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Books | Sports

April 2, 2008

Sixty Feet and Six Inches From Clemens

Baseball writer Jonathan Mayo tells Gelf about profiling Clemens through the men who have faced him, and why the Mitchell Report isn't mentioned in his book.

Nick Matros

Everyone who cares at all about baseball had an opinion on Roger Clemens. Some saw him as a gun-for-hire headhunter, with little regard for the feelings or the safety of those around him. Some saw him as the definition of work ethic, a man whose competitive drive brought him to represent excellence. His involvement in controversial beanings; heat-of the moment bat throwings; both sides of Red Sox-Yankees rivalries; and tailor-made contracts to take him out of retirement; consistently made him a talking point amongst sports fans. No one, however, would refute that he was one of the best ever to have taken the mound.

Jonathan Mayo. Photo by MLB.com.
"To add this to the mix certainly was not something I expected to have to deal with, so I had some moments of sheer panic."

Jonathan Mayo. Photo by MLB.com.

Now, it's difficult to discuss the man without bringing up the letters HGH, or guys named Mitchell or McNamee. His very public, very embarrassing congressional hearings regarding illegal performance-enhancing substance use have been impossible to ignore over the past few months, in what has become an almost surreal battle of stubborn denial and he-said-he-said.

It is difficult to write about the man objectively. Every baseball fan in his heart of hearts has the inclination to either glorify or vilify the man. MLB.com writer Jonathan Mayo, in his new book Facing Clemens: Hitters on Confronting Baseball's Most Intimidating Pitcher, finds perhaps the only perspective from which we can view this man without prejudice, through the experiences and anecdotes of the batters who have faced him.

Facing Clemens was going to press when George Mitchell published his report on performance-enhancing drugs in baseball, leaving Mayo with the uncomfortable dilemma of how to handle it. He decided along with his publishers that his book could stand on its original premise. The only trace of the Mitchell Report you can find on the book is from Steve Phillips's blurb on the back cover reading, in part, "Jonathan Mayo documents the evolution of this era's greatest pitcher from college to what should have been his inevitable induction into the Hall of Fame."

The batters have a rather objective view of the would-be Hall of Famer. Whatever substances Clemens may or may not have used would not alter the batters' experiences of what it felt like to search for the release point of high heat that might, within seconds, knock you flat on the ground, or cut across the black and add you to Clemens's collection of K's.

Gelf Magazine spoke to Mayo about his experiences and inspirations behind writing the book, and his moments of "sheer panic" dealing with what might be the most significant curveball Clemens has ever thrown. The following interview was conducted by telephone and has been edited for content. You can hear Mayo and other baseball writers read from and talk about their work at Gelf's free Varsity Letters event on Thursday, April 3rd, in New York's Lower East Side.

Gelf Magazine: Why choose Roger Clemens?

Jonathan Mayo: I guess the first part of that answer is to say the choice was made before the Mitchell Report and all the ensuing news, so it wasn't a choice made with controversy in mind or a polarizing figure or anything like that. The idea for the book was to find someone who would fit this kind of format. The publisher had done two similar books with boxers facing Tyson and facing Ali, and Clemens just seemed to make the most sense because of the length of his career and how dominant he was, and also how different he was over the length of his career in terms of the kind of pitcher he was. So all those things together made him seem, at least at the time, to be the perfect candidate for a book like this.

GM: During the process of writing the book, did some of the Mitchell Report stuff come to light, or was it not until you were completely done?

JM: It was literally at the printer when the Mitchell Report came out.

GM: What was your reaction to the news?

JM: It depended on the hour. I definitely lost a few nights' sleep trying to figure out what it all meant. I mean, this was my first book, so the whole process was new to me. To add this to the mix certainly was not something I expected to have to deal with, so I had some moments of sheer panic. You know, and then trying to explore whether there was a way to squeeze something in that at least put it into more proper context, and make it known that we understood what was going on, but because of the timing, it just wasn't going to work out.

GM: I think the closest thing you have is a sort of cryptic quote from Steve Phillips on the back cover.

JM: [Laughing] That's very perceptive of you to have noticed that one.

GM: But apart from that blurb, it reads, quite clearly, as a pre-Mitchell Report Clemens book.

JM: Truthfully, I had had a bit of a problem trying to contextualize it with everything that had gone on. I can see someone picking it up and going, "Well, this is interesting and all, but how can you not add that into the mix at all?" I've heard a couple of people mention that it's almost like a relic or an historical account. You know, if you want to go back in time to when Roger Clemens was just a great pitcher, and this is a discussion of what it was like to face a great pitcher, then it's a good book to read. The fact of the matter is that the challenge of facing him, from the hitter's standpoint, doesn't change one way or the other, whether you believe he's guilty or innocent.

