Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

June 1, 2009

The Ohio Gunslinger

Jeff Pearlman tells the true story obscured by the myth of Roger Clemens, Texas fireballer.

Joseph Ax

On May 17, 2000, a 46-year-old divorced Houston woman by the name of Katherine Huston was shot to death by a group of drug dealers who had broken into her home. Huston, a beloved third-grade teacher at Holmsley Elementary School, was home to care for her 19-year-old son, Marcus, who had stayed home with the flu.

Huston's married name was Clemens—as in Roger Clemens, whose troubled older brother, Randy, had been Kathy's husband. Even the most passionate Clemens aficionado may never have heard of Kathy or Randy, though they were arguably the most important figures in Clemens's life along with his mother, Bess. Certainly the press didn't think much of the connection. The Houston Chronicle noted her relation to Roger Clemens in passing; the dailies in New York, where Clemens was in his second season with the Yankees, ignored the death completely.

Jeff Pearlman. Photo by Leah Guggenheimer.
"A lot of these guys were raised with baseball. They think, 'Baseball, baseball, baseball, baseball,' maybe with 'breasts' and 'food' mixed in."

Jeff Pearlman. Photo by Leah Guggenheimer.

Nevertheless, as columnist and author Jeff Pearlman argues in his book, The Rocket That Fell to Earth: Roger Clemens and the Rage for Baseball Immortality, it was Randy Clemens who single-handedly shaped Clemens into a "caged animal" on the field, and Kathy Clemens, who served as a "second mother," helping him with his homework and teaching him how to swim. And it was Randy's own fall to earth—his descent into drug abuse—that seeped into his son Marcus's life and led to that fateful morning when five men entered the house in search of Marcus and shot his mother to death.

Pearlman's book could be categorized as a biography of the mysterious Randy Clemens as much as it is one of the equally enigmatic Roger Clemens, the shamed superstar whose very personality seems to preclude the admission of defeat. Clemens hid the sad tale of his older brother for decades, and yet it was Randy who turned a pudgy boy into the pitcher who struck fear into the hearts of batters everywhere. And that drive to succeed—no matter the cost—ultimately led Clemens to his own steroid-fueled demise, despite his famed work ethic. Randy's presence is felt throughout the book, just as it has hovered over Clemens's own life. When Pearlman finally catches up with the ghost, he finds a powerful coda to his tragic tale: a lonely man unwilling even to acknowledge his relation with the Rocket.

Pearlman, who spoke to more than 400 people in Clemens's world, does not shy away from the seven-time Cy Young Award winner's alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs. But it is Pearlman's exploration of the origins of Clemens's personality—his constant lies, his seemingly incongruous mix of selfless charity and selfish arrogance—that provides the most fascinating portions of his book. Pearlman, who is 37 years old and has also written a biography of Barry Bonds, recently spoke with Gelf Magazine about the differences between Clemens and Bonds, whether Clemens should make the Hall of Fame, and the reason that the Rocket allegedly turned to steroids in the twilight of his career.

Gelf Magazine: How did you decide to write about Clemens in the first place?

Jeff Pearlman: When it comes to sports books, as unsexy as this is, you want a book that going to at least have the potential to sell. I'm not at a point in my career where I can be like John Feinstein and write a book about the punch that Rudy Tomjanovich took. Someone will give him the money to do it, and it's sort of a fringe idea, but it just might work because he has a big enough name. I don't have that kind of name. So I need to find topics that I do want to write about but also have a shot at being commercial.
I tend to look for iconic figures who we don't know that much about, who are mysterious, interesting, and sort of unknown and quizzical. Considering I was a baseball writer at SI during his Yankees heyday, I didn't really know anything about Clemens. He was always guarded and sort of secretive, and you didn't believe everything he said, and he gave terrible quotes. It was kind of like when I wrote the book about Bonds—they're both iconic and yet they're both mysterious. They led these lives that are clouded by secrecy.

Gelf Magazine: You certainly pulled the curtain back on a lot about Clemens's life, particularly with regard to his family life growing up in Ohio. He lost his father and his stepfather before he graduated high school, and his older brother became a father figure. What was the most surprising thing you learned about him?

