The voice on the other end of the telephone was a scout for the Houston Astros, and he was in a near panic. He desperately needed to get in touch with Roger Clemens.
The scout explained that a young junior college pitcher he’d been following had broken his neck while diving into a river in Central Texas. The kid’s buddies pulled him from the water, but the pitcher would likely spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair.
“This young man is eventually going to need a van,” the scout said. “I know Roger will take care of it.”
Of all the hundreds of baseball people he knew, Clemens came first to mind when the scout was looking to help a young man who, at that point, just needed to know someone cared about him. A few days later, a van showed up at the scout’s house. He never knew how it got there, whether Clemens had used his connections to get it, or, more likely, if Clemens had just paid for it out of his own pocket. All he knew was that Clemens heard the story and made it happen. The major leaguer asked no questions. He simply did what needed to be done.
That’s the Roger Clemens dozens and dozens of people around Houston know. That story is worth keeping in mind when you hear the news that the Baseball Writers Association of America has decided to keep Clemens—one of the five greatest pitchers in MLB history—out of the Baseball Hall of Fame because he lacks, according to the voters, appropriately high character (which is among the criteria electors consider when deciding if a player is worthy of the Hall).
That judgment is based on the belief that Clemens used performance-enhancing drugs to assist in his 354 victories, 4,672 strikeouts, and record seven Cy Young Awards. Never mind that he never failed a drug test or that it’s a virtual certainty that other PED users are already in the Hall of Fame. Never mind that David Ortiz was just this week voted into the Hall of Fame despite testing positive for banned substances in 2003.
And most of all, never mind that Clemens played at a time when Major League Baseball was the wild, wild west of performance-enhancing drug use. Because we will never know which players did or did not use PEDs, many subsequent Hall of Fame votes have become a guessing game over who should or shouldn’t receive the game’s highest honor.
This piece isn’t meant to relitigate that history. Rather, I want to write about the Roger Clemens I covered during his 24 seasons in the major leagues, especially his three years with the Houston Astros in the mid-2000s.
By then, baseball could not have asked for a better ambassador than the “Rocket.” Clemens was a caring teammate and a ferocious competitor—he refused to exit game one of the 2005 World Series in the middle of the second inning despite a hamstring so severely injured that fluid was pooling in the back of his leg by the time he made it off the field.
Almost anyone who was around the Astros in those days knows of Clemens’s acts of kindness. He’s a reminder that we often confuse great numbers with great character in sports, when in fact, it’s never that simple.
Among my most vivid memories from covering the sport was walking into a minor league clubhouse in Lexington, Kentucky, one night to ask a kid how it had felt to be plunked by a Roger Clemens fastball. Clemens had considered retirement at the start of that season, so when he finally decided to return, he began his season in the minors, pitching off the rust. His presence at those small-town ballparks energized crowds, young teammates, and opponents alike.
As the young player told me what an honor it was to be hit by a pitch thrown by a future Hall of Famer, the clubhouse door opened and in walked Clemens. He asked the kid if he was okay and apologized for letting one get away. Then, something incredible happened.
The player, who happened to be a pitcher, jumped at the chance to quiz Clemens, who offered tips on conditioning, preparation, and navigating lineups. By the time they’d finished chatting, Clemens had agreed to return to the ballpark the next day to coach up the minor leaguer on how to get the most out of routine bullpen sessions.
At other minor league stops, Clemens would treat the team to a nice meal, or sometimes even buy new clubhouse furniture for the organization. He signed countless autographs, posed for pictures, and made time for virtually everyone.
He did the same thing in Houston. Every time he hit another career milestone, he made sure to include clubhouse attendants, public relations staff, and other behind-the-scenes employees of the team in his distribution of autographed baseballs and other memorabilia to mark the moment.
Once, when Cincinnati was in town, the Reds’ first baseman, Sean Casey, spent the afternoon at the Galleria and bought a Clemens jersey, which Clemens signed. “Facing Roger Clemens,” Casey told me, “that’s one of the games you’ll tell your grandchildren about.”
I seldom saw Clemens happier than the time he visited one of the Astros’ minor league clubs and tutored the aspiring big leaguers on everything from weight training —“Small weights, lots of repetitions”—to the importance of a good night’s sleep. “And wear a long-sleeve T-shirt to protect your pitching arm when the air conditioner is on,” he told them.
Once, during a visit to his Houston home, Clemens took me into a game room. Perfectly aligned on a pool table were rows of Roger Clemens bobbleheads. He’d had them made for his buddies in the New York police and fire departments, and he was in the process of signing each one for a charity auction.
Clemens was different on the days he was pitching. Teammates cut him a wide berth, and reporters didn’t dare approach. Once, when he thought an opposing base runner was stealing signs from second base and flashing them to the batter, Clemens calmly stepped off the mound, caught the attention of the base runner, and pointed toward his own head.
