Pre-PEDs Roger Clemens is being undersold

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You see a lot of Hall of Fame ballots which include Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. You see more that include neither. You don’t see a whole lot of them which include one and not the other.  But Barry Rozner of the Daily Herald votes that way. He gives the nod to Bonds but not to Clemens.

His reasoning: Barry Bonds was a Hall of Fame player before he began using PEDs. Specifically, if he was hit by a crosstown bus before the 1999 season, when most reliable reporting has him beginning PED use, he’d still have Cooperstown numbers. Rozner does not talk about Clemens at all, but one can assume that he does not think that the pre-PED Clemens had a Hall of Fame resume.

I don’t have a huge problem with the approach as such. I don’t subscribe to it  for a couple of reasons — (a) we don’t know for sure when players began taking PEDS; and (b) we can’t simply ignore what came after PEDs as though it was purely a chemical accomplishment and pretend it didn’t happen — but it’s at least coherent.

I do take some issue, however, with what this approach says about Roger Clemens’ pre-PED accomplishments. Indeed, it’s on par with a narrative about Clemens that prevailed for quite some time after the Mitchell Report came out in which Clemens was considered a washed-up pitcher before he got on the juice and then saw a career resurrection. It’s a narrative that is bolstered by two things, primarily. First, former Red Sox GM Dan Duquette’s disparagement of Clemens when he left to join the Blue Jays, and second, Clemens’ seemingly startling improvement after he got to Toronto.

There are just two problems with this: (1) Clemens was way better in his Boston days than that old narrative would have you believe; and (2) the best evidence we have suggests that Clemens’ PED use began after his career resurgence in Toronto.

Roger Clemens was way better in Boston than you remember

We’ve heard it a million times. The once-great Rocket had run out of fuel. After dominating in the mid-to-late 80s, Clemens had grown fat and lazy and by 1997 he just wasn’t the same pitcher he used to be. That was crystallized by a now-famous quote from Dan Duquette on the occasion of Clemens’ leaving Boston for Toronto:

“We had hoped to keep him in Boston during the twilight of his career.”

And, in 1996, you could forgive casual fans for thinking that Clemens was, indeed, in the twilight.  The man who had won 20 or more games three times to that point, and won 18 games three other times, had just completed a run in which his win totals were 11, 9, 10 and 10. Now, two of those years were shortened due to the 1994-95 work stoppage, and we all know now that win totals are a horribly flawed, but that wasn’t the broad perception. The broad perception was that Clemens’ race was run and he was going to end his career as an innings eater.

Which, to be blunt, was frickin’ insane. Roger Clemens may have only won 10 games in 1996, but he also pitched 242 innings, led the league in strikeouts with 257, struck out more batters per nine innings than anyone and posted an ERA+ — 139 — which was just a shade below his career ERA+ of 143. If you care about such things, know that he also finished second in the league in WAR with 7.7. In September of that year he struck out 20 Detroit Tigers in a single game. Yes, he walked more batters that year than he ever had, but it was a fantastic season nontheless, characterized more by bad luck and poor run support than it was by some farkakte “twilight of his career” narrative.

And what if, in November 1996, Clemens had been hit by that same errant, hypothetical bus that hit poor hypothetical Barry Bonds a couple of years later? What would his career have looked like then? How about a career record of 192-111, an ERA of 3.06 ERA (which makes for a 144 ERA+, or a tick better than his final career number), 2590 strikeouts, a 1.158 WHIP, three Cy Young Awards, an MVP and two — not one, but two — games is which he struck out 20 batters.

Those numbers are not as good as the allegedly pre-PEDs Barry Bonds, but it’s a strong, strong Hall of Fame resume. One that, if Clemens were a little more colorful or more media friendly, would probably get him induction on that alone, with writers arguing that the high peak and the dominance made up for Clemens not reaching 200 wins.

But what if that’s not the entire pre-PEDs case for Roger Clemens? What if we added 21 more wins and another Cy Young Award, ERA, wins, and strikeout title to that list? Another year in which he led the league in innings and WHIP?  Wouldn’t that make those on the fence agree that a pre-PEDs Clemens was a Hall of Fame pitcher? It’s a question worth asking, because there is an argument that Clemens’ added those numbers to his statistical pile before taking PEDs. In 1997. In Toronto. 

