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.