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Excerpt from 'The Rocket that Fell to Earth'

Excerpt from 'The Rocket that Fell to Earth'
The following is an excerpt from Jeff Pearlman's new book, "The Rocket That Fell to Earth", now available from HarperCollins.

There was talk.

Not that much talk, admittedly. But one must consider the time period. We were just emerging from the mid-1990s, when "steroids" and "performance-enhancing drugs" were words and phrases reserved for the NFL, the WWF and back-alley gyms with shady characters and crooked needles. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were more than a year away from their historic home-run duel, the Mitchell Report was Mitchell Page's career breakdown in The Baseball Encyclopedia and, to 99.9999999 percent of America, Victor Conte didn't exist.

But there was talk.

Not within the media, mind you. Writers and reporters weren't yet up to date on the drug culture of professional sports. Fans had little clue, either. They were happy lapping up the 500-foot home runs and 100-mph heaters.

But there was talk.

Among a growing number of major-league ballplayers, Roger Clemens' miraculous 1997 season hadn't been quite so miraculous. It wasn't that a man of Clemens' talents couldn't make the jump from 10 to 21 wins in the span of a year. It wasn't even the anger with which he seemed to pitch — occasionally a wild-eyed frenzy that reminded one of a rabid wolf at suppertime.

No, what was off was the physicality of it all. As the number of major leaguers who used steroids and human growth hormone increased, players started to recognize the signs among their peers. "You just knew," says one former major leaguer. "Guys who had no business being huge and strong were now huge and strong." It was Jason Giambi, once a spindly 190-pound third baseman with minimal pop, reporting to Oakland camp with muscles growing out of muscles. It was Jose Canseco, telling anyone who would listen that he could "hook you up with my guy." It was Ken Caminiti, the Padres third baseman, with those psycho eyes and fits of rage. It was the hushed conversations, the increased number of "handlers" in the clubhouse, the statistically implausible becoming plausible.

It was the reappearance of a fastball.

Roger Clemens worked hard. But over the course of the 1995 and '96 seasons, his fastball was topping out at 91, 92 mph, and his torso was slowly morphing into that of beer-league bowler. "Roger wasn't throwing the ball quite like he used to," says Mike Greenwell, a Red Sox outfielder. "He still had great stuff, but the velocity was off." Now, less than a year later, the 34-year-old Clemens was built like a sculpted heavyweight and throwing as hard as he had in the mid-1980s. "He got his velocity back," Carlos Baerga, the Mets second baseman, explained in September 1997 when questioned about Clemens' inexplicable revival. Had it been noticeable in the past that Clemens' fastball wasn't up to snuff? Murray Chass of The New York Times asked. "Oh yeah," Baerga said. "He might have had a great conditioning program in the off-season. Maybe he was determined to show everybody that he hadn't lost anything."

That's why in early June, after the Blue Jays returned from a road trip against the Florida Marlins, Clemens trusted McNamee enough that he felt comfortable asking him to inject him with steroids. For the first-year strength and conditioning coach, this was a disturbing request. From working with body builders, McNamee knew a lot about steroids, growth hormones and other such substances. He was, however, a man who believed in the power of human strength and perseverance, who genuinely felt that a 35-year-old man like Clemens could — with enough regimentation — turn back the hands of time.

"Mac loved work more than any trainer I know," says C. J. Nitkowski, a veteran major-league pitcher and fellow St. John's alum. "The first year I trained with Mac, I pitched poorly, and I asked him whether I should use [the steroid] Winstrol to maybe help get my speed back. He said, 'You don't need it. You'll supplement, but you'll use over-the-counter supplements.' He wanted me doing it the right way."

But with Clemens, what was McNamee supposed to do? He was 30 years old and a father, and baseball's best pitcher wanted his assistance. Clemens knew that McNamee's one-year-old son, Brian Jr., had recently been diagnosed with juvenile diabetes. Doctors taught McNamee how to draw different types of long-acting and short-acting insulin. "Up until then, I had no experience with needles, other than getting them in me from doctors," McNamee said. " . . . I believe that that's why [Roger] came to me, to think that I was able to do that."

It remains unclear why Clemens approached McNamee following the Florida road trip, but it might have had something to do with his June 8 start against the Marlins. With temperatures in the high 80s and unbearable humidity sucking the life out of all creatures great and small, Clemens struggled, allowing three earned runs in seven innings to a bargain basement lineup. It wasn't that Clemens pitched poorly; what might have bothered him was that, as younger teammates seemed to glide through the thick air, he was a lumbering station wagon. "Every other pitch I threw would be released differently," Clemens said afterward.

"You'd see a spray of perspiration fly off my hand and wrist. I didn't have long sleeves on to absorb it."

