Bronx Banter Interview
By Hank Waddles
For Yankee fans, Roger Clemens is a difficult case — even before all his recent steroid trouble. If you’re of my generation, you grew up despising him. Even though he pitched for Boston during an era when we all knew the Red Sox would never win anything, he was still a fearsome enemy. He was the gunslinger who stole your girlfriend before shooting the sheriff right between the eyes on his way out of town. There was some pleasure to be had when his skills began to decline during his twilight years in Boston, but it wasn’t too much of a surprise when he became great again — if irrelevant — during his time in Toronto. And when he came to New York in 1999, if all wasn’t forgotten, at least it was put aside. First of all, the Yanks were adding the best pitcher in the game; second, they were twisting the knife in the heart of Red Sox Nation. It was a win-win.
Roger helped the Yankees to a couple more championships, won his 300th game, endeared himself to the Boss and legions of fans, and said all the right things about wearing a Yankee cap into the Hall of Fame. But then came the defection to Houston, the self-serving Stadium announcement of his return to New York, and, finally, the steroid allegations. There was an embarrassment that we had once embraced him, and the ashes in our mouths were there to remind us that we had gotten exactly what we deserved.
But there is more to Roger Clemens. Sure, he cut corners, but he also worked harder than any of his teammates. Yes, he is hopelessly selfish and egotistical, but he’d be the first player to volunteer for visits to children’s hospitals. Whether you loved him once or never at all, whether you think he deserves a plaque in Cooperstown or a spot in Dante’s Ninth Circle of Hell, you have to admit that Roger Clemens matters. In Jeff Pearlman’s latest book, The Rocket That Fell to Earth: Roger Clemens and the Rage for Baseball Immortality, he does his typically thorough job of cutting through the Roger Clemens mythology and getting to the heart of the man who was once considered one of the five greatest pitchers of all time. A few weeks ago Jeff was generous enough to spend part of his morning talking with me about the book, the steroid era, and a few other topics. Enjoy…
BronxBanter: You’ve said that you love writing books, but when I spoke to you a while back while you were deep in this one, you described it as hell. How do those two things go together?
Pearlman: The only thing I can really compare it to is running marathons. I run a lot of marathons. When I first start running a marathon, I’m really excited, and I love the first thirteen miles, and then the next four miles I sort of start feeling it, and then once you hit the twenties you start thinking, “I’m never gonna do this again. I’m neeeever doing this again.” And when you cross the finish line your first thought is, “Thank god this is over so I never have to do it again.” And then ten minutes later you’re thinking about the next marathon. And that’s how I feel about writing books. It’s nightmarish. It’s hellish. You’re solely focused — usually for a year and a half or two years — on one person, one subject, for all that time. You’re looking for these little details that seem insignificant to someone who doesn’t do it for a living, I would guess, but they become these gold nuggets for you. Finding out what someone used to drink for breakfast in the morning, silly little things like that that you think mean nothing, but they mean everything when you’re working on a book. Detail is what counts. When I was a kid I read every book imaginable, every sports book I could find, and I didn’t really differentiate between the good ones and the bad ones and the mediocre ones because I didn’t know any better. But now, when I’m reading someone else’s book, I really am looking for the details. If you’re writing a book about Reggie Jackson, everybody knows all there is to know about his three home run game in the World Series, but when you learn what sort of glasses he was wearing or where he got his hair cut or what he was saying to Mickey Rivers right before the game, that’s interesting.
BB: How does that compare to writing feature articles? You used the marathon analogy; are these just sprints if you’re writing a piece for SI or some other magazine?
JP: One of the best pieces of advice I got for writing a book was when I was doing my first book, which was about the Mets. Jon Wertheim, who is a friend of mine and writes for SI, said to me, the best thing you can do is think of each chapter as an article, as a lengthy article. So I would compare an article, if it’s long, to writing a chapter. And a book is just like a big monsoon.
