Topic: Sports & Entertainment

The Rocket’s “Perfect” Game

While broadcasting the May 5 Red Sox-Indians game on ESPN, play-by-play man Gary Miller announced that Houston ace Roger “The Rocket” Clemens had just passed Steve Carlton to become baseball’s number two all-time strikeout leader (behind Nolan Ryan, of course.) He opined that it was fortunate for Clemens and baseball fans that the Houston Astros had “lured him out of retirement.” Clemens, you may recall, spent all of last season in a “farewell tour” while playing with the New York Yankees, culminating in a standing ovation as he left the mound “for the last time” after starting a World Series game.

Miller’s companion in the broadcast booth, color man and former major league starter (also former Clemens teammate) Frank Viola, seemed stunned at Miller’s naïveté.

He insisted that there was no question that Clemens always intended to move his baseball talents to Houston, and that he never had any intention of retiring, despite his public statements during the 2003 season. “I know Roger pretty well,” said Viola. “Believe me, he played it perfectly.”


Here’s “perfectly,” according to Viola. Clemens, who was paid multiple millions by the Yankees (a salary, in truth, more in line with his career achievements than his performance with New York), lavishly praised the team and its fans, and announced that when his plaque was hung in Baseball’s Hall of Fame (an inevitability, to be sure) he wanted his bas relief to be wearing a Yankee hat, not, as his lifetime statistics might suggest, the hat of the Boston Red Sox. He announced that he was “99%” certain that 2003 would be his last year, and the Yankees, as well as the rest of baseball and the sports media, took him at his word. Fans came out to see his “last game” in Boston, in Cleveland, in Detroit and other major league cities. He was given valedictories and gifts, including some very expensive gifts, like the customized Humvee presented to him by his Yankee teammates.

Leaving baseball was all very sad, the Rocket would say, but his boys were getting older, and at 41 it was time to be a Dad. You can’t be Dad traveling with a baseball team from March through October. Time to hang up the ol’ spikes! Then, after working out religiously during the off-season, Clemens watched as the team he professed to owe so much to, the Bronx Bombers, suddenly suffered a blow to their pitching rotation, as 21 game winner Andy Pettitte unexpectedly signed as a free agent with the National League Houston Astros. Did Clemens, feeling fit and fast and ready to pitch, come out of retirement to help his team? No. He signed his own Astros contract, for 5 million dollars. And claimed that the team, and Pettitte, just “talked him into it”.

If Viola is correct, this “perfect” plan involved:

  • Lying repeatedly to the public, his team mates, and his employer
  • Using his family responsibilities as a decoy
  • Defrauding fans all over the American League
  • Collecting kudos, ovations and gifts, all while knowing that it was a sham, that he had no intention of retiring

This is unethical conduct on a large scale, essayed by a famous athlete, and endorsed on national television by another famous athlete (Frankie “Sweet Music” Viola was a Cy Young winner himself). O.K., baseball is just a game. But this behavior, if truly planned, is a brazen display of dishonesty, deceit, disloyalty, and misrepresentation. It deserves more than a chuckle, a wink and a nod from the ESPN announcers. Kids watch these games, kids that have Roger Clemens’ baseball cards. This conduct should not be described to them as “perfect.” “Despicable” is a more appropriate word.

It must be said that we cannot know if Clemens intended to jump to Houston (which is near his home) all along. Boston Red Sox fans know the maneuvers would be consistent with his M.O., however. In the course of negotiating with the Red Sox, his original team, in 1996 (negotiations in which he demanded a multi-year contact as the highest paid pitcher in the game, despite a four-year record that was barely over .500), Clemens gave an emotional interview in which he claimed to long for status as a Red Sox all-time great, finishing his career with the team and joining Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski as iconic figures in Boston baseball history. Later the Rocket announced that if he couldn’t get what he deserved from the Red Sox, then he would only sign with one of the two teams close to his home and family in Texas. “My family comes first,” Roger said.

Clemens then signed a multi-year contact with that well known Texas municipality, Toronto, Canada.

Ethically, we have to give “Rocket” the benefit of the doubt. His behavior, even if more spontaneous than calculated, is fickle at best, but absent a confession or a mind-reader, we are unlikely to know whether it was the set-up Viola has implied. But anyone who concludes, as Viola does, that the evidence points to a season-long sham should be throwing darts at their Roger Clemens poster. Calling a shameful lack of ethics “perfect,” is a irresponsible commentary that makes losers of us all.

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