By Dan Rubin
I still remember the ovation.
It was August 31, 2003. The Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees were in the rubber game of a three-game series towards the end of the season. The Sox were mathematically still in contention for the AL East crown, but the Yankees were starting to put a little bit of distance between the two squads. However, the teams split two marathon games to open up the season, and the difference in divisional momentum came down to two old workhorses going head-to-head for one last go time on Fenway’s grass.
In the hours leading up to the game, it began dawning on many that this particular game superseded the heated rivalry. Due to the rotation, Roger Clemens would take the hill at Fenway Park for New York, and, with the schedule ahead, it became more and more apparent that this was Clemens’ final start in the stadium he made himself famous.
With one out in the sixth, Clemens walked nemesis Trot Nixon before Dave McCarty lined a single to center. With runners at the corners and the Yankees up six, Clemens struck out Doug Mirabelli, who needed to catch since the Sox were throwing Tim Wakefield that day. But Clemens couldn’t get out of the inning, walking next batter Gabe Kapler before being pulled for Antonio Osuna.
Clemens strode off the mound, and, echoing his famous performance in 1997, as a member of the Toronto Blue Jays, received a standing ovation. The “Fenway Faithful,” sensing the moment, honored the man who made history at the park. He wasn’t always the most likeable guy, but the fans took to his attitude and always respected him. The Rocket created more history in Boston during the ‘80s and ‘90s then they could fully fathom. He was a surefire Hall of Famer, one of the game’s greatest pitchers, and maybe, just maybe, the thawing between Clemens and the Red Sox would come to fruition if he wears a red “B” on his cap in Cooperstown, (Hall of Fame).
It was the storybook ending to a storybook career. After early dominance, Clemens lost part of his game, then came back roaring with a vengeance. He could walk off into the sunset as possibly the game’s greatest. And it was the perfect lasting image.
As fate would have it, a man’s pride truly came before the fall.
We all know what happened next. Clemens returned in 2004, as a member of the Houston Astros and continued his pitching dominance. Well over 40-years-old, he returned to New York a couple years later and prorated for a team that desperately needed help. After a 6-6 season in 2007, Roger stood at a record [354-184] with over 4,600 strikeouts. An 11-time All Star and 5-time Cy Young Award winner, he was still one of the game’s greats, even though he hung on way past his prime and grew a reputation and attitude of a stubborn diva.
We never got the chance to see if Roger would come back for another year in 2008. We never got to see if he could reach back for some magic and help the Yankees, the Red Sox, or any other team win the World Series. And we never got to see Clemens go out, once again, on his terms.
That’s because over the winter of 2008, George Mitchell’s panel and report on the investigation into steroids and performance-enhancing drug use in baseball named Clemens as a user of both anabolic steroids and human-growth hormone, commonly referred to as HGH. Clemens, the report said, began using steroids during his time with the Toronto Blue Jays, administered and injected by trainer Brian McNamee, a man who would follow Clemens to the Yankees, then ultimately be disgraced with Kirk Radomski as the two main steroid enablers named in the Mitchell Report.
The bombshell led to fallout of events where Clemens vehemently denied steroid use, using a surreal public display to refute McNamee’s statements. The penultimate display came in front of a Congressional panel, a bunch of people star struck by the Texan, with another surreal display of Clemens attacking McNamee, not backing down in front of American lawmakers.
In the ensuing aftermath, investigations revealed enough suspicion on Clemens’ statements to warrant a federal felony indictment for perjury.
At this stage, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who thinks Roger Clemens didn’t take steroids. McNamee named Clemens, Andy Pettite, and Chuck Knoblauch as three names surrounding those Yankee clubs’ steroid use. Pettite and Knoblauch both admitted their use of HGH and PEDs, with Clemens vehemently opposing it. Others, accused either in the Mitchell Report or in the press by leaked steroid exams, have come out and asked for an apology. Clemens, however, has not backed down.
