Sports Nut

The Last Great Flake

How Roger Clemens won 299 games in spite of himself.

Back in 1987, when things were just beginning to sour between Roger Clemens and the Boston Red Sox, for whom he had pitched a revelatory season only a year before, Clemens granted an interview to a local Boston TV station. In that interview, he attempted to point out that the Red Sox in general, and Fenway Park in particular, lacked the kind of amenities to which the modern ballplayer had become accustomed. (In fact, Fenway, that overrated corral worshipped most devoutly by people who don’t have to sit in its seats or smell it during a humid summer rain, lacked many of the amenities to which ballplayers of the 1950s were accustomed, but nevermind.) Then he clumsily mentioned having to carry his own luggage.

That interview marked the beginning of the end for Clemens in Boston. He was acting as a spokesman for the rest of his teammates, most of whom were as fed up as Clemens was with working in a cramped relic. (Go ask Hosni Mubarak how he’d feel about governing Egypt from inside the Great Pyramid.) Nevertheless, he presented his case so artlessly that he became the living embodiment of the spoiled modern athlete—that wonderfully utilitarian straw man beloved by the denizens of talk radio’s cheap seats. He stayed in Boston for nine more increasingly bitter seasons before finally decamping for Toronto in 1997 and thence, two seasons later, to the Yankees.

What I remember about that interview was that behind Clemens on the pitcher’s lawn, there was this tall electrified replica of one of the infantrymen out of The Nutcracker, and it stayed there, blinking away furiously behind him, while Clemens dug himself into an ever-deeper hole. I have never watched him since—not as a Red Sock, or a Blue Jay, or a Yankee—without seeing in my mind’s eye this cheery tin doppelgänger over his shoulder. I know it will be there for me, blinking and winking, when Clemens finally wins his 300th game, probably against the hapless Tigers this weekend in Detroit. Because, for all his considerable accomplishments as a pitcher, Roger Clemens will always be for me the Last Great Flake.

Flakes have an honorable history in baseball. Rube Waddell used to run out of the ballpark to chase fire engines, and Grover Cleveland Alexander went to the mound sockless drunk, and both of those guys are in the Hall of Fame. (Playing the latter in the biopic The Winning Team, Ronald Reagan portrayed the old souse as having inexplicable “spells,” which would not be the last time old Dutch was placed in a position to embroider history.) Ted Williams had enough quirks to fill a novel by Dickens, and let us not even begin to recount the many tales of Babe Ruth, lest we disillusion the children. And these were just some of the great players who were also flakes. Baseball history bulges with hundreds of other bounders, knaves, and lunatics who were not anywhere near as talented as Waddell or Williams.

For years, then, baseball tolerated flake-itude because it saw the quality so vividly in so many of its greatest players. If you want a Ted Williams, you’re also going to have to put up with a Bo Belinsky. Over the years, however, as baseball became more and more of a product, this tolerance waned. Creeping corporate conformity afflicted the game, and the players began to look and sound like golf pros. A great player would have his flaky side covered up, while a mediocre player could see it end his career. Sometimes it happened to the same player over the span of his career. Back in the 1970s, Red Sox left-hander Bill (Spaceman) Lee was considered to be an amiable counterculture eccentric until the seventh game of the 1975 World Series, when he threw an ill-advised curve ball to Cincinnati’s Tony Perez that Perez sent back to the general area of Presque Isle, Maine. From then on, what was previously thought charming about the Spaceman was looked upon as vaguely subversive.

In so many ways, Clemens’ supporters are correct. He is a throwback. He is going to have 300 wins and a staggering 4,000 strikeouts by the time this season is finished, and he still goes out at 42 and throws very hard every fifth day for the Yankees. But he is most truly a throwback in that he is both a towering talent and a towering eccentric. In 1986, he celebrated Boston’s clinching of the American League pennant by riding a police horse around Fenway and, later that night, by exchanging inebriated head-butts on live television with teammate Al Nipper, both of which would have warmed the brandy-soaked cockles of Rube Waddell’s heart. In 1990, he suited up for a playoff game against Oakland with Ninja Turtle shoelaces in his spikes and lampblack under each eye. He looked like the ferocious middle linebacker at a preschool. Unfortunately, in the second inning of that game, Clemens sailed into ionospheric outrage at a call by umpire Terry Cooney and got himself tossed before the smudges under his eyes had yet dried. It was an operatic, Ruthian rage; in fact, the Babe himself once did very much the same thing, and another pitcher came in for him and threw a perfect game.

The names of Clemens’ children all begin with “K,” the universal scorekeeper symbol for a strikeout. Upon leaving Boston, he said he wanted to be closer to his Houston-based family, and then he took a fat contract with Toronto, thereby creating a certain dissonance in both logic and latitude. As time has gone on, at least for me, all of this has become part of the ineffable charm of Roger Clemens, who keeps trying his damnedest to be an old-school bulldog, but who keeps getting tripped up on the way by his connection to all the best parts of baseball’s lost renegade character. This weekend, he will do something that only 20-odd pitchers in the history of baseball have done, and something that may not be done again in our lifetime. There will be a lot of talk about the ghosts of great pitchers past, but look even closer, there among the shades, a goofy tin soldier will stand there, winking in giddy celebration.