BB: I heard David Maraniss say once that it was much easier to write about dead people. If he was writing a biography about a living subject – and I think he was referring to his Clinton book – he would just pretend that the person was dead. Did you seek out Clemens at all, or did you pretend he was dead?
JP: Well, I did reach out, and it was made clear he wouldn’t talk. Hence, it really was as if he was dead to me. I didn’t think of it in Maraniss’s terms, but he’s 100% right. And it’s definitely easier to write about a deceased person, because:
A. He won’t come back and say, “That’s not right.”
B. You don’t waste all that time trying to get him to talk.
C. People are more open when they know the person won’t get mad.
D. He can’t sue you for anything.
BB: Just a few years ago it seemed like Clemens was on his way to becoming Ted Williams – a phenomenally great player whose career resume obscured some serious character flaws, but then everything changed. Is that what attracted you to this story?
JP: Just being blunt here, the first and foremost thing when you’re trying to figure out who to write about, is you have to think, who will people possibly be interested in reading? You never know for sure if a book is gonna sell, but I know for sure that the Mike Mussina biography is not gonna sell. The Mike Pagliarulo Story. The Jeff Kent Story. Not gonna sell. There are certain guys you know aren’t gonna sell, and you’re doing this for a living, so you do have to think, who’s someone who at least has a ballpark chance of intriguing people enough on a national scale. And then you think, who are guys who are intriguing to me that fit that criteria.
BB: When we think of professional athletes — especially the great ones — we usually imagine them as being absolutely dominant in their youth, but that wasn’t exactly true of Clemens, was it?
JP: Nope, he was a fat little dough boy from Ohio. Loved sports, but was merely good, not even close to great. Throughout Little League he tossed the ball; could spot his pitches, so that was good. But no velocity, no second pitch. He was probably a bit better at football, because he had the size. But until he reached junior college, there was nothing remarkable about the guy. Nothing at all.
BB: What about his twilight years in Boston? Even though Clemens went on to win another 150 games after leaving the Red Sox, you make it clear that Duquette made the right decision in letting him go, right?
JP: Of course he did. Who signs a 30-year-old declining pitching to a long-term deal? It’d be very, very stupid, and Duquette’s judgment was right. He didn’t know what Clemens would soon be up to. Not his fault at all.
BB: It seems he was up to steroids. What is the steroid timeline for Clemens? When did it start and what led him down that road?
JP: Well, he started when he got to Toronto. And the turning point is pretty clear: His last four years with Boston he was 40-39, oft-injured, overweight and down in velocity. He was approaching his mid-30s, and clearly on the decline. Dan Duquette, the GM, said so much—that Clemens was in his “twilight.” Well, Clemens had two choices: Try and hold on as long as possible, or turn to PEDs. We know which decision he made.
BB: So what was it like when Clemens walked into the Yankee clubhouse? He had been universally hated, I think, by the Yankees. In fact, I love that you wrote about the Matt Nokes beaning. I remember watching that game and cheering as Nokes fired the ball back at him. So with all that history, how was he able to fit in?
JP: Well, baseball players have short memories. If a guy comes along who helps your team, helps you win, that’s pretty much good enough, and that’s the truth. You know, he showed up, the guy could throw hard, he’s got this legacy… It’s one thing to hate a guy from afar, but when he’s right in front of you, it’s “Hey, Roger! Good to see you!”
BB: One aspect of this whole thing that’s actually kind of confusing is that Clemens can’t be easily defined. On the one hand, he’s the stereotypical self-centered jock – cheats on his wife, pitches the day after his mother dies, misses the birth of a child, makes excuses for poor performance – but on the other, he actually does a lot of really good things.
JP: Yeah, yeah. It’s interesting. It’s funny. When you write a book like this, it’s very tempting to kind of play amateur psychologist and read into a guy’s actions. But I actually try to be as objective as I can, because I’m not a psychologist. So I just sort of lay it out. But I do think it’s interesting that he’s sort of a yin and yang sort of guy. He’s surly, but he’d show up at children’s hospitals regularly, especially in Boston with the Jimmy Fund. Cheap, known to be cheap, but took teammates out to dinner. Family man, great family man, but had an affair with a seventeen-year-old singer.
