat from what steroids might have done to bolster a declining body.
The blunt truth is that the sheer improbability of Clemens’ career resurrection, a variable the prosecution never competently introduced, is the best evidence against him. And the untainted Clemens era? It is the mark of a steady but not awesome pitcher, whose awards separate him from the pack more than the actual body of work from 86 to 98. There is the sense that Clemens fits the pattern of his generation’s best pitchers–moments of near perfection that weren’t sustained; a collection of peaks and valleys; and that without resorting to steroids, he would have spiraled and diminished in the same manner as the Morrises and the Hershisers.
A version of this essay is cross-published in the Recovering Politician.