Friday, August 20, 2010

Let's project our psychological hangups onto athletes!

Taking a break from the warm and fuzzy uncertainty that the New York Times apparently likes to call my "emerging adulthood" (read: applying for jobs I will never get and realizing that society has ostensibly no idea what to do with me or anyone else my age), it's time to go back and hit the ol' blog.

Yesterday, Roger Clemens was indicted on six counts of perjury. According to the Altoona Mirror's Cory Giger, Clemens belongs in jail. I must preface this diatribe with the disclosure that I've known Cory for several years, that I hold him in the highest possible regard as both a friend and mentor, and that I think he's damn good at his job. In this case, though, he just happens to be comprehensively wrong.

It's my belief Roger Clemens lied to Congress about using steroids, and now he deserves to have his you know what thrown in the slammer.

Many stuck-up, ridiculously entitled, mega-rich professional athletes think they can get away with anything. Clemens is finding out that isn't the case.

Au contraire, mon frère. That is absolutely the case. Anyone who has ever covered college or professional sports for any good length of time has stories about athletes doing despicable things for which, because of their status as athletes, they're never made to answer and for which they are never held accountable. The volume of what the general public still does not find out about the secret lives of athletes is astonishing.

The superstar former pitcher was indicted Thursday on perjury and other charges. Clemens has vehemently denied using performance-enhancing drugs, but come on, everybody knows he did it, and several people close to him have testified to it.

We have something in this country called due process. It's in the Constitution or the Bible or the Articles of Confederation, or some such historically yellowed piece of paper. Not that I disagree with Cory's assessment of Clemens' guilt. I think he's guilty of using performance enhancing drugs, and I think he's guilty of having lied about it. But we, as a nation, have a more successful track record of maintaining separation of the courts of law and public opinion than we do in keeping the balance between church and state. That's why you don't typically see prosecutors utilizing the "come on, everybody knows he did it," strategy.

I also think that the volume and severity of truly criminal activity we let slide in this country is so great that trying to send Roger Clemens to jail for perjuring himself during the most useless set of Congressional hearings since Joseph McCarthy tried to have everyone in Hollywood exiled to the Urals would make just about as much sense as trying to prosecute a fourth grader for cheating on a spelling test.

Clemens looked washed up a few times in his career, only to miraculously bounce back and become nearly untouchable several times. Yeah, like that happened naturally and with only hard work.

Stop with the charade, Roger. You're guilty, you know it, you lied about it under oath and now you deserve to go to jail.

There's just so much that's wrong with this that I hardly know where to begin.

1. We don't know with any degree of certainty the effect that steroids had on baseball during the "steroid era." This is true of hitting, but even more so of pitching. Any fan of baseball, any writer, pundit, or conscious observer who claims with certainty that steroids make you better at baseball is just as dangerous to the integrity of the game as a single-issue voter in a polling place is to the integrity of our political rhetoric. Eric Walker's "Steroids, Other 'Drugs' and Baseball" should be required reading for anyone who wishes to keep having this conversation. The range of potential realistic answers to the question of how steroids influenced baseball performance begins with "it is almost impossible to know" and ends with "not very much."

2. For whatever we think we know about how steroids may have aided hitters -- and we don't know too much -- we know even less ab out how steroids may have aided pitchers. It might be possible to know more about the impact PEDs had at the plate than on the mound because we have a working knowledge of the physics of hitting. Ted Williams' "The Science of Hitting," which remains an industry standard on the subject, reveals that bat speed is the most important factor in the equation. One or two extra miles per hour in bat speed contribute much more to the distance of a batted ball than one or two extra miles per hour on the speed of a given pitch. This isn't conjecture. It's physics. I guess this is all just a roundabout way of bringing up the fact that throwing hard was not what helped Clemens' longevity, nor was it his massive, allegedly enhanced physique.

From his rookie year in 1984 through the fascinatingly entertaining 1998 season, Roger Clemens had maybe two or three down seasons, and even in those seasons (1984, 1993, and 1995) he was still an above average major league pitcher. During the entirety of his career in Boston and Toronto, Clemens averaged a 2.95 ERA, a 1.143 WHIP, a 151 ERA+, and 6.2 WAR per season. That's really good. And that takes him from age 21 to age 35. Between the ages of 35 and 44, the New York and Houston years, Clemens predictably declined. He averaged a 3.48 ERA, a 1.231 WHIP, a 129 ERA+ and 4.0 WAR per season. So he declined with age, as all players do.

But even IF steroids have some positive impact on performance, and even IF everyone during that era of baseball was juicing, and even IF you feel everything is tainted and your childhood innocence is ruined, none of that changes the fact that Roger Clemens was astonishingly good for an unreal length of time, and that not once between 1985 and his final year in 2007 did Clemens ever rate as a below-average pitcher. At his worst, he was merely a league-average pitcher. Were you to eliminate the steroid question from the equation entirely -- wipe the whole slate clean for every single pitcher -- Clemens would still have stood out, and that's impossible to deny.

