Simon Schama: The League of Fallen Idols

Roundup: Historians' Take

Simon Schama is Columbia University professor and Newsweek columnist.

Never mind the mistrial, Roger Clemens was carrying his briefcase as though he were sentenced to be chained to it. Gods, even ones fallen steeply to earth, should not have to carry briefcases. Between the grinning lawyers he looked like a man who had mysteriously shot himself in his pitcher’s foot and, however scarred over the wound, would never get rid of the moral limp.

Roger Clemens was always half galoot, half Achilles. Those of us who saw him come quickly to greatness at Fenway Park in the 1980s couldn’t believe how superhumanly good he was, and how the Red Sox, doomed to live in the shadow of the Yankees’ smirk, had found someone to wipe it off everyone’s faces. It was the Clemens un-glamour that made his power so Bostonian: the jutting buns; the threatening scowl coming from small features crowded into a large head; the uninterested Katy, Texas, drawl; the crusher’s bulky body that somehow concentrated itself into explosive release. He was so unhittable he made others’ unhittable pitches look like softballs. Roger—no one called him “Rocket”—was all high-octane combustion. He was death by forkball. It killed, but it was quick. Never mind the Seattle lineup that couldn’t believe what was being done to them on the night of April 29, 1986, when Clemens struck out 20; his own teammates—not to mention the whole of the Fenway faithful, unhinged for once in their jubilation—couldn’t believe it either. A jaw-dropping marvel had arrived in a place better known for lobster rolls, academic muttering, and bad driving.

Things soured, as they will. Months after the Seattle stunner, the Game 6 ball dribbled through poor Bill Buckner’s wickety legs. Clemens’s scowl grew thinner and harder. The tungsten buns looked suddenly ungainly. Is that a paunch I behold? The ERA rose. Growly silences hung among the fans reaching for their weak beer. Many declared Clemens’s Best Days Over. We didn’t conclude something was wrong when at Toronto he seemed reborn. He just needed some time away. Didn’t we all? The rise to triumph with the Yankees, though, was rock salt in the wound.

Or maybe something more chemically effective?..

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