He was letting his opponent know that he better be prepared for a high, hard one on his next at bat. The sign stealing stopped.
By the time Clemens got to Houston, he was already 41, and his fastball was a shadow of the one that had dominated hitters for the first twenty seasons of his career. He did just fine with a 90-miles-per-hour fastball, a split-finger pitch that dipped wickedly at home plate, and buckets of guile.
By then, Clemens knew how to work around certain dangerous hitters, face the guys he wanted to throw to, and exploit every weakness. There were games that first season in Houston when Clemens seemed to be struggling and on the verge of being pulled off the mound, only to rescue himself and the Astros from whatever jam they’d found themselves in.
“I’m standing on the top step of the dugout about to go get the guy,” said Phil Garner, the Astros manager at the time. “I’m not going to let Roger Clemens embarrass himself. And then he works his way out of it, and seven innings later, he’s still out there giving us a chance to win. It was an incredible thing to watch.”
Garner’s lineup cards referred to Clemens simply as “Rocket Man.” He won his seventh and final Cy Young that first season in Houston, 2004, when he went 18–4 with a dazzling 2.98 ERA. Those seven Cy Youngs are two more than any other pitcher has gotten in history (Randy Johnson won five).
Clemens was first meaningfully linked to banned substances in December 2007, with the release of the Mitchell Report, which purported to be a history of steroid use in baseball. The report came about when then MLB commissioner Bud Selig asked an old friend, former U.S. senator George Mitchell, to investigate the prevalence of performance-enhancing drugs in the sport. Clemens was implicated by a former personal trainer, who said he had injected the pitcher with steroids and human growth hormone at different points in Clemens’s career.
Clemens has flatly denied using PEDs, and no decisive physical evidence has surfaced. Over the thirteen seasons Clemens played with the Boston Red Sox, he had already amassed borderline Hall of Fame numbers (three Cy Young Awards, one American League Most Valuable Player, and a 3.06 ERA). Hardly anyone believes Clemens used PEDs during those years. After that, Clemens pitched ten more seasons with the Astros, Toronto Blue Jays, and New York Yankees. He is alleged to have first used banned substances in 1998, his second season in Toronto.
In a sport that had often been stuck in a prior century, weight lifting (previously taboo), advanced nutrition, and scientific advances in physical training pervaded the grand old game in the nineties. As a result, players got bigger, stronger, and better. Some old-timers lamented that they hadn’t had the same advantages in their day.
Players weren’t even tested for steroids until 2003, and MLB leadership looked the other way throughout the sport’s “steroid era,” as the league thrived on heroic performances from the likes of Clemens and Barry Bonds. Considering the damage a World Series–canceling work stoppage did to baseball in 1994 and ’95, it’s not a stretch to suggest that steroids saved MLB.
Until the controversy over performance-enhancing drugs began to threaten the sport, MLB’s unspoken message to players was clear: Do what you need to do to get better. Fans and media may have suspected that steroids fueled the 1998 duel between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa for the single-season home-run record, but we loved the star athletes, the drama, and especially the thrill of both sluggers chasing down previously sacred records that had belonged to Babe Ruth and Roger Maris.
This week, in his tenth and final year on the Hall of Fame ballot, Clemens was named on 257 of 394 ballots. That’s 39 short of the 296 needed to reach Cooperstown’s 75 percent induction threshold. Clemens’s vote total increased every year after bottoming out at 35.4 percent in 2014 (his second year on the ballot), thanks to a new generation of electors who were more forgiving of players from the steroid era.
The 257 votes Clemens received this year got him up to 65.2 percent, but his ten-year window of eligibility for the writers’ vote has closed. Now he’ll need help from the Hall of Fame’s second-chance committee for induction. Barring a miracle, neither Clemens nor Barry Bonds—two of the all-time greats—will ever be Hall of Famers.
This week, even Ortiz seemed uncomfortable with the thought that he’d be in a Hall of Fame that does not include Clemens or Bonds because they are believed to have used steroids in the second halves of their careers. “Not having [Clemens and Bonds] join me, it’s hard for me to believe, to be honest with you,” he said. “I don’t even compare myself to them.”
Clemens has been steadfast in not discussing the Hall of Fame in recent interviews, but Tuesday, after the results were announced, he released a gracious statement as a thread on Twitter.
“My family and I put the HOF in the rear view mirror ten years ago,” he wrote. “I didn’t play baseball to get into the HOF. I played to make a generational difference in the lives of my family. Then focus on winning championships while giving back to my community and the fans as well. It was my passion. I gave it all I had, the right way, for my family and for the fans who supported me.”
“Hopefully everyone can now close this book and keep their eyes forward focusing on what is really important in life,” he said in the final tweet. “All love!”
He deserves better.