“The higher you get up on the flagpole, the more your butt shows.”
— Roger Clemens on 60 Minutes 1/6/07
And not since J-Lo’s heyday–or maybe Brad Pitt’s rear appearance in Thelma and Louise–has a butt been so utterly over-analyzed.
We now know that Roger Clemens has a rear end that’s seen more needles than Keith Richards’ family room. Yet it’s what filled the syringes that have the sports-world and the US Congress all atwitter. Last night Clemens tried to sell his anabolic virginity to both 60 Minutes and the great proctologist of American journalism, Mike Wallace. For 15 excruciating on-air minutes, the seven-time Cy Young award winner put himself in Wallace’s cross-hairs. He answered questions about Sen. George Mitchell’s steroid report and what may or may not have been injected into his Hall of Fame cheeks by his personal trainer Brian McNamee.
The Wallace/Clemens showdown had the hype of a prizefight. But the millions at home didn’t see the Mike Wallace who made Vietnam War architect Gen. William Westmoreland cry in his napalm. On Sunday we didn’t witness the famed media bulldog, but a chihuahua. If he had looked at the camera and said, “Yo quiero Taco Bell,” no one would have blinked. The 89-year-old legend is a regular in Yankee owner George Steinbrenner’s owner’s box and has called Clemens a friend. On Sunday he seemed to have his own narcotic reaction to the athletic proximity.
Wallace opened the interview by saying, “Roger Clemens is one of the greatest pitchers of all time, no question.” Then he called the Rocket, “The hardest working man in throw business.” As George Vescey wrote in the New York Times, “[60 minutes] has made politicians, business leaders, clergy and entertainers squirm, but there is something about athletes that brings out the little kid in normally aggressive interviewers.”
In the face of Wallace’s timid glow, Clemens was a picture of rumpled, stubble-faced outrage. But his efforts to come off like John Wayne hit all the wrong notes. He started by raising his voice and yelling, “I’m angry!… Twenty-four, twenty-five years Mike. You’d think I’d get an inch of respect. An inch!”
When Wallace asked whether it might be impossible to be that good at Clemens’ age, the Rocket responded, “It’s not impossible! You do it with hard work!” Wallace then summoned 70 years of journalistic experience and said, “Swear?” And Clemens responded, “Swear!” No pinky swears were deemed necessary.
It’s hard to find any love for Roger Clemens. He seems like the kind of guy who would borrow your car without asking and get a DUI. And yet despite all the entitled arrogance, Clemens’ performance was a sad train wreck that left me feeling disgusted with the whole sorry scene-and less concerned about steroids than the ongoing politicization and deterioration in the world of sports.
On Sunday we saw that Roger Clemens’ ability to throw a baseball doesn’t make him a great politician or advocate for his own innocence. He wasn’t Bill Clinton speaking smoothly about the pain he caused in his marriage or even Richard Nixon jabbering about Checkers the dog.
Even under Wallace’s paternal shelter, Clemens’ eyes shifted around the room, sweat glistening on his brow, a near parody of guilt. All we needed was a little chain-smoking to complete the picture.
When Wallace read passages from the Mitchell report, Clemens, in between furious denials, twitched like he was doing the lindy hop on an electric fence.
He tried to play Texas tough-guy, particularly when he spoke about all the injections he endured to play through pain and “go out and perform.”
But Clemens was most effective when for a brief moment he dropped the Gary Cooper routine and said simply, “And that’s our country, isn’t it? Guilty before innocent. That the way our country works now.” That’s certainly the way it has worked for Barry Bonds over the past several years. It’s hard to imagine a world where 60 Minutes would have given Bonds similar treatment and respect, interviewed by a friend for a national audience.
Clemens is now getting a taste–even if the blow is softened by racist double standards–of what athletes from Bonds to Martina Hingis to Randy Moss to many others have experienced in recent years: the flammable hypocrisy that torches athletes when their careers cross with drugs, whether recreational or “performance enhancing.” We now live in a sports world where human beings are glorified and then destroyed for our collective amusement. When these modern gladiators take substances to extend their time in fame’s embrace or find relief from the suffocating pressure of competition, they are punished. Then Congress comes running, ready to pile an extra coating of political distraction on this already noxious spectacle by trading on the pelts of athletes for cheap votes. The Clemens spectacle was yet another demonstration that we need a more sane way to deal with drugs in sports than turning it into reality TV or congressional fodder. No ifs, ands, or butts.
DAVE ZIRIN is a columnist for sports illustrated.com and the author of “Welcome to the Terrordome,” (Haymarket).