Cast doubt on Clemens, too

The Baltimore Sun

We moved past Denial a long time ago, right? And if we've done our Apologizing, does that mean we've finally reached the Acceptance stage?

How else do you explain the double standard that lies at the heart of the endless steroid controversy?

Popular sentiment goes like this: Follow Barry Bonds' home run chase with protest signs, but please take off your hats and give Roger Clemens your undivided attention. We willingly demonize one and lionize the other.

At the same time Bud Selig wrings his hands over whether he'll watch Bonds break Hank Aaron's home run record, we've curiously chosen to celebrate Clemens' return to the diamond. The media line up in front of Bonds like some kind of carnival dunk tank, but for Clemens, ESPN chose to televise each of his three minor league appearances. It even had a running pitch count - unprecedented coverage of the one man in baseball whose free pass evidently has no expiration date.

Now, I don't mind Bonds' being cast as a villain; he earned the role. But how can we not view Clemens through a lens tinted with the same skepticism?

Let's start with the parallels:

Both players found incredible success late in their careers. In 2001, a 37-year-old Bonds hit 73 homers and won a Most Valuable Player award, and a 39-year-old Clemens won the Cy Young Award. Bonds was 40 when he won the MVP award in 2004, the same year a 42-year-old Clemens won another Cy Young. In all, Clemens won four Cy Youngs after 34 and Bonds won four MVPs after 37. (Keep in mind that Bill James proposed a quarter-century ago that players peak at age 27. Even though many now say a player can peak at 28 or 29, most don't expect a player's best years to come at midlife.)

They've both undergone major physical transformations late in their careers, each taking the field looking like he's wearing a winter coat underneath his uniform. The explanation for their amazing bulked-up physiques is the same: a rigorous workout regime.

They both stand behind the same generic defense: "I've passed every test MLB has thrown at me," which is not entirely unlike your son or daughter bragging about spelling all the words correctly on a math test.

There are plenty of other tidbits surrounding both, of course. Clemens was first finger-pointed by the game's 'roided-up canary. In his book, Jose Canseco said he'd never seen Clemens take steroids but said Clemens showed "classic signs" of steroid use and that the two of them had "talked about what steroids could do for you, in which combination." I'm not sure I'd let Canseco park my car, but I'm still waiting for someone to disprove a single one of his assertions.

Clemens was also linked to "athletic performance-enhancing drugs" by news reports of the Jason Grimsley affidavit. In issuing a denial, Clemens' agent noted that the 11-time All-Star does take B-12 shots, which many believe to be locker room slang for an illegal substance.

Some accounts of what that affidavit says also mention Clemens' personal trainer, Brian McNamee. You'll recall that the Boston Red Sox had given up on Clemens, and it was McNamee - by all accounts, an upstanding professional - who immediately resurrected his career in Toronto in 1997.

Admittedly, that isn't a lot of evidence from which to draw conclusions, and no doubt that might seem like the easiest way to balk at the comparison between the two: Barry has mountains of evidence stacked against him; Clemens does not.

And that's precisely the point.

Smoke surrounds both players, but the major reason Bonds feels so much more heat is because someone - or more precisely, "everyone" - is willing to fan his flames with more vigor. There's more proof because the federal government has expended countless resources, man-hours and tax dollars to collect evidence. No one has made a concerted effort to reveal exactly why Clemens was a better pitcher at 40 than he was at 30.

Is he a genetic freak? Maybe.

Does he have an incredible work ethic matched with amazing talents? Probably.

Is there something else that helped? Right now, there's as much reason to believe as disbelieve.

And would he pass the same litmus test Bonds faces every day? We might never know because more and more, it seems like we don't really want to know.

This is by no means an accusation, rather a skeptical inquiry into our evolving nature. With Bonds, we can't see past the smoke - which makes sense when you consider he's chasing the game's most hallowed record - but with Clemens, fans and media members seem more than content to strain their eyes a bit, gaze through the suspicion and figure that peripheral smoke is probably coming off the Rocket's fiery pitching arm.

I'm not sure what he did to earn the benefit of the doubt, but when Clemens makes his season debut with the Yankees, you need only listen to the fans' reaction to understand what stage of the steroid controversy we're in.

On second thought, maybe it's not acceptance, after all. Maybe we never really moved past denial.

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