Jeff Pearlman: Easily the brother, without question. The Randy Clemens stuff. He's never been written about anywhere.
I thought Roger Clemens was from Texas. It turns out he's from Butler Township, Ohio, near Dayton. It's funny—he wrote an autobiography in 1987 called Rocket Man, and he eventually devoted about two-and-a-half pages to his youth in Ohio. I thought, "That's really weird." He was there until the middle of high school, and he wrote two-and-a-half pages about it. So I started calling all these people in Butler Township, and none of them really liked him. They're all mad at him because he's sort of ignored his background.
At one point, I was talking to someone, and he said, "You know about Roger's brother, right?" Whenever someone hands you that, you don't just say, "No, what about it?" Then the guy's going to think, "Maybe I said something I shouldn't have." So I gave the old, "Well, I did know he had a brother." He says, "Oh my God, it's crazy, blah blah blah." And I said, "What do you mean crazy?" And he said, "Well, the way he became a drug addict." That was just shocking. It had never been written about. That sort of changed everything and made it a book. It wasn't just a biography of Roger Clemens anymore. I almost feel like it became a biography of Roger Clemens and his brother. And I like that. I thought it was more interesting.

Gelf Magazine: A lot of Clemens's personality came directly from Randy, didn't it?

Jeff Pearlman: I think the overly competitive nature, the need to win at all costs, there is no second place—that is Randy Clemens, if you look at his background. That went right into Roger: There is no accepting anything but success, be that on the baseball field or be it in the courtroom, as we see now. I also think his stubbornness came from his brother.
He also is very loyal to those he's closest to, and that comes from his mother, Bess, who was the same way. After Roger's dad left and his stepfather died—she was apparently a very good mom. I think he feels that obligation that she felt raising these kids on her own. I think that's a good quality in him.
In terms of positives for Clemens, he was always very, very charitable in comparison to the average professional athlete, and I think that stems from a background that was lived largely in—I don't know if I would say poverty, but definitely in the lower class financially. His awareness of the suffering of others comes from that background.

Gelf Magazine: He's as human as anyone else, so he has all of the complexities that any one of us has. But I was really struck by the incongruity of a guy who at times appears to be incredibly selfish and self-centered and at other times does amazingly selfless things for other people. Did you find that difficult to reconcile?

Jeff Pearlman: I didn't. This isn't to take away from the good things he did, but I think a lot of the good things he did—I don't know how to say this, but charity feels good. Clemens would give all his teammates autographed baseballs. He wasn't like Bonds, where you had to tiptoe around Bonds and he'd tell you to fuck off if you wanted a baseball. Clemens would give everyone baseballs and signed pictures. But I think that good work also fed his ego. I think he liked that people asked him for things—he liked that people came to him for things. When he went back to Houston—and he was like the mayor of that town—there was nothing he said no to when it came to appearances and speeches. He would do it all.
Part of it is that he has a good-guy side to him. But I think part of it is that he likes being Roger Clemens. Pat Jordan wrote some great stuff about Clemens—I think he really tapped into Clemens more than any other writer in a New York Times Magazine profile. He talked about how he really wanted his mother to be alive so she can see him get into the Hall of Fame. Or he really wanted Jorge Posada to be the one to catch his 300th win. He likes giving people the gift of him.
He wanted to be seen as a certain kind of guy, but not always. Jemele Hill told me recently that someone told her, you have to hate sports to cover sports. I think part of that is true. You do have to be skeptical, and you can't take everything at face value. You can't root for teams, and you can't think everyone is a great guy because he gave you 10 minutes. But at the same time you have to be careful not to be overly skeptical. Sometimes a nice deed is just a nice deed.

Gelf Magazine: Let's talk about steroids. Is there any possibility that he's telling the truth when he says he never used?

Jeff Pearlman: No. Zero.

Gelf Magazine: What convinced you of that?

