Stephen Strasburg and Roger Clemens
The Rocket throws down; pitchers knocked from their perches atop the mound
One may never be right again. The other has never been wrong.
Some notes this week on doubt and on certainty; on the power of hope and the weakness of flesh; on tranquility, clarity and the bonfire of the vanities; on self-deluding screwballs and delusional loose screws; on the death of imagination and the life of the mind; and on the fate of Stephen Strasburg and the arraignment of Roger Clemens.
A tough week altogether for pitchmen in Washington, D.C., with the possible exception of Glenn Beck.
A month to the day after Stephen Strasburg was first pulled from the rotation because he couldn't get loose, the Nationals announced last week that he's headed for Tommy John surgery. That story, and the heartbroken fan comments to follow, is here. I first wrote about Strasburg, and the mystery of why something happens to one someone and not to another, here.
And while that surgery is now commonplace, with a "success" rate among big leaguers in excess of 85 percent, it is still a roll of the dice on the swiftness and sureness of his return. There's a lot of rehab and therapy and hard work between now and then. Anything can happen.
More importantly, even a successful surgery and post-op rehabilitation fails to address the origin of the injury. Was there some flaw in his delivery, some mechanical error in his motion, some fatal hitch in his gitalong? Was it just the force of what he did and how he did it? Or is he architecturally unsound? Was it Fate? Or was it physics? Was it just bad luck? Or bad faith?
The numbers guys will blame the math, and the feel guys will blame the trainers, and the coaches will blame the scouts, and the fans will blame the pitch counts, and the mooncalf press will blame them all and indict the very arc of the stars across the sky -- until the whole gaudy prayer wheel of public feeling grinds coarse and slow another millimeter in the direction of "what if?"
Stephen Strasburg may or may not ever be the same. All we know for certain is that his explosive moment as America's speedball phenom has come and gone. He can become many things in the years ahead, including the best pitcher in baseball, but the first fire of his arrival has passed and our lust for his freshness grown cold. Whether we'll ever feel anything so hotly for him again is a question to be fanned up out of the embers in 2012.
From a pitcher at the sad end of his beginning to a pitcher at the beginning of his sad end, we move from Strasburg to Roger Clemens.
Was there ever a Romantic poet or stoner guitarist or a paranoid schizophrenic with a less certain grasp on our common reality than buttoned-down Super Texan and thrower of balls, bats and tantrums Roger Clemens? I would assert that there was not.
Like most great athletes, his confidence is a kind of madness.
Last week, former big leaguer turned very smart writer Doug Glanville had some very smart thoughts about the seven-time Cy Young winner.
Mr. Glanville and I differ only by degrees on the matter. Doug thinks Roger is in a state of midlife crisis and stubborn, but purposeful, denial.
I think that Clemens occupies an entirely separate reality, and that no matter what he may or may not have actually done, he believes himself completely innocent. After all, he inhabits the same impenetrable bubble of clueless, blameless self-regard as the jackass quarterback who used to knock the cafeteria tray out of your hands in high school.
So I suspect that whatever Clemens has done, in his own mind he has done nothing, broken no rule, violated no trust. He has only honored his higher purpose, only done those things necessary to maintaining the realities of Roger Clemens. This seems like honesty to him.
But let's assume federal prosecutors have sufficient evidence of PED use to at least bring today's arraignment on charges of perjury. (We assume so because government lawyers and bureaucrats aren't in the habit of setting themselves up for high-profile failure. Whether that case is winnable however, or even gets to trial, is a different story.)
This is a good time to note that Clemens is called the "Rocket" -- not the "Rocket Scientist" -- for a reason. The power of his brain is that of an arm or of a fist, an instrument of the will, a strong blunt thing, the purpose of which is to ensure that anything can't just happen.
That powerful lack of imagination, that very narrowness of thought, is part of what allows great athletes to succeed. An inability to imagine the worst, to imagine failure, is a kind of courage after all. Part of being "in the zone" is willing away consequences until only gestures remain. Only action, without thought of result. To introduce doubt into that system, or self-awareness, is to beckon failure itself. Look at Tiger Woods.
Even the most devout sports stars secretly understand themselves as agents of the divine; beloved proxies determining their own outcomes on behalf of their higher power. So guys like Clemens believe they hold their future entirely in their own hands, without any worry from idiot destiny or ruthless chance or cruel luck or pipsqueak lawyers.
That's not true of course. The universe still surges and ebbs and Roger Clemens bobs on those tides as helpless as a cork, just like the rest of us.
But in a world crippled by doubt, Roger Clemens is absolutely certain of one thing: Roger Clemens.
That certainty keeps him safe. Keeps him strong. That certainty protects him from the shadows and sharp edges the rest of us so fear. How I envy Mr. Clemens his one-man universe -- uncluttered by rules or by any objective truth, a universe made bright by the gleam from his hero's brow, a universe filled with hope and cut loose from worry and untouched by harm. How Stephen Strasburg must envy him the power of his mind and the might of his tendons. Twenty-three seasons! The best there ever was! Who did whatever it took! If only young Strasburg could have been as strong in his thoughts! As pure in his beliefs! As wide through his hams!
How I envy Roger Clemens the simplicity of a universe in which the only truth looks back at him from his mirror.
How I envy him the purposeful absurdity of his certainty.
Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can e-mail him at email@example.com, or follow his Twitter.com feed @MacGregorESPN.