Robert Lipsyte on Roger Clemens, Lame-Duck Pitcher

Posted on

Recently, an ARG poll put George W. Bush’s job approval rating at an almost inconceivable low of 19%, giving “lame” a new meaning in the last lame-duck year of his presidency. Finally, recognizing a genuine opening, the Democratic Congress has been moving; in fact, the whole government seems to be lurching into action. Congressional hearings were held that split harshly along party lines. They focused on a big Republican pitch-man who, like so many before him in these last years, made outrageous claims and denials, while swearing that others had “misremembered” the facts. This time, however, the Democrats hung together and delivered a no-nonsense message to the White House via the Justice Department: We’re coming after your man. The FBI promptly began forming an investigation team. A prosecution now seems to be in the cards.

What makes this so remarkable is that Congress is no longer taking on lesser subjects like Iraq, torture policy, or the political staffing of the Justice Department. It’s attending to something of paramount significance to the nation, something that matters whether you live in Boston, New York, or Houston. But let Tomdispatch Jock Culture Correspondent Robert Lipsyte tell you the rest; the story of a man who actually does, in his own way, catch something essential about our last lamentable seven-plus years in Bush hell. Tom

The Monster Must Die!
Clemenstein, or the Post-Modern Prometheus
By Robert Lipsyte

“When all this happened, the former President of the United States found me in a deer blind in south Texas and expressed his concerns, that this was unbelievable, and to stay strong and hold your head up high.” — Roger Clemens testifying before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

The genius of Roger Clemens lies in the fact that he created the monster of himself. He is both Dr. Clemenstein, inventor of a more powerful man, and Clemenstein, the age-defying result, an ogre who defines ur-masculinity today. He is a big, white Republican who makes his own rules, lies, cheats, and mixes family values and intimidation. Roger Clemens also manipulated and sacrificed associates to accomplish his mission. He was able to do this not only because scientific additions made him bigger and stronger, but because subtractions enabled him to believe in the preeminence of the creature he had become. The drugs went in and the soul came out.

We will see him go down.

Of course, it’s too late to matter much; like the present President, he’s already done his damage. Clemens has proven — as have Barry Bonds and Marion Jones, among others — that Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs) really work. This will mostly benefit Big Pharma when it renames such chemicals Health Enhancing Drugs (HEDs) and finds ways to prescribe them for the newly created disease of losing sports competitions. (Consider how the makers of Paxil made shyness into the diagnosable social anxiety disorder.)

It’s too bad that the issue has become the ethics of enhancement rather than the science of enhancement — on which we still don’t have much useful data. Exactly which drugs do what? And what are the long-term effects? It’s amazing how little we know (or perhaps want to know) about PEDs beyond the way they have affirmed and endorsed the nation’s addiction to quick-fix upgrades. Old guys popping monkey glands, rhino tusks, and testosterone to prolong the torrents of spring seemed ridiculous until cops, rappers, mercenaries, and home-run hitters began shooting steroids.

Traditional logic might suggest that our real heroes would be found among our warriors in Iraq and Afghanistan, brave men and women risking death to subdue an enemy while saving each other. But revulsion towards those wars leaves sports and Hollywood as the idol pools of choice. We get Sylvester Stallone, who used chemicals to pump himself back up into Rambo, and Clemens who became the greatest pitcher of our time even after his time should have expired.

Clemens ruled. The images of two of baseball’s best current players, Alex Rodriguez and Mike Piazza, were badly wounded in confrontations with him. His personal trainer, Brian McNamee, and his friend and mentee, Andy Pettitte, have also been hurt.

Clemens’ signature tactic, whether on the mound or in the meeting room, is intimidation. Some of it’s a simple matter of size; Clemens is 6 feet 4 inches tall and weighs 220 pounds. But Rodriguez and Piazza are 6-3/200, and Pettitte is 6-5/235, so some of it has to be force of will. The Rocket is scary because he’s evidently prepared to do anything to dominate and win. He seems to have no moral delay.

In 2000, which would put The Rocket on PEDs (if conventional wisdom is true), Clemens, then a Yankee, knocked down Rodriguez, then the Seattle Mariners’s star, twice in his first at-bat in Game Four of the American League championship series. It was bravura gamesmanship, scaring A-Rod and his teammates away from digging in at the plate. Clemens went on to dominate the game and win.