The “Clemens juiced up once he got to Toronto” story isn’t backed up by the evidence

It’s wholly understandable why the narrative has Clemens getting run out of Boston, fat, ineffective and unwanted, finding a pack of Winstrol at the bottom of a box of Lucky Charms and juicing his way to the 1997 Cy Young Award in his first season with the Blue Jays. After all, even if his 1996 was better than it’s made out to be, it’s certainly clear that his first season in Toronto was considerably better. Indeed, it was one of the best seasons a pitcher had posted in ages at that point.

The only problem with this is that the best evidence anyone can come up with is that Clemens began juicing in 1998, a year after his resurgence began.

That’s Brian McNamee’s testimony anyway. He told George Mitchell’s investigators that he began his injections of Clemens in 1998 and continued on through 2001. Granted, McNamee was shown to be an extremely unreliable witness, but he had zero incentive to put Clemens’ PED use at a later date than it actually began. If he had any incentive to fabricate, the incentive would be to put Clemens’ PED use at an earlier date, which would cast Clemens in a worse light and make the government agents and lawyers who ruled his life for a while much happier. He didn’t, however. He testified on multiple occasions that it began in 1998. Not once did he state or even opine that Clemens began using PEDs before the two of them hooked up in 1998.

Could Clemens have started his use earlier? Of course he could have. But despite the millions upon millions of dollars and the thousands upon thousands of man hours at the government’s disposal, not one witness was ever discovered who could testify to Clemens beginning his drug use prior to 1998. And you know damn well that the government was aching to find someone who could say so. Why? Because it would make for a killer PowerPoint slide to show the jury in Clemens’ perjury trial:

  • 1996: 10-13, 3.63 ERA RUN OUT OF TOWN ON A RAIL
  • 1997: 21-7, 2.05 ERA CY YOUNG AWARD

Sure, that’s simplistic — as noted above, Clemens’ 1996 was pretty spiffy once you get past his won-loss totals — but that’s the kind of story a trial lawyer dies for. One in which there is (apparently) a clear link between the defendant’s acts and the bad behavior of which the defendant is accused. The story for the jury is way, way better if Clemens began taking PEDs before 1997 and transformed from a tomato can to a superstar. But the government could not, despite its best efforts, tell that story.

So, while it’s quite satisfying for us to believe Roger Clemens began to use PEDs when he got to Toronto, there is no evidence to support that he did. Indeed, if one wanted to speculate a bit — and this is mere speculation, not me arguing that it’s true — one could surmise that Clemens, trying to revitalize his career, simply got in better shape before the 1997 season via legitimate means and, like a lot of PED users, was exposed to PEDs in a major way once he started living in gyms and hanging around people obsessed with nutritional supplements and stuff and after that he really began the juicing.  Likely? I have no idea. But it fits the extant evidence better than the story that has Clemens starting to take PEDS in 1997, which is unsupported.

So where does that leave us?

Well, if you buy the 1997-98 story, it leaves us with a pitcher who went 213-118 with a 2.97 ERA, over 2800 strikeouts, an ERA+ of 149, a WHIP of 1.147, four Cy Youngs, an MVP and a pitcher’s triple crown.  That, my friends, is a sure shot Hall of Famer, and if you’re the sort, like Barry Rozner, who would vote for guys who had Hall of Fame resumes prior to confirmed PED use, you have to vote for Clemens.  Or, at the very least, make the case for why you’re not.

CC Sabathia won’t visit the White House if the Yankees win the World Series

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Over the past couple of days the subject of athlete activism, always present to some degree in American sports, but recently revived by Colin Kaepernick and a few other football players in the form of silent protests during the National Anthem, exploded into a headline dominating news story. Lighting the fuse: President Trump directly inserting himself into the controversy.

He did so during a speech on Friday night and during a series of tweets Saturday and continuing into this morning in which he urged NFL owners to “fire” or suspend players who do not stand for the national anthem. He also attempted to disinvite the NBA champion Golden State Warriors from their traditional White House visit because of their star player Stephen Curry’s public opposition to him, though Curry had already said he wouldn’t go.