Jeff Pearlman: First and foremost, Brian McNamee is clearly believable. He's not just partially believable. He's thoroughly believable. What he says checks out. That comes from my reporting, that comes from the New York Daily News reporting, that comes just from having a human head. You heard what he said. It all made perfect sense.
It's a lot like Bonds. Bonds comes along, and he's a guy who at age 37 or 38 is all of a sudden the world's best power hitter. He's gimantic—to use a word that my daughter used to say, which is bigger than gigantic—his head has grown in size, and you look at who he's associated with. You don't have to be a freaking genius, and you don't need to see him getting injected to know that something isn't right here.
Here's Roger Clemens, he's in his mid-to-late 30s. In his final years with Boston, he's throwing 91, 92 miles per hour, and all of a sudden he's throwing 98 again in his mid-30s. It doesn't make any sense. It's not logical. It is not possible.
So if you take everything that McNamee said, if you take the Mitchell Report, if you take Andy Pettitte and Chuck Knoblauch, there's just no possibility Clemens didn't use. There's just no physical way—and any performance-enhancer expert will tell you this—that a 40-year-old man is able to work out the same way he did at age 30 or age 25 and throw as hard as he did at age 30 or 25. It's not humanly possible. So if you take all that together, there's no doubt. There's as much doubt about Clemens as there was about Bonds.

Gelf Magazine: As somebody who's written a book about both of them, do you see similarities in their stories in terms of why they turned to steroids?

Jeff Pearlman: I was always against every type of steroid. I was always a strong opponent of all steroids. Then someone said, "Well, what about the 18-year-old Dominican kid whose family makes 20 cents a day working in some factory selling garments?" At least that's understandable. I'm not saying it's right, but at least it's understandable.
Here you have Clemens and Bonds. Bonds started using after the '98 season, when he saw the McGwire-Sosa home-run chase and thought, "This is garbage." He would have been a Hall-of-Famer anyway—he would have gone down as one of the 10 or 15 best outfielders of all time. And here's Clemens—Dan Duquette calls him out in Boston. He has four subpar years. People are saying he's in the twilight of his career—Dan Duquette said that directly—and he's saying, "This is garbage. I can still pitch, I know I can still pitch, and I'm going to do whatever it takes."
So both these guys were driven not just by the need to be good or average or one of the best—they have this need to be the best. If you look at what's going on in society today—that makes me sound like an old man—but Little League parents are already thinking about their kids' athletic scholarship at age 10. It's no wonder people end up this way.
When I was a kid, if I just caught a freaking ball in the outfield, my parents were happy. If I came home and I didn't get a hit but I had a good time, my parents were thrilled. But for more and more people—and Bonds and Clemens represent it really well—it's all about greatness. It's about dominating. It's about good not being great enough. I just think it's a really embarrassing way of living, but I think those two guys exemplify it.

Gelf Magazine: I think you've tapped into something there. Fans look at these guys—Bonds, Clemens, A-Rod—and don't understand why they would risk their legacies when everyone already recognizes that they're historic players. I wonder if the same personalities that push them to become great in the first place also push them to use steroids.

Jeff Pearlman: Yeah, I guess so. But I also think—I mean, Clemens isn't the smartest guy in the world. He just isn't. In fact, that was a worry when I started the book, that this guy's just not going to be that interesting, that he's just a dolt. He isn't thinking about anything except baseball. And I do think that a lot of these guys lack perspective. That sounds like an arrogant New York writer trying to look down on these guys, but it's not. It's just reality. A lot of these guys were raised with baseball. They think, "Baseball, baseball, baseball, baseball," maybe with "breasts" and "food" mixed in. They're not thinking about the long-term implications, the moral implications. "How is this going to look? Is this fair? Am I cheating?" That doesn't even enter their minds.
It's just all about baseball and being really good at baseball. A lot of that is a lack of curiosity, a lack of world view, cocooning themselves into their own little world, where all that matters is their own success.

Gelf Magazine: When Clemens was at Texas, you quote some of his teammates talking about how he cared only about his own performance, not the team's.

