'The Rocket That Fell to Earth: Roger Clemens and the Rage for Baseball Mortality,' by Jeff Pearlman (HarperCollins Publishers; $26.99)
On this, the eve of a fresh baseball season, fans of all 30 big-league franchises fill themselves to the brim with the hope that their squad will accomplish what the Phillies did in 2008. But fans of disgraced pitcher Roger Clemens find this to be anything but the season of their content. For the first time since the mid-1980s, Clemens is more likely to face federal perjury charges for allegedly deceiving Congress’ probe of steroids in America’s pastime than to come out of retirement and pitch a perfect game.
That Clemens won’t be on the mound again will surely irk his fans. But Jeff Pearlman’s biography of the self-nicknamed “Rocket”—from youthful potential to the rule-breaking end of what would surely have been a Hall of Fame career—will devastate them. (Full disclosure: Pearlman and I worked together at the University of Delaware’s student paper; he asked me to help research this latest book, but a hit-and-run collision prevented my involvement.)
Clemens wouldn’t speak with Pearlman—“I called his agents and lawyer on multiple occasions but got zero response,” he explains—but 400 sources agreed to talk over an eight-month period. Thus Pearlman traces Clemens through various life stages, from his time as a chunky kid in Ohio who worshipped a drug-addicted older brother to his transfer from disappointing junior college to the storied Division I University of Texas. Pearlman follows him through Boston, Toronto, New York City and Houston, places where a volatile streak that left him teetering between the greatness of multiple Cy Young Awards and World Series rings and an uncontrollable rage that saw him throw a broken bat at local boy Mike Piazza.
It’s no hatchet job—Pearlman affords Clemens’ backers the opportunity to share stories about his good side—but logic dictates that Bad Clemens outweighs Good Clemens. Yet, the steroids mess the pitcher now finds himself in didn’t spur Pearlman to the topic. He says, “I was looking for someone famous, but yet not especially understood. If I never use the word ‘steroids’ again, I’ll be thrilled.”
Still, the result is an eminently readable deconstruction of a hothead who reached the status of those worshipped, only to be exposed as antihero during an era when people rightfully want asterisks affixed to the record books. Granted, it’s not the type of feel-good story to which Philadelphians can relate since baseball fans here are still living the high life. But it’s an encapsulation of the horrible era from which the sport is still trying to emerge.
Gabriel García Márquez, 1927-2014