A federal jury’s acquittal of Roger Clemens earlier this week has provided the occasion for fans and pundits alike to confront three prevailing myths about baseball. First, that continuity in player skill levels and athleticism in baseball needs to be preserved at all costs. Second, that the so-named Mitchell Report provided an accurate, objective, and relevant assessment of not only which players used steroids but of the duration of their use. And third, that a Hall of Fame in any sport could be so named and categorically exclude its best players as a matter of principle.
A quick perusal of some important facts regarding the case:
- Roger Clemens never tested positive for steroids. His name didn’t appear among the names on the leaked 2003 random test results. Furthermore, by leaking the names of those players, federal officials violated the privacy rights of those involved. Few either in the punditocracy or amongst the fans seemed too concerned at this clearly unconstitutional behavior on the part of government officials.
- Federal prosecutors built their case around Brian McNamee, who is on federal record as having changed his testimony (some outside the legal profession refer to this practice less euphemistically as “lying”) before the Mitchell Committee hearings in 2007. They had loads of resources and spent nearly $3 million dollars on two attempts at convicting Clemens.
- Senator George J Mitchell’s 2007 investigation and subsequent report was tainted by the fact that he did not rescues himself from the investigation, having served previously as director of the Red Sox. As a result of either cause or coincidence, none of the primary Red Sox players were listed on the report despite the fact that their number 3 and 4 hitters, Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz, both tested positive in 2003. You will recall that in 2007, the Red Sox won their second World Series title since World War I.
So it is that Roger Clemens found himself summoned to appear before an investigatory committee tainted by a clear conflict of interest. The basis of that summons was the nothing-less-than-ridiculous tell-all book by celebrated mimbo Jose Conseco Juiced: Rampant Roids, Smash Hits, and how Baseball Got Big. As a result of his appearance before said tainted committee, on the accusations of said near-do-well, Clemens was charged with six counts of perjury and obstruction of justice.
Several years later, having forked out possibly millions for his defense, and having his name and legacy tarnished, his attorneys convinced a federal jury of his innocence or if you prefer, his “not-guilt”. Roger Clemens likely will work in some capacity for the Houston Astros. According to Major League Baseball officials, he is a player in good standing and AStro’s owner Jim Crayne waited all of five minutes after the verdict was rendered to offer Clemens an unspecified position. To sum, then, in the eyes of both the federal court system and Major League Baseball, Roger Clemens is free, innocent, and in good standing.
The Baseball Writers Association of America (BWAA), however, are a higher moral authority and they are unconvinced. They will not be swayed by things like “due process,” “evidence,” and “not-guilty verdicts.” Unlike their relatively powerless colleagues who write professionally about other sports, access to the Baseball Hall of Fame is completely the prerogative of the BWAA. They hold the keys to Cooperstown and they don’t like Roger Clemens. It is therefore unlikely that he will get in despite a resume so impressive that Tim Kirkjian called him “the best pitcher I’ve ever seen.” When provoked, as they were by the message the jury seemingly in the Rocket’s acquittal, they will invoke three main anti-Rocket arguments which can only be understood within the context of the myths cited above. When de-contextualized, they make little sense. Here’s a brief rundown:
The “Money Bought a Verdict” Argument
Mike Lupica explained Clemens’ exoneration away in this fashion; “Whatever he spent on Rusty Hardin and the other lawyers was well worth it to a wealthy man. Clemens believes he bought his good name back with what he spent on legal fees. More likely, he did all you are required to do in a case like this:
“He bought reasonable doubt”
Lupica inveighed further, “So Clemens wins, the government loses. And guess what? Baseball loses too, because this verdict is also a great big slap against George Mitchell’s report. That is a shame because that report mattered. The government doesn’t even get the one conviction on obstruction of justice, it got on Barry Bonds.”