Jeff Pearlman: I don't think that's exclusive to Clemens. If you cover baseball, you go in after a loss, and everyone on the team is required to be quiet and look sullen and give you disappointing quotes about how "We didn't get it done today, blah blah blah." It's all kind of an act. You want to win the game, but if you went 3-for-4…
You're trying to make a living. Your first goal is not to win the World Series. Maybe one percent of major league baseball players' first goal is to win the World Series. I think the goal for the other 99 percent is to make a nice living, to last as long as possible, to get a long-term contract, to have financial security. I don't think that makes Clemens that unusual. I think he cared as much as most guys. He wanted to win, and on the days he pitched he really wanted to win. But you're trying to make a living first and foremost.

Gelf Magazine: Is the steroids issue overblown?

Jeff Pearlman: I find it frustrating, because to me it's very, very important, and yet whenever I write a steroids column on, I inevitably get these emails saying, "Enough of this stuff. The only people who care about this are the media." I still think baseball has a huge problem with human growth hormone. I don't know what they do about it. I think the whole Hall of Fame debate is an interesting one—what do you do with people?
I don't think people want to read about it anymore, but I think you have to cover it, because it's important. It's the issue in baseball of the past decade and more. I don't think we've come to the bottom of it yet. I don't think we're figured out how much team executives are responsible, how much owners are responsible, how much Bud Selig is responsible, how much the players' union is responsible. But people are tired of it, so that makes it hard as a writer. And I'm tired of it. But I still think it's important.

Gelf Magazine: Would you vote for Bonds and Clemens for the Hall of Fame?

Jeff Pearlman: No, because I think the damage they did to baseball should eliminate them. There is a "good of the game" section in the Hall of Fame criteria. People always say, "Before he started using, he won three Cy Young awards." To me, it's totally insignificant. The amount of damage all these guys did to the game—you're talking about a whole era under a cloud with a huge asterisk over it. So am I going to celebrate these guys that did so much damage to the game?
I use this as an example—a guy I really like is Sal Fasano, a journeyman catcher. He's the only guy I know, or one of the few guys I know, who without question did not use performance enhancers. Last year, I did a story on him for Reader's Digest. The guy is 36 years old, he's a backup catcher in Richmond. He's doing it because he has a son with a heart ailment, and he needs the health insurance. Meanwhile, 10 other catchers in the Mitchell Report of similar skill—the Todd Pratts, the Gregg Zauns—are taking his paycheck. They're stealing his opportunity. They're robbing his lifelong dream because he chose not to cheat. To me, to celebrate any of these guys who blatantly and literally cheated is ridiculous. I would never vote for them.

"Bonds isn't dumb—he's a thinker, and he's devious. I don't think Clemens is devious. I just think he's sort of an idiot who surrounded himself with fascinating people."
Gelf Magazine: Some people argue that it's not fair to pick and choose because no one will ever know how many players used. The argument is that we should just evaluate these guys based on what they did on the field, since it's impossible to know who was clean and who wasn't.

Jeff Pearlman: It's a fair argument. I just don't know what the hell to do about it. I agree. Guys like Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell—they'll probably get into the Hall of Fame. I don't know if they used. I don't know if Ken Griffey, Jr., used. I like to think he didn't, but I don't know for a fact.
But I'm not going to reward the guys I know used. It's not fair, but there's no fair here. That's what these guys did. I mean, I'm a baseball writer. I wrote a book about Barry Bonds. I don't know what the all-time home run record is. That's insane. Think about how damaging that is. It's considered by everybody to be the greatest record in sports, and I don't even know what it is. It's a joke.

Gelf Magazine: A big theme in the book is Clemens's pattern of lying. Writer Sean McAdam gave you a great quote: "Roger was as full of shit as any athlete I've ever seen in my career…Reality didn't matter for Roger Clemens in any way, shape or form."

Jeff Pearlman: Roger's definitely a liar. Just think about him standing before Congress. He's lied throughout his life. He lied about being drafted by the Twins. I don't know why he did it. It doesn't make any sense to me.
I don't know where it comes from. I think a big part of it is he's had this brother whom he's really had to cover up for and whom he's never been able to tell the truth about. When he talks about his family, he always talks about his mother, and he leaves out this huge part. That isn't lying—he has the right to say what he wants to. But I do think that he feels the need to throw people off his trail a little bit. He's definitely fostered this whole Texas gunslinger cowboy, which isn't really all true.