As Ashley wrote last night, the silent anthem protests have now come to baseball, with A’s catcher Bruce Maxwell becoming the fist player to kneel during the National Anthem. Before that, at least one baseball executive, Orioles Vice President John P. Angelos, came out strongly on the side of players and against Trump. Joe Maddon said some less-than-enlightened words on the matter. Major League Baseball issued a statement on the matter. It was, not surprisingly, somewhat empty, taking something of a both-sides-have-good-points tack. It’s understandable, I suppose. I suspect Major League Baseball and its owners would prefer to not have to comment on this at all. The league does not do this sort of controversy well.

Ballplayers, however, will likely continue to speak up. The latest: Yankees starter CC Sabathia, who was asked yesterday whether he would visit the White House if the playoff-bound Yankees won the World Series. From the Daily News:

“Never. I just don’t believe in anything that is Trump. So there wouldn’t be any reason for me to go at all. I just think it’s stupid. I just think it’s dumb that he’s addressing players and stuff that he shouldn’t be. But it is what it is, and that’s the country we live in these days . . . I’m proud of the way that everybody has Steph’s back and just athletes in general these days, the way everybody has been stepping up has been great.”

Baseball players, as we’ve noted many times over the years, tend to be a more conservative bunch than football or basketball players. There are a lot more white players and a lot more players from southern, suburban and exurban areas. A significant number of racial-ethnic minority players were not born in the United States, so U.S. politics may not necessarily preoccupy them the way it may players from the United States. As such, political protest like we’ve seen in the NFL and NBA was never going to start in baseball in 2017.

But that does not mean that it was not going to come to baseball. Contrary to what so many fans seem to think, sports do not exist inside some bubble into which the real world does not intrude. Athletes are citizens just like you and me with social, political and personal concerns just like you and me. And, at the moment, a government official is demanding that they lose their jobs because he does not agree with their political views and the manner in which they are expressed. I suspect most of us would get upset by that if it happened to us. Certainly a lot of people I know on the conservative side of the political expression worried about government overreach and freedom of speech. At least before January of this year.

So I am not at all surprised that baseball players like Sabathia are beginning to speak out. He will not be the last. Others will join him. Others, as is their right, will push back and say they disagree with him. If and when people feel inspired to tell them to “stick to sports,” or “stay in their lane,” perhaps they should ask why the President of the United States decided not to do so himself. And ask why he thinks it’s appropriate for athletes to lose their jobs for their political views and why private entities like the NFL should be patriotic institutions rather than businesses which put on sporting events.

 

Bruce Maxwell first MLB player to kneel during National Anthem

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Athletics’ rookie catcher Bruce Maxwell did not stand for the National Anthem on Saturday night. He’s the first MLB player to do so and, like other professional athletes before him, used the moment to send a message — not just to shed light on the lack of racial equality in the United States, but to specifically protest President Donald Trump’s suggestion that NFL owners fire any of their players who elect to protest the anthem by sitting or kneeling.

“Bruce’s father is a proud military lifer. Anyone who knows Bruce or his parents is well aware that the Maxwells’ love and appreciation for our country is indisputable,” Maxwell’s agent, Matt Sosnick, relayed to the San Francisco Chronicle’s Susan Slusser on Friday. He continued:

Bruce has made it clear that he is taking a stand about what he perceives as racial injustices in this country, and his personal disappointment with President Trump’s response to a number of professional athletes’ totally peaceful, non-violent protests.

Bruce has shared with both me and his teammates that his feelings have nothing to do with a lack of patriotism or a hatred of any man, but rather everything to do with equality for men, women and children regardless of race or religion.

While Maxwell didn’t make his own statement to the media, he took to Instagram earlier in the day to express his frustration against the recent opposition to the protests, criticizing the President for endorsing “division of man and rights.”

Despite Trump’s profanity-laced directive to NFL owners on Friday, however, it’s clear the Athletics don’t share his sentiments. “The Oakland A’s pride ourselves on being inclusive,” the team said in a statement released after Maxwell’s demonstration. “We respect and support all of our players’ constitutional rights and freedom of expression.”

Whatever the fallout, kudos to Maxwell for taking a stand. He may be the first to do so in this particular arena, but he likely won’t be the last.