GM: I think that that structure of seeing Clemens from the batter's point of view does help you get past the absence of the Mitchell Report. That said, you mentioned Facing Tyson and Facing Ali. Are there any other books like this regarding baseball, and what do you feel are the advantages of writing a book that is structured like this?

JM: I don't know if there are other books like this. There have been books that have been broken down, with each chapter focusing on a specific player or aspect of the game. The one that comes to mind immediately is Men at Work, the George Will book. That was Cal Ripken on defense, Tony LaRussa on managing, and honestly I don't remember exactly the others, but the whole chapter with Ripken was him talking about his positioning and the nuts and bolts. In terms of the benefits of the structure from a writing standpoint, I thought it made it a little bit easier for me as a first-time author, because each chapter was sort of self-contained. It turned out that I ended up having a kind of nice flow to it, in terms of how one chapter led into the next, but it didn't have to have that necessarily. It needed to follow chronologically, it didn't have to have that literary flow; and for me, never having written anything of this length, doing it chapter by chapter was a really good way to organize my thoughts and my writing.

Roger Clemens

Mayo doesn't cover the story of McNamee facing Clemens in Washington, D.C.

GM: In choosing Clemens, you must be aware of the villain status that surrounds Clemens—the fact that he is, especially in Red Sox and Mets circles, a very hated figure. When you wrote the book, did you have that audience in mind, or were you more thinking this is going to be of interest to people who love Clemens?

JM: No. I had that audience in mind. I tried to get Mike Piazza for the book, but he just didn't want to talk to me. And the funny thing is that before all the Mitchell Report stuff came out, if I were going to do a self-critique, that to me was a kind of weakness of the book. Now the chapter on the 2000 World Series, I thought, turned out well just because Darryl Hamilton is such a sharp guy and is a friend of Clemens; it made for an interesting perspective. But when I found I wasn't going to be able to get Piazza, I was like, "Wow, something is really going to be missing from this book." It would have made it tremendous to get Piazza's finally honest appraisal of everything that happened between the two of them. I understand that Clemens was not exactly the most beloved figure in baseball. At the same time, I think there is, or at least there was, an appreciation, even from guys who can't stand him, of just how good he was. You know, knocking guys down, hitting them aside—I don't think anyone can argue that he wasn't one of the greatest pitchers of all time, looking at his accomplishments on the field.

GM: Do you think the intimidation factor of that headhunter reputation was accepted and respected by the batters that you interviewed?

JM: Maybe that's more the guys I interviewed, but most of them sort of accept that as part of the game. Maybe it just happened that I talked to a lot of old-school guys. In the Chipper Jones chapter, he tells the story about asking him to check the ball after a splitter in the dirt and getting knocked down the next pitch. I think some of those guys almost wear it as a badge of honor, and it's something that comes especially against young hitters. He uses that sort of Clemens aura against guys just coming into the league. Once guys are established, I don't know how much that's going to work, especially for better hitters. They're not necessarily going to be intimidated. Certainly there is a seed in the back of their mind about not being able to crowd the plate, him taking ownership of that part of the plate. I think if you're going to take a poll of guys that got knocked down and dusted by him, it's almost like, "OK, now I've arrived"—a badge of honor.

"Clemens was not exactly the most beloved figure in baseball. At the same time, I think there is, or at least there was, an appreciation, even from guys who can't stand him, of just how good he was."
GM: One of the advantages of interviewing batters was the fact that you get an objective view of Clemens. Not from your point of view or from Clemens's point of view but from the point of view of the batters. But then the decision to have Clemens write the foreword—was that your decision, and does that affect the objectivity of the book?

JM: I'll answer the second part of the question first. No, I don't think it affected the objectivity of the book at all. The book was written on its own. I didn't know that I was going to get Clemens to write the foreword until I was nearly done with the book, so it's not like I wrote the chapters thinking, "What is he going to think about this?" That never entered my mind. I think having him write the foreword—and again everything is sort of past tense—added credibility to the book, that the objective views, the insights the hitters gave in terms of hitting him—it legitimized their thoughts on him. He, in the foreword, speaks specifically about some of the stories told in the chapters and also he doesn't get that much into the nuts and bolts of how he faced guys and what he did to get them out. He never gave up any of those secrets. I don't think it really impacted the overall tenor of the book.

GM: How did you go about selecting the batters to be interviewed for the book?