Gelf Magazine: You've got a lot of interesting stories and assertions about Clemens—that he discussed steroids with Jose Canseco, for example. How did you verify all of them?

Jeff Pearlman: If I interview someone, and he says, "I remember I had this conversation with Clemens"—if it's a source I trust, I'll use it. You're not always going to have a second source on a conversation—if it's a conversation between two people, for example. When you're writing a book, you really have to make the decision for yourself as to whether you trust this person, or you don't.

Gelf Magazine: I ask in part because of the reaction to Selena Roberts's book on A-Rod. Isn't it funny that everyone piles on A-Rod until the book comes out, and all of a sudden everyone decides that he's a victim and Selena is the villain?

Jeff Pearlman: People like to blame the messenger.

Gelf Magazine: Anyway, people are going after Selena by claiming she has too many unsourced or unproven assertions.

Jeff Pearlman: This is not a criticism of Selena at all—I think she's great, I'm a fan, I'm a friend of hers—but so far in the books I've written, I've used very few anonymous sources. Because I know this is what happens. People love to blame the messenger. What did A-Rod do when this first happened? He freaking talked about how she was stalking him. Any attorney or any adviser would tell you to do the same thing.
So I try to avoid as much as possible having unnamed or even anonymous sources. I use them, and if the information's good, the information's good. But I just try to avoid that as much as possible, as much as anything to sort of save myself. I feel bad for what Selena is going through right now, because she's a freaking doggedly good reporter. But if you're in this business for any amount of time, you see it. [Editor's note: Roberts will appear at Gelf's Varsity Letters event in July, along with members of the New York Daily News sports investigative unit, who have their own Clemens book out.]

Gelf Magazine: How did this book differ from the Bonds book?

Jeff Pearlman: With the Bonds book, I had never written a biography before. My first book was on the '86 Mets, and the Bonds book was my second. I didn't really know what I was doing. For both books, the first thing I do is I go and try to find every yearbook of every team this guy has been on.
The toughest part was that I had much more time to write about Bonds than I did to write about Clemens. The interesting thing about Bonds is that most people didn't like him. I was almost begging people to give me positives on Bonds. Clemens wasn't like that. People liked Clemens. Not everyone, but a lot of people liked Clemens. It wasn't hard to find good stories about the guy.
Also, Bonds is a much more complex guy. He's a thinker. Bonds isn't dumb—he's a thinker, and he's devious. I don't think Clemens is devious. I just think he's sort of an idiot who surrounded himself with fascinating people.
The tough thing about writing about Clemens—he's got all this legal stuff going on, and he's not hated. So people are much more reluctant to talk about him. Bonds is so hated that people are willing to talk about him: "Let me tell you a story about Barry Bonds: He slept with my wife, he was mean to my kid, he spit in my face, he wouldn't sign a baseball." With Clemens, it was like, "Why are you writing this book? What's your angle? You're just trying to pile on. This is just another steroids book." There was a lot more trying to convince people with total sincerity that I was trying to write a straight biography of a guy and I wasn't trying to kill him, or praise him.

Gelf Magazine: Was it hard to keep a balanced voice?

Jeff Pearlman: I found that more with Bonds. We tend to think of balance as meaning 50-50. The news stuff is terrible, usually. They want to have a balanced story, so let's say you're in a part of the country where 90 percent of a town is pro-choice, and 10 percent is pro-life. TV news always feels that you need to have a 50-50 split. "We have a guy who's pro, so now we have to find a guy who's against." That's not really how it is.
If you talk to 500 people, and 10 of them like Bonds, that's your ratio. You don't need to have an even divide. You just have to be fair to the ratio. But I found it really challenging. I kept saying to my wife, "I need people who like Bonds. I need to balance this out a little bit." And then I realized that it was balanced: Nobody likes him. Clemens wasn't as hard, because there were a lot of people who liked him.

Joseph Ax

Joseph Ax is a reporter for Reuters in New York.

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Article by Joseph Ax

Joseph Ax is a reporter for Reuters in New York.

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