Monday, January 7, 2008

On Second Thought, Yeah, He's Heavy, AND He's My Pitcher

I was out last night, and because CBS' NFL Playoff coverage ran long, I didn't get the 60 Minutes Roger Clemens interview on tape.

Who cares about a football game between San Diego and Nashville, anyway? A sliver of Southern California, the eastern two-thirds of Tennessee (the Memphis third hates Nashville, and vice versa), and maybe a few people in Kentucky who like football and a few in Alabama who hadn't drunk the Atlanta Kool-Aid that makes people think the Braves were still "The Team of the '90s" and that Michael Vick got a raw deal.

Not that those are necessarily bad places, but 60 Minutes had not just the Clemens interview, but one with Pervez Musharraf, the first since the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. Ultimately, that was more important than one NFL wild-card football game.

So what if it was LaDanian Tomlinson vs. Vince Young? Well, they're both great players, at least neither has been accused of steroid use.

Anyway... Now having seen some of the text of the interview...

Way to go, Roger. Talking as if baseball owes you something, as if you're bigger than the game, is a one-way ticket to Palookaville, as old-timers might say.

Pete Rose thought he was bigger than the game. Barry Bonds acted as though he thought he was bigger than the game. The players that New York area baseball fans have liked the most through the years -- around here, guys like Gehrig, Rizzuto, Berra, Mantle, Mattingly, Jeter; Mays, Hodges, Seaver, Franco, Piazza, Wright -- have looked like they're aware that the game is bigger than they are, that the game made them what they are, and that, whatever they have given back, it can never truly be enough.

Note that I did not include DiMaggio and even my guy, Reggie Jackson, who each went both ways on this issue at times. Nor most of the '86 Mets. Even a beloved player like Duke Snider admitted that he played the game mainly for the money it made him. I also didn't include Babe Ruth or Jackie Robinson, simply because those two, perhaps alone in baseball history, really were bigger than the game, though Jackie never and the Babe hardly ever (but not always) acted like it.

I'm reminded of an episode of M*A*S*H where crazy Army "intelligence" officer Colonel Flagg (played by Edward Winter) tries to enlist Major Charles Emerson Winchester III (David Ogden Stiers) in finding evidence that Captain Benjamin Franklin "Hawkeye" Pierce (Alan Alda) is a secret Communist agent.

No friend of Hawkeye, Charles lists a bunch of Hawkeye's faults, and tells Flagg, "But that makes him obnoxious. It doesn't make him a spy." And Flagg says, "Doesn't wash! I'm obnoxious, and I'm a spy!" And Charles says, "Touche."

The point is, Clemens is obnoxious. He is a blowhard. He is a braggart. (Can't imagine why the guys filming the movie Cobb, with Tommy Lee Jones as Ty, wanted Clemens to play the Philadelphia Athletics pitcher with the similarly bad attitude.)

But that doesn't make him a steroid user. A positive test makes him a steroid user, and if there's one out there, no one's said so.

Are they waiting to catch him in a perjury trap? Maybe, but that's the only excuse not to play that hand. But until such a test is revealed, I'm going to say, "Innocent until proven guilty," and until such a test is revealed, there's no proof.

Citing Clemens' 1990 Playoff meltdown, as some have done, is not helping the "Roger used steroids" cause. That happened well before the accusatory usage began. His occasional lapses of tact, or even of sanity? That's not steroids, that's his personality. Even Red Sox fans, who still think of him as Anakin Skywalker having become Darth Vader, or the Alger Hiss or even the Judas Iscariot of baseball, would agree with that.

Here's my idea of what to do with him: Give him his Hall of Fame plaque. No ceremony in Cooperstown. Just give it to him, and say, "Here it is. You earned it, mostly. Now go away. And never take part in professional baseball again, and don't bother us anymore."

Just the election and induction. No number retirement -- here, in Boston, or in Houston. No plaque in the new stadium's Monument Park. No acceptance speech -- please, God, not that. (The prospect of listening to an acceptance speech may be the biggest reason of all not to elect Pete Rose to the Hall.)

Can Roger Clemens be defended? Yes. Should we want to? I can only answer that for myself. My answer is, only to the extent that anyone who tries to say that what the Yankees won with him -- 4 Pennants, 2 World Series, one over The Other Team -- remains legitimate and untainted.

I wonder... Did Maurice Richard, the greatest offensive force the game of hockey had ever known until Wayne Gretzky came along, object to another athlete having his nickname, the Rocket? Richard was similar, right down to the occasional loss of his temper. But nobody ever suggested he cheated. If he ever did object to Clemens' use of the nickname "Rocket," could this be his revenge from beyond the grave?

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