BB: When we spoke about your Bonds book, I offered the idea that I could understand how an elite athlete might see no difference between steroids, even though they’re illegal, and getting Lasik surgery, for example. In both situations they’re looking for an edge. Even if I agree with you that steroid use is bad for the game, bad for the individual, isn’t it possible that I just have no idea what it’s like to be an athlete at that level? Without making excuses for them – which, I guess, it sounds like I’m doing – the culture – and I include teammates, coaches, media, and fans – the culture demands that these guys do whatever it takes to get on the field and perform at their highest level. Isn’t there a double standard in there someplace?
JP: No, because I think we all have that expectation, I really do. Jason Blair, the New York Times reporter, was under pressure to write to a certain standard to write these colorful, well-crafted stories with insight into America. When he wasn’t quite good enough, he cheated and he plagiarized. Well, there’s no excuse for that. I know what you’re saying, I know what you’re saying. To me it comes down to, if you’re not good enough… And they’ll say, Oh, I just need it stay healthy, or, I just need that little edge, or, I was languishing at triple A. Well, maybe some people were meant to languish at triple A. Maybe Jason Blair wasn’t a good enough writer to write for the New York Times. For years I wanted to write for GQ. I could never get a bite from GQ. I’m not gonna plagiarize to write for GQ. Maybe they just don’t think I’m good enough. That’s fine, I’ll go write somewhere else or I’ll go do something else with my career if I have to. So I don’t buy it. I hate when people say you have no idea what it’s like to be a professional athlete. I know what it’s like to be a school teacher. I know what it’s like to be a journalist. I know what it’s like to be a plumber. I know what it’s like to be a welder. It’s not so different. There’s private pressure with all these jobs. There’s a lot more pressure when you’re making thirty thousand dollars a year than when you’re making thirty million. I just disagree with you, buddy.
BB: That’s okay. To be honest with you, I’ve gone different ways on this issue. There are times when I’ve thought I totally get it, I totally see why they’re doing it, and there are times when I agree with what you’re saying, that people should just accept what their abilities are. So what about the legacies of these players? Do we throw out this whole era? After all, we still don’t know who those other 103 names are. We’re only twenty-four hours into the fall of Manny Ramírez, but what do you make of Manny specifically? Are you surprized? And what about all these guys?
JP: I was a little surprised with Manny. You can’t be totally shocked by anybody, but I did find Manny a bit surprising. I always saw Manny as sort of an idiot…
BB: Yeah, a friend of mine said something similar to me in an email. He felt like it would just take too much work for Manny to do all that.
JP: Right! The guy just seems like he walks up, “I’ll just swing this bat at the ball and I’ll hit it.” And then he goes back to thinking about breasts.
JP: I sort of feel like with this era it reminds me of those movies about reform schools. There’s always some scene where someone in the class cheats, and the strict professor says, “Either we find out who cheated or the entire class fails.” You know, it’s one of those things. What was that movie? Carpe Diem? You know what I’m talking about?
BB: Dead Poets Society.
JP: Yeah, Dead Poets. I think that happened in Dead Poets Society. I kind of feel like that about this whole era. I hate it, because I covered it. You guys all cheated. No one stepped up, so to hell with your era. You deserve nothing. No one said anything. I never heard it. I never heard a manager sit down and say in spring training, if any of you guys are using, we don’t want that here. I never heard a GM say that. So to hell with ‘em.
BB: That reminds of something from the book. When the Yankees signed Jason Giambi, I remember as a Yankee fan really wishing that they hadn’t. Because to me it seemed like he was the steroid poster child, even more than Barry Bonds at the time. I thought that if baseball ever got around to doing something about this that he would be one who would suffer. So I felt like if I had that feeling, surely there must be people in baseball who had that feeling. But I was really surprised by the scene that you painted with Brian Cashman watching him on TV and saying, “Whatever you were on in Oakland, get back on it.” What can you tell me about that?
