Way Inside

The New York Times

By Doug Glanville

If Major League Baseball had a starter kit for players, it would no doubt contain a fortune cookie. Crack it open and you would find a little slip of paper with the message, “You have to believe in yourself or no one else will.” In general, good advice. But follow it too closely and you may end up believing in yourself so thoroughly that you trust no one else. This is usually where your problems begin.

The Rocket Man, Roger Clemens, may be in that place right now. His stubborn belief in himself seemed to grow as he fought to clear his name from accusations of steroid use made public in the Mitchell Report. Maybe, by insisting on his innocence, he thought he was pushing against a downhill-rolling snowball to get it back to the top of the hill; instead, he may have unleashed the worst avalanche of his life.

Most baseball players develop a special kind of shell that forms around them as their careers unfold. It probably isn’t that different from an eggshell. It is fragile, but no one is really allowed inside until the player is ready to share his secrets, or until something terrible happens, causing the protective layer to crack.

Inside this shell, a player justifies his need to be secluded. He perceives that the court of public opinion will either build him up or tear him down, and that either way, when his time comes, no one will remember him. So he uses this barrier to protect himself from the fickle judgments of the peanut gallery and to make it through his world.

It is a fairly typical and primitive form of defense. It is too complicated for players to navigate the press and millions of fans, each of whom has an opinion of them. It is even more complicated to share with family and friends or non-baseball colleagues the idea that their lives aren’t perfect — even with the fame and the six-figure paychecks. So they turn inward.

That is where things get a little weird. Bravado kicks in, and inevitably you end up only listening to your own voice or the voices of the ordained elite, those you’ve given the key to get inside. It becomes an alternate reality where even though you think you are saying things that make sense to the outside world, most of your true thoughts and ideas just bounce off the inside coating and end up right back where they started. To make matters worse, as with most catered-to athletes, your inner-circle is probably not giving you opinions substantive enough to allow you to assess yourself honestly.

To those outside Clemens’s protective shell, he seems to be fighting ghosts. We must understand that he stopped listening to the outside world a long time ago, partly because ignoring those voices was integral to his survival. So if he seems out of touch, it’s probably because he is out of touch. To “clear his name,” he has cast shadows over his immediate family and his closest confidantes with implications of their complicity in tainting his golden-egg status. All for a principle of honor that I am sure he firmly believes in because, like most players, he has been reinforcing it in his own head throughout his career out of self-preservation.

Clemens fought a great fight on the baseball field, racking up unheard-of accomplishments that statistically place him among the greatest pitchers of all time. Yet his methods of obtaining that success are in question. Like all who have achieved “greatness,” he has found that the top of the mountain is a lonely place — not only from standing alone, but from listening only to your own voice.

I know that when I first came to the Philadelphia Phillies, I ran around saying yes to every request. I was the new guy and a young prospect, playing in my college town. Pretty soon, I felt like a rag doll from agreeing to do every appearance, every interview, and that was the year my eggshell grew the most. I learned that as a player there are a lot of demands on your space and, when it becomes overwhelming, the easiest way to deal with it is to tuck your head safely inside the shell.

In this environment, it is easy to overcompensate. Clemens may end up destroying everything dear to him by maintaining his bull-in-the-china-shop approach — even those who have been with him since day one. What makes it even more difficult is that he is sparring in an arena where he has no experience. This is not Fenway Park; this is Congress and the Department of Justice, and they don’t miss hanging curveballs. To bust out of the shell like Rambo without acclimating yourself to this new world is nothing short of a kamikaze mission, no matter if your story checks out. Clemens is most likely at the point of no return and will shun those who would come to his rescue, thereby sealing his fate.

When the music stops for a baseball player, it is hard for him to accept that there is no longer a microphone amplifying everything he says. Suddenly, no one is listening, so he speaks louder. It becomes critical to have people around him he can trust. They will be the ones to let him know when he is off-track. If at that point he still ignores them, he shouldn’t be surprised to end up as the scrambled egg special of the week. Pass the salt.



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