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Home » Baseball

“Seriously, was anybody editing this thing?”

Submitted by on April 5, 2009 – 10:56 PM32 Comments

slyrogThe other day, I received an email from reader Todd K in which he crabbed at length about Jeff Pearlman’s new book on Roger Clemens.I had just read in Sports Illustrated‘s baseball preview issue that the book is “well-written,” a claim I greeted with an out-loud “I doubt it,” given how much I hated the writing in Pearlman’s book about the ’86 Mets.

But I considered picking up the Clemens book anyway, just to see…and Todd talked me out of it.He’s agreed to let me run his review below as a caveat lector.Thanks, Todd!If anyone else has read it, please do pile on in the comments.


Lord, this book about Clemens is dreadful. It’s a leading candidate for the worst baseball book I’ve ever read, and yes, I have read one of Canseco’s. I’m glad I bought it steeply discounted.

I am getting through it quickly, but that’s only because (1) as a reader, I tend to Hoover up trash at double-speed, and (2) there aren’t many words on the pages. It’s a surprisingly thin skim, considering that the major-league career alone gives the author 20+ years of good material. Entire baseball seasons elapse within a few paragraphs.

It’s difficult for me to imagine anyone finding this satisfactory writing at any level, no matter what his favorite team may be or what her take on Clemens is. It’s not well researched; it’s not all that juicy and revealing; it’s not balanced; it’s not thorough; it’s not even clever, although it makes many painful efforts to be.

I never thought I would say Clemens deserves a better book, but this is a shame, actually — his is a hard story to entirely screw up, and except for getting the obvious events in more or less the right order between two covers, Pearlman does screw it up. This reads like one of those quickie jobs conceived, hacked out and rushed into print in hopes of capitalizing on some scandal before the next scandal has driven it too far into the “Who cares?” realm. (Arguably too late. A shame Pearlman didn’t know that A-Rod would be singing the cabaletta to Clemens’s steroid aria. We might have had a bad, rushed, but somewhat more timely book.)

The tone is unremittingly spiteful and petty, and it’s just tiresome. Pearlman hits below the belt in little, annoying ways: he will quote “he said/he said” exchanges in which Clemens’s statements from the 1980s alternate with seemingly new reminiscences on the same events by people who hate Clemens. If you aren’t paying close attention to verb tenses (like, Clemens “said” and Umpire X “says”), and considering the circumstances under which the book was written (which is to say, Clemens likely never would have contributed a word, even if his cooperation were sought), you could get suckered into thinking it’s a fair rhetorical fight.

The editing is also extremely lazy (I wish I could remember one particular grammatical train wreck earlier, when the author got tangled up between two similar words and went the wrong way; I should have jotted it down). And considering how much space Pearlman devotes to making the case that Clemens is intellectually limited, inept with the English language, and barely literate, I would have expected Pearlman’s own writing not to lapse so often into the middle-school gaucherie of these examples:

“From the broadcast booth, Ned Martin and Bob Montgomery welcomed the audience to yet another New England Sports Network telecast with all the energy of a supermarket pudding sale.”   [“This is not as painfully rando as the ‘spoiled scrod’ reference in TBGW, but it’s close.” — SDB]

“The confounding factor in Clemens’ persona was that, despite [marketing expert Brandon] Steiner’s take [that Clemens was unattractive to advertisers], he wasn’t a prototypically evil guy. This was no Barry Bonds, scowling his way through life.”

“Yet much like the serial killer who cheerfully shows up for work each day at the post office, Clemens had (and still has) an uncanny ability to compartmentalize these parts of his life. He could hit three batters in the head and incite a massive brawl, then moments later praise the clubhouse pot roast and baked potatoes. [Second silly baseball scenario omitted. You’re welcome.] He could sleep around while reaffirming his commitment to his beloved bride.”