3. He deserves to go to jail? No. He doesn't.

In 1998, Rams' defensive end Leonard Little drank too much at a birthday party, got behind the wheel of a car, and ran over and killed a woman. He got four years probation and 1,000 hours of community service. He was arrested in 2004 for driving while intoxicated, failed three field sobriety tests, and even told police he had been drinking. The charge was later dropped. Leonard Little deserves to be in jail.

Donte Stallworth was legally drunk in 2009 when he ran over an off-duty construction worker with his Bentley. He served 24 days of a 30-day jail sentence, got 1,000 hours of community service and eight years probation. Donte Stallworth deserves to be in jail.

The entire leadership of British Petroleum, from the top on down to the lackeys who do cost/value and risk/reward assessments have raised the ceiling for criminal negligence in allowing the single largest man-made ecological disaster in history. We are going to be feeling catastrophic effects from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill for years, and in a plethora of different ways. The BP people belong in jail.

Roger Clemens lost a game of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey at a Congressional sleepover/circle jerk. Roger Clemens does not belong in jail.

There are consequences in life, and many spoiled-rotten athletes think they are above reproach and will never have to deal with repercussions when they screw up.

They think this because everything about they way we treat our athletes in this society encourages them to think this.

And please, stop with the whole "Congress is only on a witch hunt" argument, or "Congress has better ways to spend its time and money." You want to gripe about the government, fine, but that's not what this is about.

But here's the thing: that's exactly what this should be about. If Roger Clemens is two things, he's an incredible ballplayer and he's not very bright. The reason perjury and obstruction of justice are offenses worthy of incarceration is because the people who wrote federal law were under the deluded impression that any societal issue worthy of its own Congressional hearings would be important. The Congressional hearings on steroid use in baseball were not only thoroughly unimportant, they were straight up unnecessary, political grandstanding. Using banned substances to enhance performance, while a crime, is a crime without victim. I don't give a damn about Roger Clemens one way or the other, but taking steroids and then lying about it isn't nearly as bad as having an extramarital affair with a 15-year-old girl. If you want to make it about that, we can make it about that. Otherwise, there is no getting around the fact that these hearings were about anything other than an ill-conceived play for Oversight to expand its political clout, and even that descended into partisan bickering.

Lock him up for a year or so. Teach him and every egomaniacal athlete who thinks he or she can get away with anything a lesson.

Roger Clemens is absolutely an egomaniac. He's a dumb, 48-year-old egomaniac. And it's precisely because of this that you're not going to accomplish a damn thing by putting him in jail for a year. This is a guy who, since he was about 18, has lived a completely different reality than people like you or me. He's spent 40 or so years walking around on a pedestal. It is just as utterly pointless to try to teach Roger Clemens a lesson or make an example out of him as it would be to try to have a heart-to-heart with Antonio Cromartie about parenting or discuss Dadaism with Matthew Stafford.

One phrase Cory used to describe these athletes he dislikes so strongly was "ridiculously entitled." I agree that a lot of athletes have absurd senses of entitlement, but that's because we do nothing to discourage that behavior and everything to encourage it.

And with regard to the issue of entitlement: it needs to disappear from the psyche of the modern sports fan. I will concede that some athletes are bad people. But at the same time, they don't owe us anything. We plop down all kinds of money and we feed the fire. I'm beyond sick of the "role model" debate. Good people are role models, bad people are not. An athlete who happens to be a genuinely good dude, say, Troy Polamalu, is perfectly fine as a role model. Ideally, as a sports loving society, we'd reach a point where even young fans were able to understand the difference between the athletic performance and the off-field conduct of a figure like Clemens. In most cases, it's possible to admire the performance completely apart from the person. That part? That's on us.

1 comment:

Matt said...

Some other Clemens variables that an argument like Cory's typically ignores:

A lot of the hysteria around his "off years" was media generated. ESPN went batshit insane during Tiger Woods' first "slump," during which he didn't win a major between the 2002 U.S. Open and the 2005 British Open, despite remaining the world's top ranked player the entire time and winning PGA Player of the Year honors in 2003. Woods was still playing excellent golf during those years, just as Clemens, during his various phases of being "washed up" was still playing excellent baseball. Success, like pretty much everything else, is entirely relative. And if you're one of those people who thinks Clemens was washed up when Dan Duquette decided he was, you should be taken out back and shot.
One of the most innovative and important developments in pitching during Clemens' career was the development and popularization of the split-finger fastball. Though it had been around since the 1970s, the splitter started to catch on in the mid-to-late 1990s. Pitchers and pitching coaches have developed several variants of it, and it's notoriously stressful on the hurler's forearm and elbow ligaments. Still, dozens of pitchers have made successful livings for themselves by adding the splitter to their repertoires. Clemens used it as his out-pitch.
Along that same line of media-generated outrage, we have the notion that Clemens has always had a reputation for being a selfish jerk.
During the latter years of his career, Clemens adopted the same strategy that Brett Favre has taken to using: retire, make conflicting statements about whether or not you're really retired, skip training camp and the first few weeks, then come back when it suits you. While Favre generally joins a team during the pre-season, Clemens would sit out spring training and maybe the first two months of the season, then come back in June or July, and stay home during road trips during which he wasn't scheduled to pitch. Refer to the item above about Clemens being a selfish jerk.