Rodriguez and Clemens argued after the head-hunting, but nothing came of it. It was at that moment, I suspect, that Rodriguez first began to be perceived as soft, as something of a whiner by the media — an image he’s enhanced since by being slippery and shallowly introspective in his interviews. Had he stood up to Clemens, maybe even charged the mound that day and taken him on, his manhood would never have been questioned.

The Piazza story is worse. In an inter-league game during the regular season of 2000, a month after Piazza hit a grand-slam homer off him, Clemens threw an inside fastball at the popular Mets catcher. The pitch bounced off Piazza’s hand and head. He suffered a concussion. Despite some harsh words, Piazza didn’t charge the mound. One could imagine him rationally dismissing the notion of escalating the conflict, setting a poor example to his young fans, distracting his teammates.

There was anticipation of a “rematch” at the 2000 World Series. In his first at-bat in Game Two, Piazza broke his bat on a Clemens’ pitch. A piece of the bat skipped out to the mound. Clemens picked it up and heaved it in Piazza’s direction. The pitcher later ludicrously claimed that he thought he was fielding a ball coming toward him. Not surprisingly, officials didn’t believe that, fining him $50,000. It was cheap at the price; after that incident he went on to dominate the game and win.

In the machismo universe of big-league sports, not running out and belting the bully after this second blatant provocation meant Piazza, as absurd as it might seem, was looking for trouble. He got it. Soon after, rumors swirled that he was gay, the lover of a TV weatherman. Eventually, Piazza came out as a heavy metal fan, got married, had a child, and eventually left New York, finally escaping the talk-radio attacks on his manhood. He’s spent the last two years playing for San Diego and Oakland.

Clemens took Andy Pettitte, a likeable left-handed pitcher from Texas, under his wing when they were teammates for the Yankees and then the Houston Astros. Clemens included him in rigorous workouts with McNamee. When the trainer later named Clemens and Pettitte as drug users, The Rocket denied everything — even Pettitte’s testimony that Clemens had talked to him about using HGH. Pettitte admitted using the drug himself, but only twice — to recover from injury and thus help his team. He claimed that he had gotten the drug from his sick father, who was using it legally. The media found McNamee a pitiable hanger-on and Pettitte, once a media favorite, was tagged Andy Pathetic.

Neither of them had stayed hard like The Rocket, who continues to hang tough even as his denials lose credence. He is tough. His biological father left when he was an infant and his step-father died when he was 9. He has been quoted as saying he’s jealous of other players only when their fathers show up in the clubhouse. Maybe that’s why he became friends with George H.W. Bush, the former president who found him in the deer blind.

Clemens has been the best pitcher of our time for as long as we can remember. When the Red Sox traded him to Toronto in 1996, the Boston general manager said he was “in the twilight of his career.” So Clemens, like Ronald Reagan, declared it morning again. In 1997 and 1998, he won his fourth and fifth Cy Young Awards as the American League’s best pitcher. When he won his record seventh, in 2004, he was 42, the oldest ever to win one.

Even if drugs were involved, they were nowhere near enough to account for the man’s accomplishments. Clemens had rage beyond ‘roids, and an amazing ability to channel it into discipline, hard exercise, and the demonic need to win. He could bring that rage out of his belly and send it along his right arm to his fingertips and then into a hurtling baseball.

Dominating at work, he is also lord of his breakfast table. His wife, Debra, whom he married in 1984, reportedly took HGH at his suggestion to buff up for a Sports Illustrated swimsuit spread. She was pushing 40 at the time and nervous about the bikini shoot. Check out the results at In one shot, Roger lounges between her legs while she holds a bat.

Roger and Debbie have four sons, Koby, Kacy, Kory, and Kody, their names signifying their dad’s passion for K’s — baseball’s shorthand for strikeouts. Koby, who signed a pro contract three years ago at 18, once hit a homer off Roger in an exhibition game. In Koby’s next at-bat, Roger threw close to his son’s head to back him off the plate.

Oedipus wrecks. If only Papa Bush had been as tough as Roger and whacked the real monster’s head.

Robert Lipsyte is the Jock Culture Correspondent for Tomdispatch.Com. His latest Young Adult novel is Yellow Flag.

Copyright 2008 Robert Lipsyte