“To Clemens, the initial thought of becoming a Blue Jay offered the appeal of an airport toilet.” (This kind of mind-reading is all over the book, and usually it is just this flatly declared — there is not even a pretense of a source.)   [“Also: ‘air-port toilet’?   Typical Pearlman: the image is too much for the comparison, and on top of that, he botches the usage.   Not that airport toilets are that great, but he means ‘air-plane toilet,’ no?” — SDB]

“Though McNamee exercised perspicacity when he surmised Clemens to be a typical superstar blowhard, he relished the feeling of sitting alongside baseball royalty.”

“It wasn’t that Clemens pitched poorly [in a 1998 Blue Jays/Marlins game]; what bothered him was that, as younger teammates seemed to glide through the thick air, he was a lumbering station wagon.”

Re: the Yankees. “The loathing of the Rocket had started in 1991, when he nailed Yankees catcher Matt Nokes with a fastball to the body.” (It took until 1991? And that was what did it?)

clempet(With the ’99 Yankees.) “For most of his career, Clemens had been treated royally. But now, surrounded by 10 players with All-Star résumés, and a handful who would one day be considered for the Hall of Fame, Clemens seemed to revert to the chunky kid from Butler Township.”(A handful will only be “considered” for the Hall of Fame? Isn’t pretty much everyone, after the requisite period of retirement? [“Yes.” — SDB])

Having strongly emphasized that Clemens is a poser fake-Texan who was born in Ohio and did not move to Texas until well into his teenage years (“despite decades of selling the world a different tale,” p. 7), and having taken many opportunities to remind us subsequently that Clemens was just a fat kid from Ohio, the first time Pearlman discusses Andy Pettitte (p. 276), he writes, “Having also grown up in Texas and attended San Jacinto, Pettitte would have jumped through fiery hoops to impress Clemens, his role model and mentor.” Emphasis mine.Sheesh, Jeff, which is it?

“In a scathing interview with Playboy, Wells — pitching adeptly for the Blue Jays — turned the knife.”

“The phone call came on the morning of May 18, 2000. The words hit Roger Clemens hard, like one of his very own 98-mph fastballs to the head.” (I have not ruled out that Pearlman writes from experience. But I have a feeling he thinks this is a great, gripping line. I’m surprised he resisted the opportunity to use it as the book’s opening, and then have everything prior to 2000 be a flashback. I’ll bet he considered it.)

“Justin Gore, a 20-year-old wayward drug dealer, whipped out a gun and pointed it at the woman who had once been named Houston’s Teacher of the Year. Kathy let out a terrified scream […] At approximately the same time Kathy’s life was ending, Roger Clemens’ night was thriving. As she was staring down a gunman, he was facing the Chicago White Sox at Yankee Stadium. As she was being pronounced dead, he was being pronounced alive, having won his fourth game with a beautiful seven-inning, two-run, nine-strikeout masterpiece.”

Oh, God. That’s enough. I find that last one not just poorly written but inexcusably distasteful, no matter how hard I try to see what “literary” “device” Pearlman was failing to bring off. You get the point. After a while, you start realizing that if you come across two consecutive sentences that are not painful to read, and they aren’t a quote from the likes of Dave Stewart, they’re an excerpt from some article by Shaughnessy, et al.

Mind you, this is only the style; let’s not even get into the substance. Well, just one for-example, because the stinking thing is open to the page in question: we’re told that the people of Toronto came to the Skydome early in 1997 “abuzz at seeing a real-life future Hall of Famer up close.” Even if we concede that Clemens was the first such player ever to put on a Jays uniform, wouldn’t they have had lots of opportunities to see future HOFers on visiting teams — including Clemens himself as a Red Sock, in the eleven previous starts Pearlman has just finished telling us Clemens had made at Skydome? [“And what’s with acting like Toronto is the sticks? ‘Gol-lee, a Hall of Famer, Maw!’   Jesus.” — SDB]   Besides which: I’m fairly sure Dave Winfield, Rickey Henderson, and Paul Molitor were considered locks when they were on World Series-winning Jays clubs only a few years earlier. Seriously, was anybody editing this thing?