Counter Argument: Really? The source of your outrage is that Clemens bought reasonable doubt but not that he was forced to spend considerable time and money defending himself for allegedly lying to a dog-and-pony show? I don’t know how much Clemens spent on his attorneys, but the federal government got two chances and spent nearly $3 million in tax payer money on their failed prosecution. Maybe a bad case was their best case. Or maybe they had no case and just decided to run Clemens through the ringer. Or, to put it another way, maybe Clemens was innocent as he maintained. At any rate, It’s hard to argue, with a straight face anyway, that the federal government is the real victim here.
Counter Argument 2: So, you’re upset because you the jury didn’t at least give the prosecution one conviction on obstruction of justice? That’s the legal equivalent of a consolation prize – it’s the court’s version of a certificate of participation. Talk about a reach!
The “Sportsmanship and Integrity” Argument
Bill Madden of the New York Daily News noted that it will be difficult for Clemens to get past the integrity clause on the BWAA ballot regarding sportsmanship and integrity. Madden wrote further “I can’t speak for my bretheren, but I take that clause seriously and will vote accordingly. It has been my stance that if you want me to vote for all of these guys – Bonds, Clemens, Sosa, the rest – sheerly because they have reached Hall of Fame numbers, then take that clause out of the ballot.”
Counter Argument: how do you feel about Babe Ruth who flouted Prohibition by publicly drinking? Or Tris Speaker and Rogers Hornsby, both Ku Klux Klan members? Or Kennesaw Mountain Landis, the author of the afore-mentioned “Integrity Clause” in the Hall of Fame ballot, who upheld segregation in baseball during his tenure as commissioner? Or Paul Molitor and Dennis Eckersley, both of whom either used or allegedly used illegal drugs during their playing careers? Would you be in favor of voting these guys out of the HOF? If not, how can you NOT vote the Rocket in? I agree with you, let’s get rid of that “Integrity Clause” thing – it was written by someone who would not pass muster today and no one knows what it means anyway. Ironically, you’re doing more damage to the Hall of Fame by excluding the greatest players in its history for subjective reaons.
The “He associated with PED users, was an outstanding player, and therefore I Just Don’t Believe He Didn’t Do It” Argument
Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports stated “My opinion was formed well before this started; nothing that came out in the trial changed my opinion,”
But my favorite statement came from Steve Buckley of the Boston Herald who stated on a radio show “MLB gummed this up … they expect the baseball writers to clean up their mess. I’m going to clean up their mess the best way I know how; if I think a guy did steroids, I’m not going to vote for him.”
Counter Argument: How the hell did you guys get a Hall of Fame vote?
In their zeal to preserve the “integrity” of baseball, the anti-Rocket faction of the BWAA are providing the very means of destroying it. Its OK to keep Clemens – and Barry Bonds for that matter – out of the Hall of Fame, as long as you call it something different, like the “Rocket-less Hall of Fame” or the “Hall of Some but Not All Fame” or “The Hall of A Bunch of Guys who Used Different Peformance Enhancing Drugs like Coffee, Opium, and Cigarettes and Who Supported Segregation”. You can’t, as a matter of policy, exclude the best players in baseball and maintain credibility as the shrine to the greatest in baseball history. Roger Clemens’ career was one of the greatest in MLB history. He’s a seven-time Cy Young Award winner with 4,672 strikeouts, a career ERA of 3.12 and a win-loss record of 354-184. Put into Cooperstown context, Clemens’ is first in Cy Youngs and third in strikeouts behind Nolan Ryan and Randy Johnson. That’s some pretty amazing company. While we’re on the subject of context, he set the record for strikeouts in a game with 20 in 1986 against the Mariners and then tied that record on what would be his last pitch as a Red Sock (or Red Sox? What the hell do you call one of them?)
The Mitchell Report was a joke. I’m not suggesting that baseball players didn’t use Performance Enhancing Drugs, but we are no clearer on exactly when their use started, or which players actually used them. Depending on how you define PED, such usage may go back much further than you’d expect and in the process of investigating, its very likely that we’ll simply “gum things up” (to quote Steve Buckley) even more. Let’s vote him in in January, and Barry Bonds for that matter, and move along.