Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Roger Clemens: Acquittal Does Not Mean Vindication


Al Spalding was the first great pitcher in Major League Baseball.  He became an executive who helped make baseball what it was already been, somewhat prematurely, called: The national pastime.  He founded a sporting-goods empire that is still in business -- no mean feat considering it's had to survive the economic crises that began in 1893, 1929, 1973, 1979, 1990, 2001 and 2008.

Charlie Comiskey practically invented the way the position of first base is played.  He co-founded the American League and a team that is still in business in its original city.

Cap Anson was the first man to get 3,000 hits in MLB.  He was, by the standards of his time, a good first baseman.  He was a great manager.

Ty Cobb was the best player the game of baseball had yet seen.  Although his career records for hits, runs scored and stolen bases have fallen, his lifetime batting average of .366 (so long listed as .367 due to a clerical goof) is not only still a record, but isn't approached for a single season all that often.

Pete Rose was hustle incarnate.  Nobody ever wanted to win more, or tried to win more.  Or so it seemed.  Hard work, boyish enthusiasm, toughness, getting results, having fun while doing it, and having fun while telling us about it -- he did it all.

Mark McGwire, as a reporter said to him during that great home run record chase, was "Babe Ruth" for our generation.  And he was humble about it.  Like Hank Aaron, he didn't want to make anyone forget Ruth, or Roger Maris, or Aaron himself.  He did want them to remember him.  And, while there were whispers, he was just so full of aw-shucks that we believed him when he said he was doing it honestly.

Barry Bonds may have been the best all-around baseball player of my lifetime -- being that I was born shortly after Mickey Mantle retired and Willie Mays had finally begun to decline.  Bonds was a five-tool player: He could hit for average, he could hit for power, he could run, he could catch, and he could throw.  If he had never taken a steroid, he almost certainly would still have had over 600 home runs and over 500 stolen bases -- and, to this day, no other human, living or dead, has ever had 400 of each.

How do we remember these men today? Spalding and Comiskey: Cheapskates who betrayed the players who came after them.  Anson: Vicious racist.  Cobb: Vicious racist, rotten teammate, and abusive husband.  Rose: Compulsive gambler, compulsive womanizer, tax cheat, and all that hustle and crashing into guys has been reinterpreted as superdickery.  McGwire: Cheater who sullied not just his own name, but the concept of the home run itself.  Bonds: Cheater, womanizer, and jerk-of-all-trades.

I could have mentioned any number of athletes from other sports.  But since Roger Clemens is a baseball player, I'm going to limit it to baseball.

What can I say? Some people know how to play the game of public relations, and some don't.  We overlook the way Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle treated their wives.  We overlook the boozing that Ruth and Mantle did.  Why? Because, both during and after their careers, they found ways to make us like them and respect them anyway.

I excuse nothing -- but, sometimes, despite everything, we can't help ourselves.  I know Reggie Jackson has been a womanizer and a braggart.  But because of what he did, where he did it, and when he did it, he will forever be my favorite athlete of all time.  And now that I know more about him, while I can't condone much of what he did, knowing some of the other thing's he's done, and survived, makes me admire him, in a way beyond that which an 8-year-old boy can love an athlete.

*

Yesterday afternoon, Roger Clemens was acquitted of all the charges against him in federal court, most of them relating to perjury, when he testified before Congress that he had never taken steroids, human growth hormone, or any other "performance-enhancing drug" (PED).

When the verdict came down, I was watching CNN, and anchor Wolf Blitzer called it "complete vindication."

This morning, however, Joe Johns, who had been covering the case at the federal courthouse in Washington, said, "He's still got that stigma."

Johns understands: "Not guilty" does not necessarily mean "innocent."

We're not talking about the impeachment of President Bill Clinton here, although the charges are similar.  Clinton was pursued because he was hated.  If it wasn't for lying about the nature of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, it would have been for something else.  The first resolution requesting an impeachment inquiry against him came in 1997, and it was about "Whitewater." What was that about, you ask? Nothing that matters now.

Clemens was pursued by the federal government -- starting under the administration of George W. Bush, and continuing now into that of Barack Obama -- because he embarrassed them.  This wasn't about hatred of Clemens, but it was about the ego of the Department of Justice.

Statistically speaking, Clemens was headed for the Baseball Hall of Fame before he his suspected steroid use began.  Assuming the charges (federal or otherwise) against him are true, the drugs didn't make the difference between him making the Hall of Fame and not -- as appears to be the case with McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro, and possibly Gary Sheffield.  Like Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez, for Clemens it meant the difference between being a Hall-of-Famer and being on the short list for the title of "greatest ever."

Will Clemens be elected to the Hall of Fame? He becomes eligible in the election whose results will be announced this coming January.

So does Mike Piazza.  Whose has also been accused of steroid use -- and, legally speaking, we have exactly as much evidence on him as we have on Clemens.  Whether this year or next, if they get elected at the same time... it would be awk... ward.

Yet Piazza will almost certainly make it.  To paraphrase the Mickey Mouse Club, Why? Because we like him.  (This particular "we," of course, does not include me.)

Bonds and Sosa also become eligible in the next election.

Eligible for the 1st time: Clemens, Bonds, Sosa, Piazza, Curt Schilling, Craig Biggio, Sandy Alomar Jr., Kenny Lofton, David Wells, Steve Finley, Julio Franco, and a few other guys who have very little chance.


Eligible for the 2nd time: Bernie Williams.

Eligible for the 3rd time: Jeff Bagwell, Larry Walker.

Eligible for the 4th time: Edgar Martinez, Fred McGriff.

Eligible for the 6th time: Tim Raines.

Eligible for the 7th time: McGwire.

Eligible for the 11th time: Lee Smith.

Eligible for the 12th time: Alan Trammell.

Eligible for the 13th time: Don Mattingly.

Eligible for the 14th time: Jack Morris.

Eligible for the 15th and final time, before his candidacy goes to the Committee on Veterans: Dale Murphy.

Of these, who do I think should be elected -- aside from the steroid-tainted (real or imagined)? Schilling (sleazeball though he is), Biggio, Bagwell, Raines and Morris.
I'd like to elect Bernie and Donnie, but I just can't get them over the top.  I think Walker, Martinez and Murphy also fall a tad short, and I wish we could elect Trammell and Lou Whitaker together, as the Joe Tinker-Johnny Evers-Frank Chance triad was.

Clemens...

I say, elect him to the Hall of Fame.

But don't invite him back to Old-Timers' Day at Yankee Stadium.  Don't retire his uniform number.  And don't give him a Plaque in Monument Park.

That is reserved for people who not only put up great achievements, but are still admired.

Even George Steinbrenner.

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