On this week's Deadcast -- a podcast taking you through the week of sports lunacy -- Deadspin columnist Drew Magary asked Editor in Chief Tim Marchman this reader question: What fan base (in all of sports, not just baseball) has the most conflicted relationship with a former player?
Marchman answered Boston and Roger Clemens, and he may have hit it on the nose. As he noted, Clemens had a Hall of Fame career on the Red Sox followed by another Hall of Fame career on the Blue Jays, Yankees and Astros. For all of Pedro Martinez's greatness, Clemens is still easily the Sox' career leader in pitching WAR and third all-time in pitching WAR, period. Everyone within two places of him on the career list debuted before World War I. Based on the numbers, and based on the fact he accumulated them when baseball wasn't, uh, segregated, he is somewhere between maybe and pretty clearly the best pitcher of all-time.
He is also, to be kind, not well-liked. Bill Simmons effectively launched his career by calling him "the Antichrist" months after Clemens threw a shard of bat at Mike Piazza in a World Series game, claiming he "thought it was the ball" and, apparently, that it was the World Series of Dodgeball. Critically, it was before the steroids nonsense, which means it was before Clemens embarrassed himself before Congress (I could give a crap about the roids, but a prick is a prick is a prick). It was before Brian McNamee ratted out Clemens's roid use to the world. It was before the Justice Department launched an idiotic lawsuit against him.
It was before this:
(It should be noted here that if memory serves, Clemens and Suzyn Waldman, the bomb siren you hear in the video, became close friends as Waldman was being treated for breast cancer around this time. Given that I don’t expect local announcers to be totally objective, and this is an honestly sweet relationship, I don’t think this was bad, except for the Sox, who now had to once again face Clemens. In fact, it is even good, as it is the funniest thing I’ve ever heard.)
It was, then, before "neutral" observers had a whole slew of PED evidence to wield against him and his character, which they have thus far done by keeping him out of the Hall of Fame. They have done the same to Barry Bonds, the best hitter of all-time, in a protest so hypocritical and dense it can’t help but make me root for the legends.
They’ve also been helping their own cause. Bonds has turned into a fresh, smiling presence, serving as Marlins hitting coach when he’s not out on his bike -- which is all other times, to which his Instagram will attest. He’s also sorry for how he acted for his career, and sounds honest about it:
I mean, I was just flat-out dumb. What can I say? I'm not going to try to justify the way I acted toward people. I was stupid. It wasn't an image that I invented on purpose. It actually escalated into that, and then I maintained it. You know what I mean? It was never something that I really ever wanted. No one wants to be treated like that, because I was considered to be a terrible person. You'd have to be insane to want to be treated like that. That makes no sense.
He’s right. It makes no sense. Such an admission is endearing, unless you’re one of those coldly cynical people who just won’t give him the benefit of the doubt, and more than Bonds' spiritual predecessor did. Ted Williams never backed down, not even after retirement, to the point his stubbornness was the backbone of a legendary essay from which this post takes its name. The real question here is if Clemens can, unlike Williams but like Bonds, mellow in retirement enough to appeal to Red Sox fans. It’s a tall order, but he’s trying.
He’s been in the WEEI booth at least twice this year, the first time in early May, when he discussed David Price’s mechanics in exquisite detail. A detailed, wonderful NESN writeup by Mike Cole called it "baseball nerd heaven," and that’s not an overstatement. I strongly encourage you to read the whole thing, if only to see that the "baseball nerd" in question isn’t just you -- it’s Clemens himself. His level of enthusiasm for the game is so granular I can’t help but love it, even with all he did to turn himself off to Sox fans.
With all that said, I don’t know of any Red Sox fan who loves him, and any given Wednesday you could probably dig up someone who really hates him, but I’ve never gotten the sense he was beloved anywhere, outside of perhaps Houston. Even Yankees fans, who have no reason to do anything but kiss his feet, think he was basically their birthright, just a string in a long string of Hall of Famers to pass through the tunnels during the golden years. He was no core four, bro, but he was pretty good.
As an opponent, the defining image of him in Fenway not in a Red Sox uniform is that of him in his Toronto uniform, staring at Dan Duquette in the owner’s booth in a 16-strikeout performance that actually got the Sox fans rooting for him before he was done. All of our conflicted feelings about Clemens came to fruit here -- did we hate him or love him, really? -- but it’s possible that the key player in the entire Clemens-in-Boston drama wasn’t Clemens, but Duquette, whose tactics have now been exposed to be unorthodox, to be kind.
Red Sox 1st-rounder Jason Groome wants ‘top 5 money,’ no deal in place
The Red Sox drafted Groome, but that's only the start of the negotiating process.
The crazy part about Duquette is that it looked like after he left the Sox that he, not Clemens, was in the famous "twilight of his career," but he wasn’t! He got hired as the GM of the Orioles and he’s done a good job. He’s also been plain weird. Most notably, last winter, the Orioles apparently leaked that they had signed Dexter Fowler before they had actually signed him. This led Fowler to raise an eyebrow and bounce back to the Cubs, where he’s merely been one of the best hitters in baseball this year. Still, if that was the extent of it, it would be an isolated incident.
It was not an isolated incident. This winter he signed Hyun Soo Kim to a major league contract. He then tried to send Kim to the minors, a move Kim rejected. Kim has merely put up a .911 OPS since then, proving that maybe Duquette wasn’t quite on the ball. But he did sign him in the first place, so what’s really going on? Is it possible, with this and everything else, that Duquette is just a pain to deal with?
My guess is that the answer is a firm yes, but I don’t know if that can excuse Clemens enough to get him back in our good graces. I just know that the possibility exists, and if Clemens may not ever fully redeem himself in some of our eyes, he’ll make a damn good effort in trying. Our memories are configured to remember the good times, and Clemens has the rest of his and our lives to pitch himself to that end. As the photo on this post shows, he has already started, throwing out a first pitch alongside other Sox legends. He may not fully succeed, but as Duquette showed, you should never, ever bet against him.