There was a time when all of us figured that Roger Clemens would be a stone-cold lock to be voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame when his time came.
Well, his time has come, as Clemens' place on the 2013 Hall of Fame ballot became official last week. Over the last few years, however, his status as a stone-cold lock to be enshrined in Cooperstown has steadily been whittled away.
The Rocket's Hall of Fame status is now a giant question mark. Given all that's come out about him and his alleged PED use in the last few years, does he really deserve to go into the Hall of Fame next summer?
It's a question I've wrestled with quite a bit—for the exact same reasons, I suspect, that everyone else has wrestled with it. I'm sure that at one point in the past, my answer was an emphatic no. I probably even put it in print (bonus points to anyone who can find out).
But today's the day I say yes. Today's the day I'm ready to endorse Roger Clemens as a deserving candidate for entry into the Hall of Fame, in print and everything.
Some of you are Rabble!-Rabble!-Rabble!-ing right now, and I want you to know ahead of time that I totally understand. But I implore you to hear me out anyway, especially if you already have half a mind to head down to the comments section to voice your disagreement.
Let's not yell. Let's talk.
We can start with the obvious reasons for why Clemens deserves to be represented in Cooperstown. As far as his numbers and accolades are concerned, he is without a doubt one of the greatest pitchers to ever play the game.
In 24 big league seasons with the Boston Red Sox, Toronto Blue Jays, New York Yankees and Houston Astros, Clemens racked up 354 victories and 4,672 strikeouts. He ranks ninth on the all-time list in wins and third on the all-time strikeout list behind only Nolan Ryan and Randy Johnson.
Clemens led the league in ERA seven times and in strikeouts five times. He was an 11-time All-Star, a two-time World Series champion and the American League MVP in 1986. He is the only pitcher in history to win seven Cy Young awards.
Clemens' career ERA of 3.12 is only good for 212th on the all-time list, but it's not fair to compare pitchers from different eras using ERA as a primary measuring stick. It's better to compare them based on ERA+, a statistic that adjusts for ballparks and for league quality.
The Rocket compiled an ERA+ of 143 in his 24 seasons. That's good enough for 10th on the all-time list, which is more like it.
In terms of WAR—because everyone loves WAR—Clemens ranks second among right-handed pitchers behind Walter Johnson with a career WAR of 133.1, according to Baseball-Reference.com.
That encapsulates just how easy it is to argue that Clemens is one of the greatest right-handers to ever play the game. It's also quite easy to argue that he is the greatest right-hander to ever play the game.
After all, Clemens' career WAR is nearly as high as Johnson's despite the fact he appeared in nearly 100 fewer games. Johnson was also pitching well before Major League Baseball was integrated, meaning the overall quality of the league wasn't as strong as it should have been.
Clemens, on the other hand, was pitching many decades after integration, not to mention at a time when the league was becoming more and more multicultural with each passing year.
He also played during the Steroid Era, which I think is safe to say did far more wonders for hitters than it did for pitchers. Clemens succeeded anyway, winning four Cy Youngs from 1997 to 2004.
Ah yes, but what of Clemens' part in the Steroid Era? Is he not one of the main poster boys for the blasted thing? Did he not partake of the same sweet, career-making nectar as everyone else?
I don't know. Neither do you, if you feel like being honest.
With the exception of Clemens himself, nobody knows. His ties to the Steroid Era always were and still are damning, but they never were very strong, and now we know that they're actually very weak.
Clemens first became one of the primary villains of the Steroid Era when his name was mentioned a shocking 82 times in the Mitchell Report, but his name may not have been mentioned at all had it not been for the testimony of former Yankees strength coach Brian McNamee.
McNamee went on to become the star witness for the prosecution in Clemens' perjury trial, an upshot of his questionable testimony before Congress in 2008 that he had never used PEDs. McNamee came with his guns loaded, saying that he had injected Clemens with steroids several times in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and he even provided evidence of the injections.
But Clemens' defense had no trouble utterly destroying McNamee's credibility, and Clemens ultimately walked away with no convictions. As summarized by ESPN.com:
McNamee was the only person to claim firsthand knowledge of Clemens using steroids and HGH, and even prosecutors conceded their star witness was a "flawed man." Clemens' lawyers relentlessly attacked McNamee's credibility and integrity. They pointed out that his story had changed over the years and implied that he conjured up the allegations against Clemens to placate federal investigators.
Former teammate Andy Pettitte, the prosecution's other star witness, also turned out to be unreliable. The prosecution was hoping that Pettitte would magically recall a conversation he may have had with Clemens in which he had admitted to using PEDs, but the defense got him to admit that there was at least a "50-50" chance that he may have misunderstood what he had heard.
Pettitte has been attacked for changing his story from what he told Congress in 2008, but props go out to Craig Calcaterra of Hardball Talk for being one of the few who have consistently pointed out that Pettitte's story never actually changed. From the moment he was deposed by the government in 2008, Pettitte was uncertain about what he had heard in conversations with Clemens in 1999 and 2005.
If the testimonies of McNamee and Pettitte can be discredited—as they easily were in court—then there's not much to suggest that Clemens actually did use PEDs during his playing days. Not even Jose Canseco, who thinks virtually everyone used steroids but doesn't believe Clemens was juicing while he was playing.
To boot, there's no positive test for the Rocket on file, and the circumstantial evidence against Clemens is pretty flimsy
Yes, Clemens did begin a remarkable career turnaround in 1997 with the Blue Jays at the age of 34, but it was only three years prior that he posted a 2.85 ERA and an AL-best 176 ERA+. It's certainly possible that PEDs are what led him to become a dominant pitcher again, but it's also possible that he was simply able to overcome a couple bad years in a row.
As for how Clemens managed to be so successful between the ages of 34 and 44, it's not like the success he experienced in that time frame was unprecedented. Per Baseball-Reference.com, Clemens is one of 11 pitchers in history to accumulate a WAR of at least 34.9 between the ages of 34 and 44.
Also on that list are names like Nolan Ryan and Randy Johnson, whose long careers can be easily credited to hard work and freakish physical gifts that came naturally. It could be that such things allowed Clemens' career to last so long, as he has insisted all along.
It's perfectly OK to be suspicious of that actually being the case. I have my own suspicions about Clemens, and the recent survey carried out by the Associated Press makes it pretty clear that plenty of Hall of Fame voters have suspicions about Clemens.
All signs point toward these suspicions being enough for the voters to keep Clemens out of the Hall of Fame this year. Suspicions have managed to keep out Jeff Bagwell, after all, and his ties to PEDs are as weak as can be, if not altogether nonexistent.
But mere suspicions aren't good enough. By keeping players out of the Hall of Fame based solely on suspicions, voters are effectively punishing players for staining the integrity of the game despite not having real proof that they did stain the integrity of the game.
A charge like that is too serious to be made so easily. And since it is being made so easily, I worry that all the greats from the Steroid Era may be considered guilty by association in the same way that Bagwell is being considered guilty by association. If so, that would put players like Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux and even Derek Jeter at risk of being left out of Cooperstown.
Instead of considering all the greats from the Steroid Era under the same umbrella of suspicion, their cases should be handled individually. The only question that needs to be asked is how much proof there really is that they cheated their way to great accomplishments.
There's solid proof against Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds and plenty of others. The proof against Clemens, however, has been revealed to be well below solid.
Like it or not, the only thing that can be proved about him is that he was an excellent pitcher in his time, and one of the greatest to ever toe the rubber on a major league mound.
As long as the Rocket remains out from 2013 onward, the Hall of Fame will be incomplete.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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