— Todd K




  • Bo says:

    Since most of the publishers of current nonfiction books require the authors to pay for the copyediting, many of them, out of a combination of hubris and parsimony, do not bother with that step.

  • Rhiannon says:

    Actually, if I recall correctly (which, in this usage, means “If I recall the tirade my Grandma released upon learning that the Jays had snagged Clemens”), not all of Toronto was thrilled to be getting a player with Clemens reputation, both on and off the field. And WORD to the Hall of Famer thing–we didn’t win back to back titles because everybody else just went home, you know. We played hard both years.

    That said, I am curious about the whole “Clemens gets Gaston fired” business, esp. since I know that Cito thinks that’s what happened.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    @Bo: Given how many high-profile pulpings we’ve seen in the last few years after nonfiction turned out to be fiction, that seems like a penny that publishers shouldn’t pinch. Then again, I can actually spell “McLain,” so what do I know.

  • fleegan says:

    Da-damn, for it to be worse than Canseco’s book? Maybe next time they should try the roomful of monkeys with typewriters thing.

  • Mike says:

    Can’t we all at least agree that Clemens is a douche?

  • Peach says:

    Also, as a freelance copy editor… when we’re given a book to edit and we’re told that the author is paying for the edit, we’re told to “tread lightly but let them get their money’s worth.” In short, fix the spelling and major gaffes, but no wordsmithing or commenting on poor usage and construction.

    It pains me… but eventually, you shrug and say, “meh.”

  • Al Lowe says:

    This is one of the best book reviews I have ever read, hands down. Long live Todd K. I mean, I hate Clemens, but this made me feel sorry for him. For a second.

  • La BellaDonna says:

    To Bo: A big Thank You, and would you be kind enough to elaborate on that information, if you’re able? I have been horrified by some of the books I’ve read lately; my cat could do a better job of editing. (The older cat, of course; the younger one doesn’t care that much, yet.) It never occurred to me that publishers were no longer paying for copyediting, although in retrospect it’s a perfectly obvious explanation. I thought, though, that that was part of a publisher’s responsibilities!

  • Todd says:

    @Rhiannon: There are only two mentions of Gaston in the book (and by the way — not to pile on — but Pearlman and publisher? “Index.” Look into
    it. It’s more than the finger alongside the one with which your readers will be saluting you). Within the list of reasons for Clemens not to sign with Toronto: “He knew the team’s manager, Cito Gaston, was regarded throughout the league as a strategic lightweight.”

    There’s nothing at all on the Gaston/Clemens relationship. Twelve pages later and a baseball season later, Pearlman writes about Clemens being instrumental in getting the inexperienced (and disastrous, as it turns out) Tim “I Shot Little Vietnamese Girls” Johnson the vacant managerial position for which numerous more impressive candidates were considered, Gaston having been “fired with five games remaining in 1997.” Pearlman does not claim Clemens was responsible for the firing. I can’t get a whiff of that inference, and subtle Pearlman is not, anywhere else.

    @fleegan: Well, I did hedge. I said it would be a “leading candidate” for the worst; I’m not sure I would give it the garland. “Juiced” made me feel dirtier just for handling it, and was even more clumsily written than this (the work of Canseco himself, or a skilled ghostwriter who could convincingly dumb down to “ex-jock of below-average intelligence”?). But it did have better scoop, and like or not, it became an “important” book. There’s little to nothing in the Clemens bio that will surprise any Red Sox/Jays/Yankees/Astros fan who has owned a computer in the last ten years.

  • attica says:

    D’oh! My library just called me to say that this book has come in for me (I’d reserved it a while ago). I have never read a full length book by Pearlman, but I haven’t had any complaints over magazine articles by him I’ve read. Which, come to think of it, would be subject to…Editing!

    Now, since it’s free and I’ve been teased by the bad in wait for me, I’ll have to read it.

