The RPs Debate Roger Clemens: Artur Davis Cleans Up

[Click here for a link to the entire RP Debate on Roger Clemens]

I appreciate that Roger Clemens is no sympathetic character. Even before his brain and emotions might have been addled by steroids, he could be graceless to an extreme: the few black fans left in baseball winced after he stupidly said he wished he could crack Hank Aaron’s head open when Aaron had the temerity to suggest a pitcher shouldn’t win a season MVP award. It was a dumb, brutal joke that echoed the savage letters Aaron received in the throes of his home run record chase. There was also no grace in the Roger Clemens who could erupt at umpires or batters, and who tended to do it most when his skills weren’t working. There are a host of fans who see nothing but a perennial evader of responsibility in Clemens, and I sympathize.

But the Hall of Fame is a baseball venue and the only relevance of his misdeeds is whether they influenced the stats that make the player’s candidacy (I would say the same for Pete Rose, whose tawdriness never included betting to influence his own games).

Accepting the standard that it’s best to freeze Clemens’ candidacy as of 1998–pre Brian McNamee–I lean toward admission for Roger Clemens, but don’t see the baseball case as nearly as one-sided as some comments on the thread suggest. Clemens’ Red Sox career approximated 16 wins a years for twelve years–exceptional and consistent, but there were outlier years like the masterpiece in 86 balanced against a run of seasons in the early nineties when Clemens seemed past his prime, and an undeniable pattern of erosion. Then there is the mediocrity of his post-season work for the Red Sox, when the rap was that Clemens seemed to fatigue by October (a precursor of why he might have turned to enhancers). The two Toronto Cy Young years (and 41 additional wins) are clouded, perhaps unfairly, by the proximity to his alleged introduction to steroids, and the murkiness around when the cheating might have started.

Resolving the Toronto uncertainty in his favor, or even focusing exclusively on Boston, the multiple Cy Youngs through 1998 are probably enough resume material to push Clemens through, and they are weighty enough to lift him past, say, a contemporary like the 254 win Jack Morris, who never won a single Cy Young, and an Oral Hershiser, who simply didn’t shine long enough. But the case is not iron-clad: there is a way of seeing the Boston years as two early seasons of brilliance and a long run of seasons where strikeout power didn’t always equate to dominance or wins, and where Clemens seemed to wilt when it mattered most. There is an element in Clemens of Curt Schilling, a 216 win pitcher who reversed Clemens’ legacy with a record of post-season brilliance and a string of unsuccessful Cy Young bids; who matched seasons that were remarkable with seasons of mediocrity, and who is not considered a Hall of Fame lock.

I’ve heard the argument that Clemens’ candidacy should get full credit for the second phase of his career, which is really the phase that shaped the Clemens legend: the aura of super-human durability, the breathtaking year with Houston that belongs in a time capsule, and the intrigue of the fact that his best postseason work came in his third decade in the league. The theory, as some of the comments on this thread suggest, is that the jury’s verdict is adequate exoneration, that Brian McNamee is hopelessly tainted as a witness, that unproven allegations shouldn’t be credited, etc.

I don’t buy it for a simple reason: the second phase of Clemens’ career is the point when he seemed to lick the significant decline in his performance in the mid nineties, and when he reversed his propensity to falter as the season dragged on into the playoffs. That revival obviously has a physical component–Clemens, the workout devotee, certainly said it did–and it is impossible to separate the physical feat from what steroids might have done to bolster a declining body.

So, I would rank the untainted Clemens era as the mark of a steady, but not awesome pitcher, whose awards separate him from the pack. It is hard to escape the sense that he fit the pattern of his generation’s best pitchers–moments of near perfection that weren’t sustained, and that without resorting to steroids, he might have spiraled and diminished in the same manner as the Morrises and the Hershisers.


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