A few days later, McNamee injected Winstrol into the pitcher's buttocks for the first time. The steroid had been obtained by Clemens. So had the needles. McNamee arrived at the pitcher's apartment, had Clemens pull down his pants and bend over. In went the drug. A few days later, on June 14, Clemens started against the Orioles at SkyDome. In one of his worst outings of the year, Clemens lasted just five and a third innings, allowing six hits, four runs and five walks. Afterward, he blamed the poor showing on a painful twinge in his right leg.

Over the next four days, Clemens fretted aloud whether his leg would force him to miss a start. However, when he took the mound at Baltimore on June 19, he felt electric. "I noticed right away that I was very strong," he said, "and my arm was alive and my velocity was dynamite." The Blue Jays lost in 15 innings, but Clemens had been rejuvenated.

McNamee said he injected Clemens between 16 and 20 more times that season — almost always in Clemens' SkyDome apartment (McNamee recalled once injecting Clemens in the visiting clubhouse of Tampa Bay's Tropicana Field — he rushed it, and Clemens wound up with an abscess on his left buttock), always out of sight of teammates and coaches. Clemens began shooting up Winstrol every fourth day, then — fond of the results — upped the frequency to every third day. The pitcher who had been topping out at 92 mph with Boston a mere two years earlier was now clocked at 100 mph. Before the injections, Clemens had registered 10 or more strikeouts on one occasion that season. Over his final 17 starts, he had 10 or more strikeouts 10 times.

If you were a member of the Toronto Blue Jays in 1998 and you were one of the many players not using performance-enhancing drugs, Roger Clemens' shtick had officially grown stale. Sure, it had been fun when Clemens initially signed with Toronto, what with all the hoopla. But now, well into his second season with the team, enough was enough. Reliever Dan Plesac, a 13-year veteran who cringed at the allowances the organization made for its ace, went so far as to name one of his horses "The 21 Rules" in honor of Clemens' special treatment. It was far from a compliment.

En route to winning 20 games and his second straight Cy Young Award, Clemens made it increasingly clear that his interest in continuing as a Blue Jay was waning. So what if the franchise had given him $24.75 million, the manager of his choice and his close friend, Canseco, a job when nobody else would? Toronto, Clemens had decided, wasn't committed to winning. In mid-July, as the trade deadline approached and the Blue Jays languished 20-something games out of first, Clemens had his agents informally request a trade. "When Roger signed with Toronto, there was a good-faith understanding that the club was committed to win and Roger wanted to be a part of it," said Randy Hendricks, his agent. "And that if that did not appear to be the case, the Blue Jays would make a good-faith attempt to trade him." Clemens confirmed his agent's words, snidely adding, "This is the same situation we were in last year when management didn't know what they were doing."

But just whose fault was this? Although Canseco was having a statistically eye-popping power season, with 46 home runs and 107 RBIs, his .237 average and 159 strikeouts were inescapable holes in the Toronto lineup. And Johnson, the manager had Clemens all but demanded the Jays hire, was a disaster. Though the team finished a respectable 88-74, veterans tuned out his zippity-doo-dah blather. He was eventually fired after his stories of Vietnam combat (in an attempt to put baseball into perspective, Johnson once told starter Pat Hentgen that he had killed a 12-year-old Vietnamese girl he thought was booby-trapped) were discovered to be fictional. "We actually believed Tim," says Robert Person, a Blue Jays pitcher. "We all chipped in once and bought him a motorcycle as a present. Roger came up with the idea of learning what Marine unit he served in and painting it on his helmet. When we tried finding out, well, there was nothing there." Alas, Johnson had not served in so much as the Cub Scouts.

As the Yankees ran away with the division, posting 114 wins en route to the World Series title, the Blue Jays sputtered along. In the final month, Clemens came to the stadium when he wanted to, failed to show up when he didn't. Even as the Blue Jays somehow sneaked to within five of Boston in the Wild Card race in mid-September, Clemens remained indifferent. When he took the mound, he played hard. Otherwise — whatever. "It was a running joke," says Ed Sprague, the team's third baseman. "Roger lived in the SkyDome, but we'd never see him. We'd say, 'What are you doing? Running the ramps while the game's going on?' "

On November 18, two months after Toronto completed the season, Ash, McCleary and (of all people), Dave Stewart, the recently hired assistant GM and former Oakland ace, flew to Houston to meet with Clemens at his home. The trip was a final effort to persuade Clemens to return to Toronto — and it represented everything wrong with the Blue Jays–Clemens marriage. "I didn't feel good about that, but I was new," says Stewart, Clemens' former adversary. "We really believed Roger would want to stay with the club, but he didn't. Personally, it didn't bother me, because I always felt like I understood Roger pretty well. He was a great pitcher, but he wasn't really conducive to winning. He had pitched for almost 15 years in the majors, and not once had Roger made a difference in anything having to do with winning for a ball club when it counted.

"So to me, if Roger wanted to leave, let him. Good-bye, farewell, have a nice day. We'll be just fine without you. And probably better."

Author:Fox Sports
Author's Website:
Added: March 24, 2009

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