Do we really need to see superstar pitcher Roger Clemens challenged by senators at congressional hearings to know that baseball has gotten a little off point lately, perhaps a bit two-faced on ethics? Apparently, we do.
I caught up with Michael O'Keeffe this week, one of the authors of American Icon: The Fall of Roger Clemens and the Rise of Steroids in America's Pastime, which hit the streets May 12th. He told me that according to documents he and his Daily News co-authors Teri Thompson, Nathaniel Vinton, and Christian Red, amassed for the book, Clemens lied more than 20 times under oath to congressional committee Chairman Henry Waxman and ranking Republican Tom Davis. The very same day the book was released, Clemens appeared on ESPN's Mike and Mike in the Morning to once again deny all charges, calling the book a pack of lies.
In her May 11, 2009 New York Times review of American Icon, Michiko Kakutani wrote: "The ceremony commemorating the Yankees' final game at the old stadium last September featured appearances by famous Yankees like Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Don Larsen, Reggie Jackson, Tino Martinez, Bernie Williams and David Wells, and a video celebrating the team's greatest players at each position. Conspicuously absent was Roger Clemens, the seven-time Cy Young Award winner, who boasted 354 career victories and 4,672 strikeouts on his stat sheet. It was as though Roger the Rocket -- who had become a focus of a federal investigation -- had never even pitched for the Bronx Bombers. This was just one measure of how fast and far the heat-throwing pitcher had tumbled since he was prominently named in former Senator George J. Mitchell's December 2007 report on the use of performance-enhancing drugs in Major League Baseball."
I asked O'Keeffe what he thinks will happen next to Clemens, baseball, and the use of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs in major league sports.
TS: What's your take on Roger Clemens and his continuing denial about using steroids?
O'Keeffe: I think the guy lives in an alternate universe. You know, ten minutes before the congressional hearing, Tom Davis, the ranking Republican on the committee, said to Clemens 'are you sure you want to do this? Nobody wants to do this.' And Clemens said 'I want to do it. I want to take my case to the American people.' It was a suicidal thing to do.
TS: Alan Dershowitz wrote a piece in huffpost on January 11, 2008 called "Why Roger Clemens, Even If Innocent, Should Plead the Fifth." But he didn't do that either.
O'Keeffe: No. Clemens really is a figure out of Greek tragedy, or out of Shakespeare, in terms of hubris and aggressiveness and tenaciousness. All the things that made him a champ on the field, that made him a dominating figure in sports, worked to undermine him, away from the ball field, in the court of public opinion -- in the congressional arena, the legal arena.
TS: What is it you want people to understand about this story?
O'Keeffe: We want people to know the truth about how steroids and performance enhancing drugs are changing baseball.
TS: Do you have sympathy for the players' dilemma? If others take the drugs, they need to take them to keep up with the competition. The rules keep changing. What was ignored in one decade gets scrutinized in another.
O'Keeffe: I have a soft spot for that dilemma. There are people who want to do things right and they are confronted with an awful choice -- do I cheat or play? Kids now start asking themselves in high school about how to get just a little bit stronger or faster to get the opportunities and the scholarships.
TS: So what does it take now, in your opinion, to be an American hero, an American icon?
O'Keeffe: To tell the truth and do the right thing. Which means I don't have a lot of heroes. Woody Guthrie was one of mine. Martin Luther King is another. I'm very cynical about people so when I do put someone up on a pedestal, I'm more than a little disenchanted if I find out there's something in their background that goes against it. Bruce Springsteen just got accused of cheating. My first thought was 'Bruce wouldn't do that.' But then I thought, 'What do I know? I don't know anything about him.' There's something in American life that makes us tend to put other people on pedestals very easily. Maybe we shouldn't do that. Maybe our heroes should be teachers.
TS: Does money make it worse?
