Recently, I caught up with Michael O’Keeffe, one of the authors of American Icon: The Fall of Roger Clemens and the Rise of Steroids in America’s Pastime. The book hit stores on May 12.
This was the second book on Roger Clemens to come out in the past few months, following the release of The Rocket That Fell To Earth by Jeff Pearlman. My questions are in bold, and his answers are underneath:
What was the purpose of the book? How did the project start?
We had been covering the steroid issue in major league baseball and other sports for a long time, close to ten years. When the Mitchell Report came out, Roger Clemens made a lot of denials about steroid use.
He went on 60 Minutes, made a YouTube video, and filed a defamation lawsuit. We followed the story. And at some point last year, we thought that we had a lot of information.
It was difficult to tell these long narrative stories in the newspaper, so we thought we could put this together and tell a good story, both about how Roger Clemens went from being a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame to the target of a perjury investigation, and also about the rise of steroids in major league baseball.
Is the book more of a narrative, or is it investigative?
I think it’s both. We tell a story, but we also lay out facts that people may not have been aware of before.
Clemens has stated time and time again that he has never done drugs. In fact, he said that American Icon was “one big fat lie.” Why is he so quick to defend himself against the evidence, if he is indeed guilty?
We had requested interviews with him, and he declined or ignored our requests. But there were people that we were talking to that were close to him, and so he had a sense of what was to come and what was in the book (the kind of questions we were asking, the kind of information that we were presenting to people).
The thing about Clemens is that the qualities that made him a great pitcher—his ferocity, his tenacity—there’s a thing in his DNA where he just can’t quit and he just won’t give up. His inability to sit down gets the best of him. He thought he had an opportunity to shoot some things down before they got started.
Why use the term “American Icon?”
I think that Clemens embodies a lot of things that are very American, for good or for bad. He was born in Ohio, and moved to Texas when he was a teenager. He re-invented himself in Texas. He was no longer this kid from Ohio, he became this fireballer, he embodied the “Lone Ranger” type of icon that people in the Southwest are drawn to.
Do you think that performance enhancing drugs still effect the game today as much as it did six or seven years ago?
I think that baseball has formulated a better response to it, but I don’t think you can safely say that the Steroid Era is over. There is still no test for human growth hormone.
But I think that major league baseball sees that there is a bigger picture here, we want to create a level playing field, we want to create a culture that tells people it’s not a good idea to use steroids.
There has been so much coverage of performance enhancing drugs in the sport of baseball. Do you think the fans have had enough? Do you think that they’ll start feeling sorry for guys like Clemens and A-Rod who have been put under the spotlight?
Fans say a lot of times that they are sick of hearing about steroids, but I think when they hear the details and various cases about how guys used them, how they effected their performance, how they effected their life, it becomes a much more interesting story.
If you just hear that the game that you love has been wrecked by steroids, it sounds like a broken record for awhile.
But I think, for example, if you tell people that Jose Canseco went from a guy who was one of the most feared hitters to a broken-down man who is suffering from emotional and relationship problems, I think that becomes interesting to people.
And the way that Roger Clemens has fought this battle is also interesting to people. This was a guy who was prominently featured in commercials and movies and charity work, but now this is a guy who has become very private. People are interested in those kind of stories.
Have you ever met Clemens?
I’ve interviewed him in the clubhouse after games many times, and I’ve had the opportunity to talk to him one-on-one. I had a real magical experience with him once where I wrote a story about a number of baseballs that were stolen from the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
They were autographed by five different Presidents. Walter Johnson, who always started the season, used to get the Presidents to sign these balls for him, and they were stolen from Hall of Fame, and I did a series of stories about this.
Bill Maddon, one of my colleagues here at the Daily News, and I wound up doing some detective work and helping the FBI locate these balls. The FBI got these balls back and returned them to Cooperstown, and they did a ceremony with Walter Johnson’s family at Yankee Stadium, and I got to stand in the dugout before the game started.
Clemens actually came out, and we wound up having a long talk about it. I thought he was a really interesting guy; he knew all about baseball history, and we had a great conversation about it.
Do you think the book unfairly pinpoints on one player? Or was it necessary to pinpoint on Clemens because of his status as one of the best ever?
Well, the story develops when Clemens filed his lawsuit, and Clemens took his denials to the press and the public, and that’s what the book is about. Why not focus on Clemens? If there are wounds here, aren’t they self-inflicted?
In a previous interview you compared Roger Clemens to George Bush. Can you elaborate on that?
I think they’re both iconic figures. They’re both guys who were born in other parts of the country but re-invented themselves in Texas. They both took on that swagger that people associate with Texas. Obviously, that didn’t work out too well for President Bush’s Presidency. I think there are parallels there with Clemens.
Just as Bush said “I’m the decider, I make decisions whether they are right or wrong,” Clemens also made some decisions that people around him advised him against. A lot of things, in hindsight, didn’t really work out for him.
Do you think that Clemens will ever make the Hall of Fame?
I don’t have a Hall of Fame vote. But I think that a lot of things can change in five years. Time will tell; he officially hasn’t retired yet, so he won’t be eligible until five years after he does that.
What happens if he gets indicted on perjury charges? What happens if he’s convicted? What happens if he goes to trial, and gets acquitted? I don’t know.
You worked with three other writers on this book. How was that experience?
It was great. The people that were on our Daily News I-Team are all very talented, and I feel privileged to work with three really good reporters. We’ve been working together for a long time, so it wasn’t very difficult.
There were times it was easier because we had four people working together, but sometimes it was harder because things weren’t always coordinated.
Final question: What is the primary reason that people should go out and buy this book?
It gives you a real detailed look at how the greatest pitcher of our time, maybe the greatest pitcher ever, responded to the allegations in the Mitchell Report. It tells a story about Clemens’ fall from grace in a level of detail that people haven’t seen before.
We talk about a specific player, but I think his reaction to the Mitchell Report, and the things that we learned from his reactions, told us a lot about the culture of steroids in baseball. So it tells a lot about an individual player, but there is also a greater social story being told here.