JM: A lot of it was starting with the statistical analysis. I like to give credit to the folks at Retrosheet.org whenever possible because they have just volumes and volumes of stuff and I started by looking at his career batter versus pitcher numbers and I knew I wanted to have someone who faced him a lot, and that was Cal Ripken, who faced him more than any other hitter. I don't remember the exact number, it was close to 110, I think it was 109 times. I wanted to have someone who had success, and I ended up with Ken Griffey Jr., who was has had as much success, especially over a prolonged period, as anybody. Most of that came during their American League days. I'd approached Jim Thome but he wasn't interested. Thome's got more homers against him than anybody else.
I wanted somebody who had really struggled against him, and while I was looking at all the stats, I happened to come across this note right when he was coming back in 2006 and the Twins were playing the Astros in interleague play. That's when I first discovered that Torii Hunter had never gotten a hit against him, and there are few if any other major league players I would ever dream of approaching and doing a chapter about how much you sucked against a guy. But Torii Hunter is one of them and he was fantastic.
And then after that I started to pick some historical things, a bunch of World Series opponents. Obviously with Chipper Jones, the hook was the '99 World Series, but then they'd faced each other a bunch of times in the regular season, and then in the division series when the Astros played the Braves. There were things like that.
I had to have something from his first 20-strikeout game, and that's how I ended up with Phil Bradley, who was the 20th and final strikeout in that performance.
And then I ended it with two sort of offbeat ones. My main job for MLB.com is covering the minor leagues, so I was very intrigued about doing a chapter with Johnny Drennen, the kid who hit that homer off of Clemens in that first minor league start he made in 2006 in the South Atlantic League, and then the one with Clemens's son Koby, which is, by the way, how I ended up securing the foreword.

GM: Going back to the Phil Bradley chapter, which falls under the "pure domination" section, you second-guess somewhat the definition of perfection with regards to pitching. In your opinion, how do we truly evaluate greatness or perfection in pitching?

JM: I think the key is that I don't know that there is one definition. The obvious thing is the perfect game. As you said, that's how I led off that chapter. You can't be much more perfect than 27 up and 27 down. But when you look at what Clemens did against the Mariners in that game in '86 and again against the Padres in '96, yeah, he gave up a couple of hits, so I guess that's not perfect, but I can't imagine being more dominant, and this is something that before I wrote this book I did not know, that in both those games he struck out 20 and walked none. To me, still, after talking about this book ad nauseam with people, I still can't fathom that. Usually power pitchers are guys who throw a ton of pitches and are all over the place. Clemens has never been that way. He's been a power pitcher who also knows how to pitch, and in those two games, especially, you strike out 20 and walk nobody, I don't know how much better you can be than that.
In terms of domination, or excellence, I think there are different ways you can go about it. The two greatest right-handers of our generation, and I think we're extremely fortunate as baseball fans to have seen them both, are Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux. Is one better than the other? You could argue one way or the other. Roger Clemens was more dominant in the typical definition of the word just because of the strikeouts. But what Maddux did in terms of his efficiency and his ability to keep hitters guessing and still have the same results, how could you say that he is not as excellent, not as dominant? He just did it differently.

"Julio Franco did not have the same sort of memory of specifics. Now, to be fair, he's 140 years old."
GM: Do you think a possible book like Facing Maddux could have success?

JM: I think it could. Certainly we wouldn't have to worry about any congressional hearings with him. There have been times during the whole course of this thing where I said, "Man, maybe I should have done Greg Maddux." I think it would be interesting. I'm not sure, without really having looked into it, how varied it would be, because he's more or less been the same pitcher. He had more power than people give him credit for, for much of his career. It could be real interesting, though, because he's the type of guy that you go 0 for 4 against and you think, "Well, how did that happen?" because it's not like he just blew you away. He's not that kind of pitcher. He gets inside your head that way, as a result. It could be a real interesting book, just a lot different from what this one was.

GM: How good are ballplayers' memories of at-bats from 10 years ago, or even one year ago? Did you have to jog memories a little bit?

JM: It depends on the guy. Cal Ripken Jr., I think, needs to have his brain in the Smithsonian. He needed slight reminders of one or two things, but other than that he pretty much remembered every at bat that he had against Clemens, like to a frightening degree. And I knew after having read Men at Work that he would be a good subject. I've had the pleasure of interviewing him on other occasions. He's just a smart guy who's a real student of the game. I'd just remind him of something small—"It was in Baltimore after such and such happened"—and he'd go from there: "Oh yeah, I went 2 for 3, I almost hit a homer off him." It was unbelievable, considering he's been out of the game since retiring in 2001, and they faced each other for 17 years before that, and he remembered almost everything. Chipper Jones was another guy who remembered pretty much every at bat. He's one of those guys who probably remembers every at bat he's had, period.
Not everybody was like that. Julio Franco did not have the same sort of memory of specifics. Now, to be fair, he's 140 years old. He remembered more about what the buzz was, like in the Ryan-Clemens match ups, but not so much specific at-bats.

GM: Do you want to get anything out in the air in terms of your own personal opinion on the congressional hearings?

