Roger Clemens, Greek Tragic Hero

Roger Clemens

Sports Saturday

A mistrial was recently declared in the case of Roger Clemens, one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history. I mention the former Boston, Toronto, New York and Houston hurler because a book about him has compared him to a Greek tragic hero.  Today’s post explains why the description is accurate.

Here is what sports reporters of The New York Daily News have to say in American Icon: the Fall of Roger Clemens and the rise of Steroids in America’s Pastime:

No player in baseball’s long and rich history has fallen from grace as fast and as far as Roger Clemens. … Clemens’s fall is straight out of Greek mythology: The very traits that made him dominant on the pitcher’s mound, his tenacity and mercilessness, contributed to and possibly even caused his downfall. The barely harnessed anger that served him so well on the field sabotaged him in the legal arena, on Capitol Hill, and in the court of public opinion.

Before exploring the comparisons, here’s what happened.  In all probability, Clemens turned to steroids when he saw everyone around him using them.  He was losing his fabled edge and steroids gave him a chance to get back in the game. His statistics did such a dramatic turnaround that there’s no doubt that he took drugs.  In doing so, he was simply like many others, perhaps even a majority of ballplayers.

Where he got into trouble was through his aggressive assertions of innocence before Congress.  He didn’t dodge accusations, the way that, say, Mark McGwire did.  (See my post on McGwire here. ) He came with the high heat.

If he had only told the truth, both Congress and the public would have forgiven him.  After all, he was far from the only steroid user.  But that’s not Clemens’ way.  He was arrogant as he claimed that people were lying about him.  He became a magnet for district attorneys looking to make a name for themselves, and although the prosecutor in this case spectacularly bungled the case, leading to the mistrial, Clemens reputation is probably tarnished for good.

Now to Sophocles’ Oedipus, the quintessential Greek tragic hero.  Left to die on the mountainside by his parents because of dire warnings, Oedipus is found by a shepherd and raised by the king and queen of Corinth.  When he learns that he is fated to kill his father and marry his mother, Oedipus thinks he can outwit the oracle and flees the city.

This belief that he can handle whatever life throws at him is what makes Oedipus a great figure. When a man who is (unbeknownst to Oedipus) his biological father orders him to give way at a crossroads, Oedipus kills him and all but one of his body guards. Then, where lesser men would turn away, Oedipus answers the question of the sphinx that is tyrannizing Thebes and saves the city.  He marries the recently widowed queen (his mother) and they have four children.

Because of the offense to divine law, Thebes is struck with a plague, and Oedipus, still prepared to to do whatever is necessary to master the situation, digs for an explanation. Several characters, starting to get an inkling of what has happened, urge him to call off his search, but that just prompts him to declare them traitors to Thebes.  He throws out baseless accusations against Creon and Teiresias before finally arriving at the truth.

Even then he takes action, blinding himself and ordering Creon to banish him from the city. He is the quintessential control freak, which at once makes him great and tragic.

I can’t think of many pitchers who intimidated the way that Clemens did.  Batters were halfway to a strikeout before he had thrown a pitch. He was one scary dude.

He couldn’t change gears when testifying before Congress, however. He tried to bully his interrogators the way that Oedipus bullies witnesses.  We can say he should have handled himself differently, but that’s like saying he should have been a different man.  If he hadn’t been Roger Clemens, Congress and the prosecutor wouldn’t have been interested in him in the first place.

You can see why the Greeks were so fatalistic. Those who think they can master their own destinies will, sooner or later, be brought low.

They may throw some great pitches first, however.


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