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The Best Sports Writing of Pat Jordan
By Pat Jordan
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2008 Pat Jordan
All rights reserved.
Roger Clemens Refuses to Grow Up
from the New York Times Magazine, 2001)
Roger Clemens is big: 6-4, 240 pounds. He comes from a big state, Texas. He drives a big car, a Chevy Suburban, known as the Texas Cadillac. He lives in a big house, a 16,000-square-foot red-brick mini-castle that is a child's fantasy. There are two or three big-screen TV sets in almost every room. There are video games, a sports memorabilia room, a gym and a movie theater with leather seats and animal heads on the walls, and barely a book anywhere. The mansion sits on three acres in the Houston suburbs and is surrounded by a two-mile running track; an enormous heated swimming pool; a large poolside guest house; and a 7,000-square-foot gymnasium with a basketball court, pitcher's mound, batting cage, bleachers, and a video-game room. It is the kind of house and property that Tom Hanks would have loved in the movie Big if he had been a Texas country boy and a major-league pitcher with five Cy Young Awards to his credit instead of a New York City toy-company executive jumping on a trampoline.
Clemens even has a treehouse on his property. It's the size of a North Carolina mountain cabin. It's for his four sons, presumably, all of whom are also big for their ages. Only Clemens's wife is little, about 5-3 and barely one hundred pounds. "I would have liked to have had a little girl," Debbie Clemens says, smiling. "But the boys keep me busy. Roger is my biggest child."
There is a lot that is childlike about Roger Clemens, thirty-eight, both good and bad, which is why the man called "the greatest pitcher of our generation" by his former New York Yankee teammate David Cone has always been an enigma. Fans, the media, and his opponents judge him by adult standards and not surprisingly find him wanting. They tend to view his behavior on the mound as that of an overgrown schoolyard bully. (His longstanding reputation as a headhunter was reinforced last season when he beaned the Mets catcher Mike Piazza and gave him a concussion.) But his teammates say they see him differently. They know him and recognize that, in more muted ways, they are like him — grown men who, longer than most, are still playing a game for boys.
In mid-January, Clemens calls from a Disney cruise he is taking with his wife and sons. He tells me what day he expects me in Houston, where to stay and how to get there from the airport. He tells me where to meet him for dinner that night and gives me directions. Then he gives me his cell-phone number in case I get lost.
Brian McNamee, an assistant strength-and-conditioning coach for the Yankees and Clemens's personal trainer, joins us for dinner. As we get settled at our table, Clemens picks up the menu. "Give me direction — can I have a steak?" he says. McNamee nods. "And potatoes?"
"Dry," McNamee says. He is a sour, taciturn man with a long jaw and narrow eyes and a thin, sinister-looking beard. McNamee's life seems to revolve around the conditioning of Roger Clemens. For his part, Clemens is just as obsessive about his twelve-month-a-year workout routines. One Yankee executive said that if Cone worked as diligently as Clemens, he would still be with the club. When Clemens was with the Red Sox, that team's physician, Arthur Pappas, said, "Roger Clemens's commitment to personal conditioning is unmatched by anyone I've ever known in this business."
Clemens begins training for the season the day after the World Series. He runs, lifts weights, and does agility exercises for five hours a day every day from November to January. Then he begins to throw as well, in preparation for spring training.
"We had a good session today," Clemens says. "Tonight, after dinner, I'll do some weight lifting." Then he tells a story about their run the day before, when he and McNamee came upon a man having a heart attack. "We were doing intervals," Clemens says, "walking fifty yards, then sprinting. We had to stop for this guy who was turning blue. Mac gave him CPR and got his pulse back." He shakes his head. "It makes you think. We were having a good run, too, under our usual time."
A French dilettante once said, "I am such an egotist that if I were to write about a chair I'd find some way to write about myself." Clemens's egotism is more childlike and innocent. He doesn't realize that he sees himself at the center of his small universe, at the center of every story he tells. The man having the heart attack becomes a bit player; the point of the story is the interruption of Clemens's "good run."
Everyone is a bit player in Clemens's universe, even his beloved mother, Bess, who reared him and his five siblings mostly without a father. She left her first husband when Clemens was a baby, and her second husband died when Clemens was nine. Bess has been fighting emphysema for years. "She has her good days and bad," Clemens says. "I only hope she can hang on to see me go into the Hall of Fame."
Clemens assumes everyone's pleasure revolves around him. He says of the Yankee catcher Jorge Posada, "I have so much respect for him that I'd love for him to catch my three hundredth win." (He has 260 wins going into this season.) He says he hates to miss a start because that might deprive his fans, especially young boys, from the pleasure of seeing "the Rocket Man punch out twenty." The Rocket Man is his nickname. He sometimes autographs his book "Rocket Man" or "Roger 'The Rocket' Clemens" and then adds a list of his awards: "Cy Young, '86, '87, '91, '97, '98." He gave his four sons first names beginning with K — Koby, fourteen, Kory, twelve, Kacy, six, Kody, four — because K is the baseball symbol for strikeouts, Clemens's specialty.
