Friday, March 27, 2009
The Rocket That Fell to Earth: Q&A with Author Jeff Pearlman
This month, our good friend (and Blogs With Balls panelist) Jeff Pearlman added to his impressive collection of biographies of with the release of The Rocket That Fell to Earth: Roger Clemens and the Rage for Baseball Immortality.
Like in his best sellers The Bad Guys Won and Boys Will Be Boys, Pearlman digs into the persona of a once beloved sports figure and examines Clemens' enigmatic personality and upbringing in relation to his public career.
As the Rocket battles to redefine his legacy in the court of public opinion in light of recent allegations, truth be told, he's spent his career doing that very thing: defining himself as he wants to define himself, truth or reality be damned.
We were fortunate to once again catch up with the author to discuss his latest work and talk about some of those truths, as well as misconceptions.
HuggingHaroldReynolds: I've mentioned this in our last conversation, but you really have a penchant for controversial sports figures and topics, don't you? When can we expect the Uggie Urbina story?
Jeff Pearlman: Actually, I was thinking recently that Urbina would make an excellent magazine profile for somebody.
Truth is, I'm not looking for controversial figures/teams, so much as people who are either mysterious/guarded or just really, really weird/quirky. Clemens isn't weird or quirky, but he spent most of his career creating his own narrative, which makes him very mysterious. I mean, we all knew he's a guy from Texas—not so. He's from Butler Township, Ohio. We all knew he's always been a great athlete—not so. He was a fat, soft-tossing nobody through much of his childhood. His father left when he was 2, his step father died of a heart attack before his eyes when he was 9, his brother/hero battled drug addiction and his sister in law was murdered by drug dealers. He's had, in many ways, a very sad, tragic life. But also a fascinating one.
HHR: As much as a biography, Rocket is a case study on the human psyche and one's warped sense of truth and reality. You portray Rocket as both someone willing to stand up for teammates on the field and want nothing to do with them off of it. Someone ready to fight, yet often breaking down in tears. In a snap shot, what traits should a fan believe best describes the real Roger Clemens?
JP: I'll avoid basic adjectives here and say that, what defines much of Clemens' life, is his unparalleled, unhealthy need to win at all costs. Clemens doesn't lose—ever, anywhere. He doesn't admit wrong, doesn't back down, doesn't retreat. He was that way as a kid, he was that way as a Major Leaguer, he was that way before Congress, giving his ludicrous testimony. People ask if he believes everything he's saying, and I don't know the answer to that. But he clearly believes there's a way to win and a way to lose—and losing isn't an option, whether it be sports or dancing or Congressional hearings.
The other thing that struck me about Clemens is that everything in his life is viewed through a baseball spectrum. When his mother died, he buried her in a necklace with 21 diamonds—his uniform number. He has four kids, all named with the letter K—for strikeout. When it came to giving gifts to teammates or coaches, it would almost always be an autographed photo of himself. I guess that's the result of being praised, praised, praised nonstop, but it strikes me as very warped.
HHR: Is it fair to say that Clemens' many character flaws are simply a product of his upbringing - losing two fathers, the insatiable rearing of an older brother he idolized, the stigma and perception of being a dumpy underdog - and a struggle for him to prove his ability met his confidence? Nurture over nature?
JP: I would say so. His step father, Woody, wasn't a win-at-all-costs type of guy, but he died when Roger was 9, and his brother Randy took over. Randy was a gifted athlete who went on to play college basketball, but he had a very unhealthy way of viewing sports, and he passed it on to his brother. There was no such thing as failure—it wasn't allowed to exist. So when you see Clemens pitching, and he's throwing at guys' heads, losing his cool, cursing out umpires—that's his brother's gift.
HHR: The steroids issue aside, while people are now critical of Clemens, in a way was his 'baseball-first, nothing-even-close-second' attitude actually reflective of the expectations fans put on their sports heroes?
JP: Of course. We set these guys up by giving them nonstop adulation, unparalleled fame, high salaries, free everything—and in exchange, we want 100% devotion to baseball. Then, when the person can't deal with real-world issues in a competent way, we pounce. Why should athletes know how to, say, pay a phone bill? They've had people slaving over them for years and years and years.
HHR: What, if anything, most surprised you over the course of your research about your subject?
JP: Two things. First, how liked he was. Everyone assumes Clemens was hated because of the position he's now in. But if you go back to Boston, to Toronto, to New York—there were many teammates who embraced the guy and thought he was good people. Not always around, occasionally indifferent ... but not a bad guy. Second would be the sad saga of his brother and his sister-in-law. It's weird that the story never made the papers. When she died, there would be a sentence in Houston Chronicle pieces saying, "She was Roger Clemens' former sister in law ..." but that was it. Nobody ever really put 2 and 2 together.
HHR: You cast him in the same light as McGuire, Sosa and Bonds as well as Shoeless Joe Jackson and Pete Rose. Do the latter two really deserve to be a part of that group?
JP: I think so, in that they all disgraced the game, all disgraced themselves. Pete Rose, like Clemens, spent years and years trying to dig out of an impossible hole; tried to convince people he was telling the truth when, factually, he wasn't. Clemens fits right in there.
HHR: You make it very clear that Clemens' Hall of Fame future in serious doubt. For all his transgressions, does Clemens deserve the nod?
JP: No. There's a very clear good-of-the-game clause in Hall voting. Roger was a brilliant pitcher—one of the best ever. But , to me, all the good that he accomplished is wiped out by these last few years; by cheating.