Commentary

'No' word of choice for Roger Clemens

Former pitcher lives his life much like he did when he played … by never, ever giving in

Originally Published: August 25, 2010
By Doug Glanville | ESPN.com

Every player, fan and pundit has his or her opinion about what makes up "greatness." Some of these theories defy anatomy: Winners have fire in the belly. Others defy mathematics: Champions give 110 percent. Still others are hard to wrap your head around: They have the intangibles; they have a "once in a generation" skill set; they come from a special pedigree.

I have my own theory: Often the best of the best live in denial and exhibit A is the recently indicted Roger Clemens.

[+] EnlargeRoger Clemens
David Butler II/US PresswireRoger Clemens ruled by intimidation throughout his 24-year career in the big leagues.

The hot water Clemens was in after his defiant performance before a congressional committee just got hotter, and for the most part, he is the one who turned up the heat. Since leaving the game, he has been working tirelessly to clear his name from the roster of suspected steroid users, to disassociate himself from the eye-opening Mitchell report, to restore what everyone thought was his Hall of Fame legacy. But most of his efforts have done nothing but fan the flames of self-induced arson in his direction.

The drug culture in baseball has laid bare the ugly side of the soul of the game. Fans have now seen the abuses and greed that come in a win-at-any-cost environment. We have found out how far athletes already blessed with amazing skills will go to be the best. We have seen great players come crashing down to earth, seen too many Superman costumes disintegrate.

I have come to understand that this culture has a lot of layers. Players who use performance-enhancing drugs aren't always motivated by the dollar sign or the desire to break records. They are often racked with fear and anxiety about being in a world where they don't have the ability to strap on the spikes every day. So they inhale their own hype and become so disoriented in the thin air on the mountaintop of stardom that they lose touch with reality.

No matter how great you have been, your skills erode as your body ages. That is what's called "Life 101." At some point you simply cannot prevail on the field based only on your natural ability, work ethic and mental toughness. It's a difficult new paradigm for someone who has dominated at every level of the game.

In an effort to deny life's process, you just say "no." Not to drugs, but to nature. For super athletes, "no" is the default answer when it comes to self-assessment. Are you hurt? No. Were you nervous when you stepped on the mound in the ninth? No. Do you care about what Gary Sheffield said about you? No. That mantra is our mantle of protection. We can't even imply weakness -- to our managers, to our fans or to our opponents. We say "no" so much -- aloud and to ourselves -- that after a while it becomes our truth.

Human beings -- even finely tuned athletes -- can keep self-doubt at bay for only so long. So when the doubts do creep in, when you realize you can no longer march among the giants, you may choose another way to fence out any sign of frailty. "Numb" is the word. Better not to feel the ups and downs of the human condition that inconveniences us in an arena where we are supposed to be invincible.

So you swallow a different pill, take a newer and better testosterone-laced cocktail for an edge. You sign for millions, you win championships. But you hardly crack a smile. You've either stopped feeling or the drug is taking that feeling away for you.

Eventually and, inevitably, reality comes down like a judge's gavel. You're unmasked, and this time, you can't take a PED to escape the consequences. Once your career has ended, you have lost all the tools of retaliation for your frustration. You are no longer able to brush back the pesky nine-hole hitter or hit that 450-foot home run and wait for the press to sit on your every word. You are an outsider. Even to yourself.

Everything you dreamed of as a kid and achieved as an adult is about to be lost. Your name is at stake and so is your legacy. So what do you do?

Simple. You answer reporters, the commissioner's investigators and congressmen with the same answer you've always used: "No."

And most likely, you barely even heard the question.

I don't think Clemens and others heard it, either. Because in the culture that existed in the 1990s and early 2000s, the question didn't really matter anymore. The end justified the means. You deluded yourself that it didn't matter how you got there, as long as you got there. But as my wise mother says, "He wanted to get there without going and so he missed the lessons of the journey."

At some point, it seems, [Roger Clemens] forgot what you can and can't control, became unable to measure risk versus reward, failed to understand that throwing a bat shard at a hitter is not even remotely sane even in the course of the most intense of competitions.

Clemens is protecting what all players protect in one form or fashion: their ego. When you step into the batter's box against Randy Johnson with 50,000 fans looking on knowing your pitcher just intentionally hit Johnson's teammate in the previous inning, you have to have ice water in your veins. You can't just think you can perform, you need to know you can with certainty.

Over time, as life catches up to you, that certainty becomes fleeting. You would think you would get better at managing your internal demons, but as you grow from rookie to veteran, you realize how many people are dependent on you and making sacrifices for you. The stakes just keep getting higher. If your kids are getting pulled out of school because you waived your no-trade clause, if you are missing more and more funerals back home, life seems to be passing you by, so you better know how to control your performance, since you can't seem to control anything else.

Roger Clemens was a tremendous athlete, not just physically, but mentally. His ego and his ability allowed him to challenge every hitter he faced. At some point, it seems, he forgot what you can and can't control, became unable to measure risk versus reward, failed to understand that throwing a bat shard at a hitter is not remotely sane even in the course of the most intense of competitions.

Clemens will probably fight to the death. It is who he is. It is how he competed. He will say "no" until it means nothing, until it is a reflex, not unlike what my 2-year-old son does when we reach to pick him up from his toys after a number of countdowns and warnings.

I hope Clemens takes a deep breath and a long look in the mirror, because there is a lot at stake and no turning back. He may well end up in prison, dragged off in total shock when he perhaps could have long ago changed the path of this outcome by just asking himself why he was saying "no" in the first place. Sadly, like many competitive athletes, he may have forgotten why by now.

Doug Glanville, who earned a degree in systems engineering from the University of Pennsylvania, played nine major league seasons with the Cubs, Phillies and Rangers. He serves on the board of Athletes Against Drugs and the fundraising committee of Boundless Readers. His book, "The Game from Where I Stand," was released May 11. Click here to buy it on Amazon.com.

• MLB analyst for ESPN and ESPN.com
• Played nine major league seasons with the Cubs, Phillies and Rangers
• Email: mail@dougglanville.com
• Website: http://www.dougglanville.com/