JP: Well, I think what you said is true. You sit there and watch, and you think – well that guy must be using, that guy’s probably using, that guy’s using. And then these executives come along and say we had no idea. And the GMs come along and say we had no idea, and the managers come along and say we had no idea. Well I was a twenty-four year old freakin’ dill weed who had no idea about anything, and I knew these guys were using, so you sure as hell must have know something, had some suspicion. So I’m kind of with you with a lot of these guys. It doesn’t make any sense to me. You had no idea? None of you had any idea? You had absolutely no idea that Ken Caminiti, or that José Canseco – who the fans were chanting “Steroids! Steroids!” in Fenway? You had no idea these guys were losing? So, I’m with you.
BB: Okay, so what do we do about this era, the Steroid Era? I suppose we can probably never be sure who’s guilty and who isn’t, so what happens to Griffey, Jeter, Frank Thomas — people that we still presume to be innocent? Are they innocent until proven guilty, or the other way around?
JP: It sucks. It really, really, really sucks. As far as I’m concerned, this whole era is tainted. It’s unfair to the non-users, and yet, it’s not really unfair, because where were these guys when it counted? Let’s say Jeter, for example, has never used. Well, why wasn’t he speaking out against the destruction of his beloved game? Who would be a more powerful mouthpiece? Same with Junior and Thomas? Where were their voices? So it’s like that Bill Joel song—we’ll all go down together. Not 100% fair, but true.
BB: If you’ve got a Hall of Ballot in your hands ten or fifteen years from now, what do you with those names? If we’re going to exclude Bonds, McGwire, and the other “known” offenders, what about Jeter and Griffey? If they’re all guilty, either by association or through their silent complicity, do they get in, or do you shut out this entire era?
JP: No, I vote for Jeter and Griffey. I vote with hope.
BB: Another thing. What attracts you to stories like Bonds and Clemens? You mentioned that obviously you need to write about something that has some sort of universal appeal, but also these are guys who have damaged their public image pretty seriously. So I’m wondering, would it be interesting to you at all to write about somebody who hasn’t, like Derek Jeter or Tiger Woods or somebody like that?
JP: I would love to write about a non-jerk, or a guy who’s not perceived as a jerk. I can’t explain it… It’s not that I’m looking for it. I don’t like writing about steroids, I really don’t. But I do think sometimes characters kind of come in controversial packages.
BB: Well, the two guys I mentioned, Jeter and Tiger, a lot of people are interested in them, and they have really high profiles…
JP: But they don’t interest me though.
BB: I think that people may want to know about them, but there’s the feeling that there may not be anything there to know.
JP: Right. The one thing you don’t want to write a book about is a guy who is all about the game, a hundred percent about the game. Jeter, it just seems like he’s a hundred percent about baseball. Tiger Woods is all about golf. If you’re writing a biography about Tiger Woods it would be all about his golf greatness and how he’s kind of ignored all other areas of his life. Well, that doesn’t sound fun to me – as far as a writer. He may be a fascinating guy within the framework or the parameters of his sport, but I don’t write that book. It’s like the guy you went to high school with who was really good at math and his whole life was math. I don’t wanna hang out with that guy. Or even the football player who was great at football and all he wanted to do was talk about football. Those guys bore the hell out of me. I want guys who are well-rounded and had interesting lives and dynamic lives and had big events happen in their lives. Derek Jeter, he has an African-American father and a white mother, he’s from Kalamazoo, he was a first-round draft pick, and he really has great bat control. The drama in his career: he dated Mariah Carey for a little while, and now that he’s getting older people say he can’t field the position. There better be a lot more than that, or it’s just not that interesting. It’ll sell, because it’s Derek Jeter, but the be-all end-all isn’t selling, the be-all end-all is I’m gonna devote a year and a half, two years, two and a half years of my life to this guy. He better be interesting.