by Jonathan Mayo
The Lyons Press, $16.95
"I may have been fortunate to pitch for twenty-four years, but it has been no accident."
-- Roger Clemens
In the light of recent events, the above quote from Clemens - virtually the first thing he says in his introduction to Mayo's book, now takes on a somewhat different reading, given recent claims by Brian McNamee, not to mention the 82 mentions of Clemens by name within the Mitchell Report. Now is certainly a good time for a book which examines the Rocket's career. Unfortunately, Mayo's book is as much as victim of circumstance as a beneficiary, since it was finished before Mitchell's revelations broke. The result is somewhat like a biography of John F. Kennedy which ends, "The president got off the plane in Dallas and lived happily ever after." The light of subsequent events render everything which went before in spectacularly different light.
Steroids are basically the elephant in the corner of the room here, though this is through no fault of Mayo. Almost every chapter refers to Clemens' remarkable late-career resurgence, which is basically utterly unprecedented, as since 1923 only three ERA-qualified pitchers older than 31 have had an ERA+ better then 200. Roger Clemens is two of them - doing it first in 1997 at age 34, and then again, eight years later. His ERA+ of 226 is more than a hundred points better than any other 42-year old in baseball history. Clean living and hard work or...? The unspoken questions inevitably color all reading of the book. When Cal Ripken says of Roger, "I did notice in Boston toward the end, his fastball did come back a little bit to a normal range," is he hinting at something? If you take the first letter of the paragraphs in Clemens' introduction, do they spell out, "Yeah, I did it. So sue me"?
Putting that aside, the book is sometimes interesting, yet is limited because it is maddeningly single-faceted. There is certainly scope for a book on what makes a great pitcher tick, but Mayo basically talks only to the batters who had to face Clemens. They, obviously, offer first-hand experience, but can only give one part of the picture. What about the catchers who worked with Clemens, such as Jorge Posada, behind the plate for 155 games and 4,105 plate-appearances? Wouldn't he be able to provide more insight into Clemens' dominance than Dave Magadan, who may have faced Clemens in the College World Series, but only had 12 major-league at-bats versus the Rocket. Or what about Clemens' team-mates, with the best seat in the house to observe him? Heck, talk to the umpires too.
That said, there are nuggets to be gleaned, and some of it is just plain fun to read. Luis Gonzalez is interviewed, as a chapter is devoted to him because of he and Clemens' roles in the 2001 World Series, one late-bloomer facing another. I still get goose-bumps simply reading about Game Seven, and Gonzalez also has some interesting thing to say about how to handle Clemens. "You try to get him early, because he came up with the splitter and things like that and it made it that much tougher. Not only that, when you have a pitcher like that, you don't want to get deep into the count because he is a strikeout-type pitcher, so you try to get that guy early, get something up in the zone and try to get a good pass at it."
Credit also to Torii Hunter, who - unlike Mike Piazza! - agreed to be interviewed despite a lifetime 0-for-28 [including the playoffs] against the Rocket. Though Hunter, somewhat grumpily, reckons he was robbed of a double when the scorer gave an error to Scott Brosius. More recent hitters such as Hunter make better interview targets, since the at-bats are fresh in their mind [Magadan's last one, for example, was in 1998], and they have more of substance to say. In some cases, Mayo seems forced to pad chapters with paragraphs which do little more than recite the box score: "In two games, both Rangers wins, the second baseman went 4 for 7 with 4 RBIs. He carried that over into the next year with a 2 for 4 showing in their first meeting in 1990. Then came 1991. The Rangers beat Clemens twice, with Franco going 3-for-6 in the process."
Only time will tell how history views the legacy of Roger Clemens. What seemed like a sure-fire lock for the Hall of Fame on the first ballot, is now apparently another tarnish mark on the history of baseball at the turn of the millennium, with the greatest hitter and greatest pitcher of the era apparently both turning to illegal methods to prolong and improve their careers. The definitive book on Clemens has still not been written, and perhaps never will be: one can only wonder what kind of book Mayo would write now, if he had the information available now.
For more information visit the author's site at jonathanmayo.net.