Clemens says he got his work ethic from his grandmother, Myrtle, "who made a man of me," and his mother, who worked all day as a secretary and cleaned office buildings at night to support her six children. She took them with her to the offices and "made it fun" for them to help her empty trash cans and do their homework on the desks.
"That's where I got my drive," Clemens says. His mother taught him that hard work was not only a means to an end but also that it could be an end in itself if made fun. Clemens learned to take satisfaction in discipline, in denial, in punishing himself.
"Some guys are scared to see how hard they can push themselves," Clemens says as our steaks arrive. "In spring training, I go to the bullpen between innings to do agility exercises and power sit-ups to exhaust myself, because I know I'm only gonna pitch three innings. I want to be panting in the third inning like I was in the eighth. One game, I worked so hard in the bullpen that when I got back to the mound my legs were so wobbly and exhausted I fell on the mound. The fans laughed."
During the regular season, if Clemens gets knocked out of a game in the third or fourth inning, he'll go to the team's training room to lift weights or ride the stationary bike. When he was in Boston, where he spent twelve years, he would have his wife drive him to the Charles River, and he'd run along it in darkness. One night in Boston, he was taken out in the first inning. He had Debbie drive him to a Little League field, where he threw against a fence for nine imaginary innings.
Clemens has the energy of a hyperactive child. Physical work is his way not only of staying in shape but also of self-medicating. If he doesn't drain himself daily, his energy and emotions spill out in negative ways. In '91, he was charged with assaulting a police officer who was trying to arrest his brother, Gary, in Bayou Mama's Swamp Bar in Houston. (He was later acquitted.) In Boston one year, he fired hamburger rolls at a reporter, who had written something he didn't like, in the clubhouse. Once, he threatened an umpire over a bad call, warning him, "I'm going to find out where you live and come after you this winter." Sometimes he turns an umpire's bad call to his advantage. "The home-plate umpire made a questionable call, and that did it," he once said. "It got me all heated up, and everything started to click. My velocity came back." Clemens is constantly "heated up," hot, his energy and emotions always about to boil over.
McNamee mentions an actor, Clemens's age, he met recently who was in great shape. "He was really buff," he says. Clemens's face gets red. He is thin-skinned about his beefy-looking body. A reporter for the Boston Globe used to call him the Pillsbury Doughboy. He has a spiky crew cut from the fifties over a jowly face, a double chin, and a thick neck. He has the body of a body builder who has gone off his diet.
"Yeah, I know a lot of pitchers who look great in a suit," Clemens says. "But you bump into them, and they shatter like a chandelier."
As a power pitcher nearing forty, Clemens needs to work out to stay strong, not look good. During last year's playoffs and World Series, he proved he still has one of the best fastballs in baseball. Against the Seattle Mariners, he struck out fifteen batters, reaching 98 m.p.h. in the late innings in one of the greatest postseason pitching performances ever. If his waist were trimmer, he might lose the center of gravity that anchors him during the delivery of that fastball.
McNamee is standing at the kitchen counter writing out Clemens's workout routine on this cold, rainy morning. The big kitchen is comfortably lived-in. G.I. Joe action figures on the table. Kids' coloring books. Clothes. Little League baseball uniforms identical to the New York Yankees'. Two Jack Russell terrier puppies are rolling over themselves on the sofa. A cockatiel is squawking in his cage. Clemens is watching the news on TV before he begins his workout. When he hears that Jesse Jackson admitted to having a "love child" with a mistress, Clemens roars. "Awesome!"
When told that Jackson took his mistress to the White House at the same time that he was counseling Clinton on the Monica Lewinsky affair, he breaks out laughing.
"You had me going there for a minute. I almost believed you."
"But it's true."
"Sure it is."
We go upstairs to the gym off his memorabilia room. The stairway walls are covered with photographs of the Clemenses and famous people. Clemens seems to be amazed that a man who came from "country people, homey people" has met so many celebrities. He stops on the stairs and, with a child's wonder, points out pictures of himself and Debbie alongside President Bush the Elder, President Reagan, Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, and dozens of others.
The hallway at the top of the stairs is lined with baseball bats and balls and caps autographed by players. Some of them are famous, like Pete Rose and Mickey Mantle; some are not. It makes no difference to Clemens. He sees them all in the same way, through the eyes of a fan, a young boy, who can't believe his good fortune.
The glass door to the memorabilia room has two Norman Rockwell etchings: umpires staring at a raindrop and a batter swinging through a pitch. Inside the room is a baseball fan's paradise. Gloves of every color. Baseballs marked with Clemens's achievements. Baseball shirts from Hank Aaron and Nolan Ryan.
