Baseball and steroids. They seem to go together like steak and eggs because year after year more and more names—big names—are tarnished with the so-called “asterisk.” Barry Bonds. Alex Rodriguez. Mark McGuire. Rafael Palmeiro. The underbelly of baseball has been exposed to such penetrating and revealing light that to believe that the game could consist of anyone we might call a “hero” is preposterous.
There have been many books published already telling the sordid story of trainers turned drug dealers, high profile athletes getting injections, and the inevitable day of reckoning with a grand jury. Beginning with Jose Canseco’s Juiced, a scandalously forthright tell-all tale that named names and defended the use of steroids in baseball as both necessary and good, a government investigation was prompted that led to the downfall of steroid manufacture BALCO. You could read all about that in Game of Shadows and about how Barry Bonds beefed up and broke baseball’s most sacred records. Former senator George Mitchell conducted his investigation and found a key supplier named Kirk Radomski. You can read about his escapades in Bases Loaded. And Canseco wrote another book proclaiming vindication… so why do we need another one? Well, we really don’t, but there is some merit in cataloguing the ugly feud between Roger Clemens and his former trainer Brian McNamee.
American Icon is the magnum opus of the New York Daily News’s sports investigative team that gives a detailed account of “the fall of Roger Clemens and the rise of steroids in America’s pastime.” The book’s authors Teri Thompson, Nathaniel Vinton, Michael O’Keefe and Christian Red take on the Herculean task of covering the last eleven years of Roger Clemens and Brian McNamee’s relationship as well as the story of baseball’s performance enhancing drug abuse. The result is a strange mix of biography, punditry, political history, true crime, and tabloid journalism. Why exactly it is titled ‘American Icon’ is elusive as many Americans do not consider Roger Clemens to be emblematic of American identity. Barack Obama and Sonya Sotomayor even eclipse him in this category, but I digress.
I will forego giving a detailed review of the book since I am not able to challenge or verify its contents, and instead offer a few personal reflections. First, if what this books says is true, both Brian McNamee and Roger Clemens are people whom you would never want as friends. Much has been made of the Rocket’s searing temper and delusions of grandeur that take their form in hot-headed denials that no one believes. Less is thought about Brian McNamee’s history of misleading investigators most infamously in his “date rape” of a Florida woman which ended up costing him his job with the Yankees. The story of their conflict is one of a shattered friendship that is more tragically portrayed than anything else.
Though the authors make McNamee look like a sympathetic character telling the truth, he does seem to have the stronger case. He had no desire to come out against Clemens and only gained the avoidance of prison time by doing so. He was caught between a rock and hard place and found himself reluctantly throwing the star pitcher under the bus. To his great fortune he was protected by two stellar lawyers pro bono who defused and deflated Clemens’s bulldog defense. Most importantly the tangible evidence seems to be on his side. Clemens now faces public humiliation, legal defeat, and perjury charges as he has been exposed as an unfaithful husband, inconsistent in his testimony, and the victim of his own denials. His Hall of Fame career has almost been forgotten in the wake of the Mitchell Report.
Whatever one makes of the contents of this book, one will be left feeling that baseball is tainted. The ugliness of the lives of superstar athletes is laid out before the reader in exquisite detail. Drug abuse, marital infidelity, debauchery, deceitfulness, arrogance, and intimidation mark the pathetic lives of people their fans so naively envy. From the players union to the pitcher’s mound, baseball seems rotten through and through. By far and away the strongest point the book makes is that the news-gathering and reporting of ESPN and sports writers in general should not be considered trustworthy. Of ESPN and Peter Gammons they write, “Gammons was in something of a difficult spot. His conflict symbolized that of ESPN itself, trying to appear as a legitimate news-gathering operation without harming its role as baseball’s broadcast partner and head cheerleader.” The conflict of interest could not be more glaring in that sports journalism cannot both serve objective reporting standards that follow the evidence where it leads and be committed to creating enthusiasm and fanfare among viewers and readers.
Those who love baseball will find themselves in a similar difficult spot. We want to get behind our favorite teams and cheer for the success of our favorite players. We want to honor hard work and fair play. But with the ongoing revelations of what basically amounts to cheating, how can we declare our love for a game played by cheaters? The answer, I believe, is to keep the pressure on the league with legitimate investigations, thorough reports, and stringent drug-testing. Accountability to public opinion, even if there is no legal recourse to punish, is the only thing that ensures cheaters never win.