O'Keeffe: Does money in baseball drive people to do use steroids? Money is a big incentive. You can look at it a number of different ways. If you're a superstar in sports and you're getting on in years, once you hit 30 or 34, your skills really decline. So some may do it to maintain their skills. Or maybe you are a second stringer or a third stringer and you just want to make the team. There's a huge pay differential between Triple A and Major League. And we shouldn't just being talking about the players. We should think about the owners, coaches, managers. If an agent helps somebody elevate his performance and that person gets a bigger contract as a result, the agent also benefits.
TS: Selena Roberts' book on A-Rod is just out. Manny Rodriguez has just been put under the spotlight. Every time you turn around, another baseball player is admitting to steroid use. Why did you focus on Clemens?
O'Keeffe: It's a kind of golden moment for this particular story. A lot of very interesting information coming out. It's a really thrilling game of shadows. We wanted to tell one full story in narrative form. We didn't want this to just be a block of facts. I'm a big fan of the guys who worked at the San Francisco Chronicle.
TS: Their Barry Bonds book, tracing his involvement with steroids to the off-season following the historic home-run race featuring Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa?
O'Keeffe: I kind of look at this book as an East Coast version of that.
TS: True stories about sports as morality plays?
O'Keeffe: You know, believe it or not, Clemens has a lot of similarities to George Bush. They both have big personalities. Both guys spent their early years in different parts of the country -- Bush was born in Connecticut and Clemens was born in Ohio -- before moving to Texas. Each re-invented himself in Texas, at a young age, taking on that cowboy swagger. Clemens was a very appealing character for a lot of people. He has a lot of iconic qualities -- doesn't try to fool the batters, challenges them. If you hit a home run off him, next time you may get a fast ball in the ribs. He gives no quarter. He takes no quarter. He's a sort of John Ford Western. And then there's the decline and the actions he took in response to it. He found himself under investigation, the fans turning their backs, baseball turning its back. Yet he is still arguably the greatest pitcher who ever wore a Yankee uniform. Before Mike and Mike, he hadn't made a major public appearance or given a statement of note in fifteen months. We were talking about this last night. What was he thinking? Why now? I think it's because he's a guy who never backs down. There's something in him. No matter how fast the ship is going down, he can't give up, he can't surrender.
TS: What will Clemens be doing a year from now?
O'Keeffe: We don't know. We don't know what's happening with the federal investigation. The FBI is talking of potential witnesses. This time next year, he could be up for perjury. It depends on how many counts. We counted 20 plus, numerous dishonest statements in his account to Congress. I think it's realistic that if Clemens is indicted, he'll be looking at a couple of months.
TS: When did you know you had a book, that this was going to be a long and complex ongoing issue?
O'Keeffe: We were covering the steroid issue for years. The Daily News has been one of the leaders in coverage of that area. We were out in front when the Mitchell Report came out in 2007, and Clemens was named in it. We had heard some rumblings about Andy Pettite and Brian McNamee. So when Clemens denied and dismissed McNamee's accusations against him as an out and out lie, and went on 60 Minutes, we were following the story. At some point as the months passed, we talked amongst ourselves and said there's enough material for a book. Not a bio of Roger Clemens but an exploration of the decisions he made and the actions he took.
TS: Four of you wrote this book. What was that like?
O'Keeffe: We've had a sports investigative team at the Daily News for nine years or so now. There have been people who've come and gone, but Terri Thompson and I have worked together for a very long time. Terri's the boss. She's a great editor. We all have different contacts and different methods. We all bring our own noise, our own disagreements and spats, but we all did quite a bit of research and reporting. We each wrote up different parts. There were a couple of months where it was very intense. I'm thrilled to be doing this kind of in-depth, long-term investigative work.
TS: This is exactly the sort of reporting that's most in jeopardy if traditional newspapers go under, isn't it?
O'Keeffe: Yes. I used to work at the late great Rocky Mountain News, and it's heartbreaking to see so many good journalists looking for work.
TS: How has the work changed?
O'Keeffe: You have to do something to set yourself apart. It's no longer okay to just report on scores or last night's game. You don't need newspaper to tell you what happened the night before any more. Stories like this one go well beyond that.
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