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The Rocket's Descent

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By Thomas Boswell
Friday, December 14, 2007

Now, Roger Clemens joins Barry Bonds in baseball's version of hell. It's a slow burn that lasts a lifetime, then, after death, lingers as long as the game is played and tongues can wag. In baseball, a man's triumphs and his sins are immortal. The pursuit of one often leads to the other. And those misdeeds are seldom as dark as their endless punishment.

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Shoeless Joe Jackson, an illiterate outfielder who hit like a demon in the 1919 World Series, but neglected to blow the whistle on his crooked teammates, died with his good name as black as their Sox. Pete Rose, who bet on his team, but never against it, finally confessed. It could be good for his soul, and buys him dinner at my house any night, but may never get him into Cooperstown. Now, they have company: two giants of our time, just as humbled, though no less tarnished.

Yesterday, the only man with seven Cy Young Awards came crashing down the mountain of baseball's gods and ended in a heap beside the only man with seven most valuable player awards. What a sport. Half the players of the last 20 years may have cheated, but who gets nailed? The greatest slugger since Babe Ruth and the greatest power pitcher since Walter Johnson.

Clemens and Bonds now stand before us like twin symbols of the Steroid Age: cheats, liars, ego monsters who were not satisfied with mere greatness and wealth but, as they aged, had to pass everyone in the record book, break every mark and do it with outsize bodies, unrecognizable from their youth, that practically screamed, "Catch me if you can." The whole sport whispered as both walked by. Now, everyone can speak aloud. Not because their guilt has been admitted or proven beyond any doubt, mind you. That would be too clean and easy for us, for baseball.

But the Rocket and Barry stand convicted in the court of public opinion, in Bonds's case by his flaxseed-oil defense and now, in this thunderclap Clemens catastrophe, by the direct I-injected-him-manytimes-in-the-buttocks testimony of his own personal trainer. Clemens denied all charges vehemently. In a statement, he claimed that he is being slandered by "the uncorroborated allegations of a troubled man threatened with federal criminal prosecution."

Yet those nine pages of Mitchell report "slander" have been placed in the public's hand by baseball itself in 311 pages, plus attachments, blessed by the commissioner. Pete Rose had 10 times the chance against the Dowd report than Clemens has against the august Mitchell. What a public-relations mismatch: a tobacco-chewing, hot-tempered Texas right-hander against a former federal judge and Senate majority leader who helped bring peace to Northern Ireland. This time, the Rocket's out of gas and the bullpen is empty.

For more than a year, the Mitchell commission on performance-enhancing drugs appeared to be a harmless fishing expedition that might land a few guppies. After all, what can you expect to catch with five-pound test line, a defiant players' union and no subpoena power? Yet, apparently by dumb luck, a baseball drug peddler got caught, then rolled over on an insignificant scoundrel who happened to be Clemens's trainer. In a blink, baseball's blindfolded Ahabs found a whale in their seine. What's this? It feels like, it might be, oh my God, it's Clemens, hooked and gaffed, whether we want him or not.

"Bud, this is George. We're going to need a bigger boat."

Mitchell's opus was intended as many things. It was, of course, a severe front-to-back slam at the union for its 20 years of intransigence on drug testing. The charge is absolutely correct. Still, how self-serving can Commissioner Bud Selig be? He appoints Mitchell, closely affiliated with management in general and specifically with the Red Sox, to spend 21 months finding out who's guilty when he already knows that Don Fehr will get handcuffed in the last chapter.

And, of course, owners, mid-level baseball employees and even Selig get taken to ritual task. Oh, everybody should have acted faster, been smarter, seen the signs. But, gosh, how were we to know? Just because our players showed up for spring training like they'd spent the winter inhaling helium. Just because scouts in their reports and general managers discussing trades evaluated how much weight to give the "juice" factor.

Finally, naturally, because Congress knows a vote-grabber in an election year, the report serves as baseball's proactive shield against further embarrassing visits to Capitol Hill. I'm shocked, shocked, to discover that both Mitchell and Selig -- who, just two hours later, endorsed every recommendation in the report -- are passionately in favor of tougher "best-practices" drug testing. What a stunner. Why, right off the bat, Bud said there would be no more 24-hour warnings to clubs that a random drug test would be held the next day. You mean there were warnings for "random" tests? And MLB could have changed it unilaterally, but it took the Mitchell report before they did it? What impressive self-motivation.

However, the report's predictable functions -- a punch in the nose to the union, a slap in the face to MLB, a predictable recitation of the usual (already revealed) steroid suspects and a T-bone steak to placate congressional watchdogs --were all obliterated by the discovery nobody expected. In the end, the Mitchell report will forever be the Clemens indictment.

Clemens plummeted from icon to fallen idol in a matter of hours. Even if he is innocent, as his lawyer claims, the damage is done. The report devotes nine scathing pages to him, far more than any other player. This is baseball's own officially commissioned history of its most tainted period. And who is its protagonist? Clemens.

How can that ever be undone? If Mark McGwire got only 25 percent of the Hall of Fame vote a year ago because he refused to answer questions before Congress -- and, coupled with Jose Canseco's accusations, looked ashamed and guilty -- then how does Clemens get elected when his own trainer and longtime friend says he injected him more than a dozen times?

Baseball and its fans may require a few days to digest the pairing of Bonds and Clemens, one player so prickly and against the grain, the other the ultimate good ol' boy. But the match is fitting because it makes us face the core of baseball's drug problem. At one end of the cheating spectrum, performance-enhancing drugs provided a last hope for marginal players clinging to a big league job. Their dilemma may touch us. We understand. Perhaps we sympathize. At the other extreme, among the greatest players, we harden our hearts. They had it all and threw it away for more money, more glory and more years in the spotlight.

That harsh judgment is true, but only by half. The fiercer the competitor, the greater the pride, the bigger the talent-- in other words, the more qualities a man possesses that we claim to admire in a champion -- the greater his fury will be at the thought of being beaten, outstripped, surpassed by another man. And the greater the chance that he will defy the rules, risk his health and "do what it takes" to win.

How like a superman to be above the law. How close to invulnerability to disregard your own health. How easy to confuse self-sacrifice for your team for a deeper and governing selfishness. How easy to mistake the sins of ego for the virtues of sport.

Such men would almost be heroic, if they weren't so tragic.


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