This isn’t surprising. Clemens never backed down as a player. He was a hothead, emotional, and more intense than anybody. He was a menacing presence; an intimidation just by name, and his power pitching backed that attitude up. He was Dale Earnhardt in pinstripes, not afraid to throw a pitch at somebody’s head to send a message, just as Earnhardt wasn’t afraid to put somebody in the wall to win. And his performance and reputation justified a star treatment that surpassed anything preceding it, at least in the eyes of the Astros and Yankees organizations.
But it is upsetting. The Clemens situation is far and above different from the Barry Bonds situation and trial. Bonds was subpoenaed by Congress and his statements were to remain sealed until they were leaked to the press. The Bonds situation was also very convoluted, since it’s possible, based upon murky reports and stories that Bonds didn’t know what he was rubbing on his body or ingesting. Even though it’s hard to believe, with baseball’s attitude around drug testing and the constant fight to find an edge, we put Bonds on trial more for his personal attitude and standoffishness than we did the actual steroid use. All the media reports tended to point towards his bad attitude as if that was injected or rubbed along with the PEDs. And what’s ironic about Bonds is that he was a diva and a malcontent long before he supposedly got involved with them, so so-called “roid rage” also has a reasonable doubt cast on it.
But Roger Clemens is, once again, much more high profile and much more intense. The Clemens debate isn’t with Barry Bonds not “knowingly” taking steroids or if he obstructed justice during a Congressional order. The Clemens debate instead focuses on a man who stood up and made a spectacle of himself, who took an accusation and polarized it into absolutes. With Clemens, he asked for the Congressional hearing, where he could stand on America’s greatest stage and hammer McNamee. He went on 60 Minutes with the intention of blowing the situation up. Where Bonds remained ambiguous about steroid use, saying he “never knowingly took them,” Clemens instead stood firm and said, “never took them.” Bonds left himself an out if it was proven he did; Clemens didn’t. And that’s why Roger faces much harsher and stiffer penalties within the court of law, as opposed to the court of public opinion where both are equally guilty.
But, like I said, it didn’t have to be like this. It certainly wasn’t like this in 2003, when Roger took the mound in the hated Yankee colors and beat the Red Sox. It wasn’t like this in 2000, when Roger and Pedro Martinez dueled in May for one of the all-time greatest games ever played, a 1-0 game that went into the 9th inning scoreless before Nixon homered at Yankee Stadium. It didn’t have to be like this when Roger struck out all those Red Sox and dared Dan Duquette to say he was still in the twilight of his career. And it didn’t have to be like this when Roger carried a weak Red Sox team in the early to mid 1990s.
Am I saying that the performances I listed weren’t due to steroid abuse? Nope. Maybe they were; maybe they weren’t. There are arguments on both sides. But I know that those performances made up the Roger Clemens legend, and they made him the Rocket. Every time Roger was on the mound, something was about to happen, right down to when he made that relief appearance in the National League Divisional Series during an extra-inning game against Atlanta. It was almost surreal, watching him come into the game with Elton John’s “Rocket Man” playing over the loudspeakers. It was breathtaking. And now, no matter what, it’s gone.
As a fan of the game, I’ve always said I never wanted to know who was cheating. I liked being naïve, and I liked thinking that these men were titans of the game. I liked to think that they were more man than any one of us and that their stature was elevated because of it. Dan Rubin could never become Roger Clemens, and that’s what made him so legendary. He was like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Cy Young. His face would one day etch itself alongside the others in Cooperstown, ghosts of people I idolized because of how good they were.
Maybe that attitude caused the ego that ultimately will undo The Rocket. Maybe it’s wrong of me to want to live that way. But I know, in 2003, before the allegations of steroid use, I watched a legend walk off the mound at Fenway Park in hated colors. I watched a fan base salute a titan of the game, a man who was truly one of the all-time best to toe the rubber. And I watched something that makes the game truly great, the respect for its history. And for that, he’ll always be The Rocket, no matter what happens.
It just didn’t have to be this way.