JM: It's been a hard balance for me to strike. In the end, the book is fine without any of that stuff thrown into it. I always prefer to focus on [what's in the book], but I certainly don't have a problem talking about it. You know, I went back and forth leading up to the congressional testimonies in terms of what I believed, and not just because of this book, but I really wanted to believe that there was one guy who denied something and was telling the truth. I don't know if it would restore my faith in humankind, or for whatever reason…and obviously for the book.
I've been covering baseball a while, and knowing that, I wouldn't be shocked if somehow they could come out and prove that he had done it. Watching the congressional testimony, though, he and McNamee, I didn't get the sense that either of them was telling the truth completely. I've always had a problem—although I feel the Mitchell Report will do a lot of good for the game of baseball, I never was comfortable that it was solely built around two guys in Brian McNamee and Kirk Radomski who are not exactly credible sources. Now it turns out that McNamee largely has told the truth, but I don't know that he's a guy that can be completely trusted. The Pettitte testimony kind of did it for me in terms of making it extremely difficult to find that Clemens was completely telling the truth. There are still some lingering doubts, but I think that Clemens in some way has convinced himself that he didn't do anything.

"I don't think that he could have denied things to the extent that he has done it and be lying. I don't think he's that good of an actor."
GM: It almost seems like he's been hypnotized into believing that he didn't do anything.

JM: The word "delusional" comes to mind. Someone said to me—and this is not a comparison I would make, because it doesn't rank anywhere close to the same in indiscretion—that's almost like with O.J. during the whole O.J. trial. It seemed like he had completely convinced himself that he didn't do it. Not that he was just lying, but he had somehow talked himself into believing it. I think that that may have happened with Clemens—you know, he looked the other way, whatever it is. I don't think that he could have denied things to the extent that he has done it and be lying. I don't think he's that good of an actor. I think "hypnotized" is a good way to describe it, because he's not choosing his words carefully. He's pounding on the table, adamant that he didn't do anything. I mean, how do you do that? And the thing is with all of this, we're never going to know for sure. There's nothing that they have, unless someone else comes forward and says, "Yeah, I was there and I saw everything." There's no way that some seven-year-old needle and gauze are going to prove anything.

GM: Now what do you say to the argument that steroid use and HGH use were so rampant during Clemens's tenure that it shouldn't matter in terms of compromising what he did as a pitcher?

JM: I'm kind of of two minds with that. On one hand, I think it's a little bit of a copout and it makes it unfair to the people in the game who did it completely honestly. Now it may not be, when all is said and done, that there were that many guys who did that, but at the same time there are lots of arguments about the impact it actually has. You know, it doesn't make you understand the strike zone better, command your pitches better, learn that you're not throwing as hard so you'd better learn to throw a split-finger and then a cutter like he did. Could it add to your velocity? Maybe; I think the jury's still out on that. I mean, he threw hard before he allegedly took anything. It's the flip side with hitters. With all this talk with Barry Bonds, yeah, it made him stronger, but it didn't make him recognize a slider was coming, or make him have the best plate discipline that anyone's ever seen.
I go back and forth on that one. In the end, I think that they're both Hall of Famers, based on what they did on the field—even if you were to look at Clemens's numbers and try to parse out when he took stuff and when he didn't, according to the Mitchell Report. I did it, very, very loosely. You take him through the '97 season, and into the first half of the '98 season, maybe. But the biggest thing, I guess, was that it kept letting these guys compete for a greater length of time, the recovery time was better—that sort of thing. Let's say he pitched another five years. His numbers with the Yankees outside of the Cy Young year are not that extraordinary. You know, his ERA at the first half of that '98 season was like 3.55. If he keeps that going for another four to five years, we're talking about a guy who retires with an ERA right around 3, about 270 wins, and at that time—let's say he doesn't win another Cy Young after the '97 season—four Cy Young awards. That's a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He's probably in the Hall of Fame even if he doesn't win another game after the '97 season.

GM: Did you enjoy the process of writing a full-length book, and are there more works planned for the future?

JM: I did enjoy it. I went into it not really knowing what to expect. When you write on the internet, you tend to keep things relatively short, not because of lack of space, but with an understanding of people's attention spans when they're sitting in front of their computers. I remember finishing the Cal Ripken chapter, which I think is the longest chapter in the book, and that was when I was like, "I know I'm going to be able to write this book." I do a lot of late-night writing and at, like, 2 a.m., I finished up the last thing. I think the introduction was the last thing I did, and I finished it and I sat back, and the first thing that came to my mind was, "Yeah, I can do this again." The fact that I was thinking that right there was a good sign.

Related in Gelf

Dean Barnett asked Clemens to come back to Boston.

• The Hack and the Flack discuss the congressional hearings on Clemens, and David Goldenberg questions Roger's defense against the HGH allegations.

• The New York Daily News sports investigative team is interviewed about performance-enhancing drugs in baseball.

Nick Matros

Nick Matros is a writer, Italian teacher, and high-school chess coach.







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Article by Nick Matros

Nick Matros is a writer, Italian teacher, and high-school chess coach.

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