As a kid, my three favorite non-White Sox players were as follows:
- Nolan Ryan
- Roger Clemens
- Rickey Henderson
Considering how much of the decade he spent with the Astros, the Nolan Ryan thing was probably just a byproduct of his face showing up on so many baseball cards (the 1990 Topps set featured the Express no less than five times). More than a few Sox fans also swore off of Ryan after his 1993 fracas with Robin Ventura, but I always though it was cool that for Ryan, being an old guy didn’t have to mean you were no longer a tough guy.
Being a tough guy, however, was entirely what made Roger Clemens cool. Yeah, he was a good pitcher but Clemens was so crazy, so mean out there that any wide-eyed 12-year-old had no choice but to bow before him in worship. If someone’s trying to show you up, throw a fastball high and inside. And you know what? Even if they’re not, throw a fastball high and inside anyway. Roger had money and girls and probably drove a pretty cool car, and every kid in a suburb like mine knew those were all you really needed in life.
And then there was Rickey. Rickey wasn’t tough like Nolan and Rickey wasn’t mean like Clemens, Rickey was just a goofy man-child who liked playing. No, he wasn’t what you’d call a class act or anything like that, but he was just so good, and he was so good at so much, and on top of that he was good at being good. Home runs? Sure. Extra-base hits? No problem. Drawing a walk? You got it. Stealing a base? Absolutely.
And for a time, they were all great in unison. Nolan kept throwing no-hitters, Roger’s name became synonymous with Cy Young voting, and Rickey perfected the art of being a one-man hit-and-run machine. And for a 12-year-old boy, it was like these three formed a perfect constellation of what was possible when he hit the diamond. Yes, you can keep pitching. No, there’s no reason to fear opposing batters. Of course power and speed aren’t mutually exclusive.
Sometime around my 14th birthday, just when a nation of teenage boys needed them most, these three titans of baseball diverged in remarkably different directions. Ryan, as 46-year-old men tend to do, damaged his arm beyond repair towards the end of the 1993 season, but oddly his departure was the easiest to digest. He had nothing to prove and, all things considered, went out a relatively high note.
Meanwhile in Boston, Roger started to fall apart on his own, years of flamethrowing all taking their toll on that multimillion dollar arm. Batters had caught up to him, and for Clemens to adopt a more graceful, Madduxian pitching style was probably out of the question; live by the fireball, die by the fireball, or so the saying might go. Of course he had his glorious resurrection in Toronto, and then his turn to stab the Red Sox faithful in the back by signing with the Yankees, and eventually waffling in and out of retirement due to what sporting capital he’d earned since those has-been days of 1996 by suddenly becoming one of the Greatest Pitchers of All Time again.
Rickey on the other hand, kept playing. And playing. And playing until finally no one in the league would pay him to suit up, but when all was said and done his standing was inarguable. People criticized Nolan’s walks and limited repertoire; people criticized Roger’s sportsmanship well before his personal ethics came to light.
But Rickey? The argument about Rickey wasn’t a matter of who was he better than but one of who, if anyone, was better than him.
Two of those boyhood heroes of mine crossed paths in the sports pages today, Rickey for getting into the Hall and Roger for the grand jury convening to possibly file perjury charges against him. With Rickey, it wasn’t a question of getting in but whether or not every single voter would agree that he should; with Roger, the question is now one of how a great competitor turned into such a jerk.
Roger played Judas to the Fenway faithful, flaunted the rules, made millions breaking the law, sold out his teammates and cheated on his wife before eventually going before Congress and blaming her for all of his legal troubles. Rickey just played on, ultimately amassing a body of work others will be judged by for generations. Roger became one of the most hated men in his line of work while Rickey became one of the most beloved. Roger’s life became defined by the things we weren’t supposed to know about. Rickey’s became defined by the things he couldn’t wait to tell us about.
And with that, I saw my youth spent watching baseball in a strange, almost sobering new light, because you know what? It’s easy to be Roger. I know a hundred Roger Clemenses, all slinking their way through trading floors, courtrooms and used car lots all across America, telling you about how much their car cost or hanging out in downtown bars after work trying to pick up cocktail waitresses before they head back home to the wife and kids.
But you want to be Rickey? You think you can be Rickey?
Forget about it. Only Rickey can be Rickey.