Clemens points to the autographs on the shirts. "Every living five-hundred-home-run hitter on Aaron's shirt," he says, "and every living pitcher with three hundred wins on Ryan's. I can get a hundred thousand dollars for them. But I'll never sell this stuff. It's for my boys."
He goes to a glass case and lovingly takes out an old yellowed baseball. He points to a fading, spidery signature — Cy Young. "I keep it out of the light," he says.
McNamee, annoyed, comes into the room and says, "Time to go to work." Clemens goes through a door into a small gym and begins to lift light weights, doing shoulder presses with dumbbells and then leg presses and then stretching exercises while he watches CNN on an overhead TV. Finally, he stops in mid-exercise. He begins a slow pantomime of his pitching motion, like a Little Leaguer trying to remember all the parts. He repeats it over and over.
When Clemens is finished with his preliminary workout, McNamee goes downstairs to see whether the Yankee pitcher Andy Pettitte has arrived yet. Pettitte has been working out with Clemens during the offseason for two years, picking up between three and four miles per hour on his fastball during that time. "Now he can bust one in on three-one," Clemens says, "instead of nibbling."
Through the years, there have been rumblings that Clemens is widely disliked in baseball. "Everyone hates him, except if you have him on your team," says Larry Bowa, a former coach with the Mariners. But there is no indication of strife with the Yankees.
Darrin Fletcher, his former catcher with the Blue Jays, says of playing with Clemens: "Before he came to Toronto, I thought of him as an intimidator, like a gunslinger, rough around the edges. But that's not the same guy I played with. He's friendly. He roots for all the guys. He could easily set himself apart with his accomplishments, but he doesn't."
Clemens walks over to a round table, the top of which is a collage of baseball cards covered by glass, and says with pride: "Debbie made that for me. I help my sons with their homework on it. Aw, I don't know if I'm a strict dad. I got guidelines. If my sons get A's they go to Disney with me and their friends. My oldest son wants to get him a deer if he does well on finals."
Clemens looks up. "I'm trying to be the best dad I can," he says. "Not to break the chain or anything. Not because I grew up without a dad. My mom's been my father figure. Still, I see my teammates' dads come into the clubhouse and give their boys a hug and ..." His eyes tear up. He blurts out: "I have a big heart. I'm sensitive."
Clemens, Pettitte, McNamee, and the two Jack Russell puppies are running around the track in the early morning rain. The puppies leap up and try to bite Clemens's baggy shorts as he runs. When they finish their run, they walk past the heated pool, steam rising, and go into the gym. The puppies try to slip into the gym, too, but Clemens stops them. He picks them up, kisses them on their snouts, and puts them back outside.
With McNamee shouting instructions, Clemens and Pettitte face each other, hunched over like cave men, and begin running from side to side across the gym floor. "Suck it up!" McNamee shouts. Then he has the two pitchers stand at one end of the gym with a football. On his signal, Clemens runs toward him, tosses him the football, and then backpedals until finally McNamee throws him a pass. Clemens catches it on his fingertips like a tight end and slam dunks it through a lowered basketball basket.
They work like this for an hour. McNamee devises different routines that are both work, and, in a way, fun, like kids' games. Backpedaling and catching the football is fun, but no less of a workout that if Clemens just ran back and forth across the gym without fantasizing, one moment, that he was an N.F.L. tight end and, the next, that he was Shaq stuffing it home.
After their running and some calesthenics, they begin throwing off a wooden mound that's covered with a green rug. Pettitte throws first to McNamee, who is crouched down behind the plate wearing a catcher's mask. Clemens stands outside the safety netting, watching. Pettitte throws with a lefty's smooth, effortless delivery, and still the ball hits McNamee's mitt with an explosion that echoes off the gym wall like thunder. "That's smooth, lefty," Clemens says. He smiles. "It must be nice to be young and throw like that in January."
Now it's Clemens's turn. He begins by soft-tossing it to McNamee. His delivery is nothing like Pettitte's. For Clemens, it's all hard work and grunting, even when soft-tossing. It takes him a long time to build up speed. Finally, after perhaps six or seven minutes, he's grunting hard, and the ball is pounding into McNamee's mitt.
"Your shoulder came out on that one," Pettitte says. Clemens stops and goes through his throwing motion, watching his arm go past his head. He repeats the motion over and over until he's satisfied he has the angle right. Then he begins to throw again. "Drive the ball!" he says to himself and then grunts. The ball explodes into McNamee's mitt. Clemens smiles. "Wow!" he says, "That was super!"
Excerpted from The Best Sports Writing of Pat Jordan by Pat Jordan. Copyright © 2008 Pat Jordan. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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