Richard Justice: Clemens again stiffed by Hall of Fame voters, and the ridiculous wait will go on at least 3 more years

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Kevin M Cox/AP/Shutterstock (13479570i) Houston Astros player Roger Clemens throws out the ceremonial pitch ahead of Game 1 of baseball’s American League Championship Series between the Houston Astros and the New York Yankees, in Houston ALCS Yankees Astros Baseball, Houston, United States – 19 Oct 2022

Richard Justice: Clemens again stiffed by Hall of Fame voters, and the ridiculous wait will go on at least 3 more years

   Roger Clemens was one of baseball’s greatest ambassadors by the time he joined the Astros for three seasons beginning in 2004. That’s not why his getting stiffed again by the Hall of Fame is so outrageous, but it’s important to know what he has meant to the sport.

   He’s arguably one of the five greatest pitchers of all-time, and if he’s not in the Hall of Fame, it’s the Hall of Fame that looks ridiculous. His seven Cy Young Awards are two more than anyone else has ever won, and that’s just a start.

   He’s third on the all-time strikeout list with 4,672, behind only Nolan Ryan and Randy Johnson. He’s ninth in wins (354) and 16th in innings (4,916).

   Between 1986 and 1992, Clemens may have had the seven greatest seasons any pitcher has ever had, going 136-63 with a 2.66 ERA for the Red Sox. In these seven seasons, he won the American League Cy Young Award three times and finished second once and third once.

   Clemens is not in the Hall of Fame because of suspected steroid use. Whether he did or didn’t is beside the point when you put his career — and the era in which he pitched — in context.

   His 13 seasons with the Red Sox alone might have gotten him into the Hall of Fame, and no one suspected him of steroid use in those years.

   Besides, baseball did not even begin testing for steroids until 2003. Before then, it was the wild, wild west of performance-enhancing substances. It may only be a slight exaggeration to say that baseball — especially its player’s union — looked the other way between, say, 1995 and 2002. Also, steroids were good for business.

   Baseball had been crippled by the 1994-1995 work stoppage, and the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa home run race of 1998, helped bring the sport back in a big way.

    If you had a Hall of Fame vote for players of this era, you had two choices. One is to vote for no one because it was impossible to know who was and who wasn’t using something. Again, baseball was doing little or nothing to police itself in those years.

   Or voters can guess, can mark their ballots after guessing who did and who didn’t use steroids, and that appears to be what many have done since there’s no way to look at a ballot of the last two decades and identify the steroid users.

   Worse, some voters are willing to punish the players that have been identified as steroid users (many times on thin evidence) and to bestow the game’s highest honor on those that got away with using PEDs. That diminishes the Hall of Fame.

   Nor do ethical arguments hold up. If we’re going to throw out the Hall of Famers that scuffed baseball, corked bats, drank too much, etc., the Plaque Room in Cooperstown will have some significant open spaces.

   Fans want players to care as much about winning as they care, and if there’s a substance that’ll make a player better, and if it’s not being tested for, why not try it?

    Let’s be clear: steroid users almost certainly have been inducted into the Hall of Fame in recent years. In addition, former commissioner Bud Selig, the game’s leader during the steroid era, was inducted in 2017. (Selig faced a brick wall of opposition to testing from the Major League Baseball Players Association. He finally got a program as part of the 2002 labor agreement after making clear he was willing to shut the game down without one.)

To draw a line with Roger Clemens — and Barry Bonds, another all-time great — is disgraceful.

   Clemens failed to get the required 75% of the vote from the Baseball Writers Association of America during his 10 years on the ballot. But his share of the vote increased from 37.6% in 2013 to 65.2% last winter.

   On Sunday, his candidacy was one of the ones that went before a second-chance committee of sorts, referred to as the Contemporary Era Committee, composed of six Hall of Famers (after illness kept Chipper Jones from participating), seven executives, and three members of the Baseball Writers Association of America. He needed 12 votes (75%). He didn’t even get four. Now, it’ll be 2025 before this committee considers him again.

   Clemens not getting in is especially galling to those of us that watched him transform himself from a flamethrower to a craftsman. By the time he pitched his first game for the Astros, his once-blazing fastball topped out at 91-92 mph.

   Former Astros manager Phil Garner remembers multiple times when Clemens would be knee-deep in trouble in the early part of games. Garner would be on the top step of the dugout about to go get the legend.

   “I wasn’t going to let this guy embarrass himself,” Garner said. “Next thing you know, he’s walking off the mound after seven innings having struck out nine and given up two runs. He had a game plan for the hitters he wanted to face and the pitches he had working that day. It was a clinic.”

   Around the Astros, he was a hero for other reasons. Almost everyone associated with the franchise in those days, from clubhouse attendants to trainers to public relations assistants, has stories about his random acts of kindness.

   He included them in the celebration of milestones, sent them random tokens of appreciation, and made sure they were appreciated in a way star players often do not.

   When a scout friend of mine found out about a young college player that had suffered an accident that left him paralyzed, he knew the kid would need a specially equipped van.

   His first telephone call was to Clemens, and days later, a van showed up. He never found out for sure, but always suspected Clemens paid for it out of his own pocket.

   Once when Clemens was on a minor league assignment in Lexington, Kentucky, he plunked a young kid on the opposing team. Afterward, as I was asking the kid how it felt to be hit by a future Hall of Famer, I looked up to see Clemens approaching.

   “You OK?” he asked. Within minutes, Clemens was surrounded by players picking his brain on training, pitch sequencing, and the like. Clemens eventually agreed to stay over and show the young guys how he prepared for starts.

   At another stop, he replaced the worn clubhouse furniture in addition to springing for a first-rate postgame spread. During a visit to Clemens’ Houston home many years ago, I came upon a pool table covered with Roger Clemens bobblehead dolls.

   He’d had them specially made and was in the process of autographing them to assist the New York Police Department in a fundraising effort.

   “They take care of me,” he said. “They take care of all of us.”

   His first season with the Astros was his 20th in the big leagues, and by this time, he understood the power of his name and the influence he had on people of all ages.

   He used that power and influence countless times to help people and to assist teammates. He and his buddy Andy Pettitte also brought an expectation of winning that hadn’t been there before.

    Houston’s 2004-2005 playoff runs were, to that point, the most thrilling thing that had ever happened to the franchise. In an extraordinary 18-inning elimination of the Braves in 2005, Clemens laced up his cleats and went to the bullpen in the 15th inning despite having thrown 92 pitches three days earlier.

   He was John Wayne that day in taking the ball in the top of the 16th and shutting out the Braves until Chris Burke homered in the bottom of the 18th. Later, the only surprise had been that Clemens had not homered himself to win it.

   Those of us who saw him pitch during those three seasons, those of us that came to admire his work ethic and professionalism, do not need a plaque for validation of his greatness. He’s a Hall of Famer around here whether they give him one in Cooperstown or not.

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1 Comment

  • Too bad he threw wife Debbie under the bus.

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