By now, Houston Astros fans have become well versed in the art of self-pity, and when a great ballplayer leaves town—Randy Johnson, Carlos Beltran—the collective ughhhh unleashed on sports radio and the Internet is something majestic to behold. On May 6, 44-year-old Roger Clemens, perhaps the greatest pitcher of the modern era, announced he was departing the Astros after three seasons to rejoin the New York Yankees. On a Houston Chronicle fan blog, one Astros supporter mourned that the Rocket “left our quaint little railroad station ballpark for the bright lights of Broadway.” Another suggested that Clemens’s ego had grown so large that it could no longer be wedged into Minute Maid Park when the roof was closed. Yeah, this loss stung. Johnson and Beltran had always seemed like short-term rentals, but Clemens’s 2004 homecoming (he pitched at Spring Woods High School and has lived in Houston for years) had had the air of a giddy celebration—Clemens even offered to play that season at a “discount rate” of $5 million. Now, without so much as a word of regret, Clemens was leaving Texas and those charmingly awkward H-E-B commercials behind for one more taste of the big time. And Houstonians were beginning to experience a sensation that baseball fans nationwide have known for quite some time: what it’s like to hate Roger Clemens.
Clemens-hating has been slow to take root in this state. There is the fond memory of the national championship he won at the University of Texas in 1983; the numerous flirtations with the Astros and the Texas Rangers; and when he finally did arrive in Houston, three dreamlike seasons that included a World Series appearance and a Cy Young Award. But after this defection, I expect Clemens-hating to enjoy a long and fruitful life here. It goes beyond Clemens’s fearless, in-your-ear pitching style that has won him more than three hundred games, beyond the astounding $18 million he will earn this season from the Yankees (which works out to about $9,000 per pitch). Indeed, more and more, Clemens has come to be the poster boy for everything that’s wrong with baseball—a pitcher destined, in the words of one ESPN.com columnist, to own “a Hall of Fame plaque featuring a cap with a dollar sign on it.” The question before the cheap seats today is, How is it that one of the best pitchers in baseball history has come to be one of the most loathed?
There are two big knocks against Clemens. First, in an era where every baseball player is expected to work the free-agent system, Clemens has set a new standard, skillfully wrestling giant contracts from four teams (the Yankees twice). Even for those of us who have made peace with free agency, there is an annoying casualness about the way Clemens moves from club to club. As he considered his offers this spring, he seemed to make no distinction between playing for the Astros, the Yankees, or the Boston Red Sox—where for the fan that distinction means everything. If that isn’t irritating enough, there is the fact that at his advanced age Clemens now demands certain gaudy inducements to unretire. He insists his season will begin in June and declines to travel with his team on road trips when he isn’t scheduled to pitch, preferring to spend his spare hours at his Houston mansion. Clemens is the first athlete who ever joined a ball club with the intention of spending more time with his family.
The other specter dogging Clemens is steroids. He has denied using banned substances, and he says he has never failed a drug test, but this is hardly enough to convince anyone, not in this day and age. Clemens has had some of his best seasons after 35, long after other pitchers have broken down, and his husky frame certainly looks enhanced: He has the thick shoulders of a dockworker and cheeks like Tito Puente. No less an authority than Jose Canseco suggests that he may have used steroids. Then there’s this potential smoking gun: In June 2006 Jason Grimsley, who pitched out of the Yankees bull pen in 1999 and 2000, had his home raided by narcotics agents. The Los Angeles Times reported that an affidavit given by Grimsley named Clemens as a steroid user and his longtime personal trainer, Brian McNamee, as the one who had recommended a source for steroids. A U.S. attorney later said the Times story contained “significant inaccuracies,” but it hasn’t stopped some of us from suspecting the worst.
Since Clemens has proved unable to defend himself (his battles with the English language are legendary), I feel compelled to stick up for the big lug. As far as the egregious pampering goes, the ultimate judgment should be left to Clemens’s managers and teammates. Steroids is a murkier issue, but beware anyone who speaks with conviction about whether or not Clemens has used. The only proper answer is “I don’t know.” Moreover, let me suggest that some of the steroidal anger being vented at Clemens might be the result of projection. Steroid use—or, rather, the suspicion of steroid use—has induced a paranoia in baseball fans like nothing since the juiced ball. We suspect that a great number of major leaguers are using performance-enhancing drugs, but without a grand jury at our disposal, we have no means of proving it. In a panicked state, we focus on high-value targets like Clemens, because their accomplishments burn brighter, because they are a greater threat to baseball “history,” because we never quite forgave them for beating our favorite teams in the playoffs. A Bronx cheer for the Rocket sounds to me more like a moan for the fragile psychological state of the baseball fan.
It’s becoming even more fragile this summer, which is playing out like a nightmare version of the summer of 1998. Instead of cheering on Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa to break Roger Maris’s home run record, we’re wincing as Barry Bonds, steroids suspect number one, inches closer to Hank Aaron’s record. And instead of saluting Clemens for fighting against age, we’re wondering aloud about his motives and his medicine cabinet. It is a pretty miserable time to be a baseball fanatic and a worse time to be Roger Clemens. I can think of only one bright spot for distraught Astros fans: With the exception of a few million relieved New Yorkers, nearly everyone feels as lousy as they do.
Blast That Rocket: Is there hope for the ’Stros?
Some happy news for Houston: The National League’s Central Division is so motley that the beleaguered Astros blend right in. A little mid-season nudge and who knows—maybe even a Rocket-less club can contend. The pitching staff has been solid, led by ace Roy Oswalt and new closer Dan Wheeler. In fact, the Astros’ glaring problem is generating runs, the same thing Clemens was known to grumble about. As of May, the Astros ranked near the bottom of the National League in several offensive categories, including runs scored and slugging percentage. Glimmers of hope can be seen in 24-year-old Hunter Pence, a rookie center fielder from Arlington, and Carlos Lee, a rotund slugger with a sweet stroke who came over from the Rangers. But unless the Astros can find half a dozen other hitters, the season’s major attraction will be watching what’s left of Craig Biggio as he pursues his 3,000th hit.