  • Joseph says:

    Such a weak book. Just a collection of articles that ran a long time ago. I have always thought Pearlman was a total phony. Pearlman starts a chapter with the words “there was talk.” I stopped reading there.

  • Angie says:

    Harry Waxman?

  • L says:

    Having worked as a production editor at both academic and major commercial publishers, I can definitively state that we under no circumstances allow the author to dictate whether or not something gets copyedited. (Scholarly presses sometimes have authors do their own proofreading, but even there the copyediting is handled by the publisher.) Professional copyediting and proofreading are part of the book production process. However, a lot of variables go into determining how well either gets done. In an ideal world, a copyeditor working on a nonfiction book would have expertise in the subject, whatever time was necessary to do a full fact-check, and access to an author’s files and source material to track facts backward; none of this is usually available in the real world. The higher-profile a book, the more resistant a publisher is to moving its on-sale date no matter how late it delivers, and the later something gets, the less likely it is that you’re going to be able to either place it with the ideal copyeditor or give them adequate time to fact-check. Similarly, the higher-profile the author is, the more likely it is that they just will refuse to address queries raised by the copyeditor or proofreader. So these things don’t always get done to our satisfaction, but even in the current economy, the pennies are not so pinched that we give up on all standards!

  • Rockabye says:


    Pearlman’s blog, which actually directed me to this review, expressed just as much surprise as you did that the Gaston/Clemens thing got blown up. He wrote (I paraphrase), “I never wrote that Clemens got Gaston fired, only that he had a hand in Tim Johnson being hired.”

    Thanks for the review. I’ll think twice about buying this book (which is twice more than I would have in the first place), and I appreciate the insight on copyediting dropped in the comments.

  • Drew says:

    I can’t say as I can bring myself to care too much about Roger Clemens. I don’t like him enough to do so, but the selected quotes from the book in this review have pretty well sealed the deal for me not to pick it up. On a slightly related note, Happy Opening Day, Sars!

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    Here’s Pearlman’s blog entry:

    I give him credit for acknowledging the review (and that he found it by vanity-Googling, which: we’ve all done it), but I don’t love this:

    “In fact, a few years ago I pretty much stopped writing book reviews, because it just didn’t seem right for me to criticize others in a profession I’m trying to master (master is obviously the wrong word here, but you get the idea). I just don’t feel comfortable slamming the literary work of others, when I know how insanely difficult and consuming and heartbreaking it can be.”

    He’s right; it’s insanely difficult and consuming and heartbreaking. But you can re-crack your ass six ways on a piece of writing, and it can still turn out sucky, and any working writer wants points for the effort — but that’s not really how it works. It’s your job, and you’re asking people to pay $25 to watch you do it in hardcover.

    It’s like Sandy Koufax saying he doesn’t “feel comfortable” saying Steve Dalkowski shouldn’t have pitched in the majors. Koufax knew a thing or two about how hard it was to get the ball over the plate; is he then not supposed to acknowledge that, for all his velocity, Dalkowski was as wild as a grizzly? To my mind, it’s the opposite; if you do it for a living, you know what it’s supposed to look like. Also, it’s…an opinion. That’s what reviews are.

    I’m really not trying to make Jeff Pearlman think I hate him; that’s an argument that’s annoyed me for a while, it’s not just him. And I’ll give him that he tries. I don’t think the writing is bad because it’s lazy; if anything, he’s trying TOO hard.

    But it’s still bad. It happens, I’ve been there, but…

  • Todd says:

    Of course, chances are, the same Googling that led him to this review turned up much else that was favorable, even laudatory. For example, I noticed, thanks to Sars’s link to the Amazon page, that the five customer reviews posted to date have been enthusiastic recommendations; this in addition to the positive review in SI that Sars mentioned.

    But I totally get that, because I’m the same way. I’ll take more notice of one negative comment than 25 positives. “Criticism we harbor; praise slides off us like the snow,” to paraphrase Greene (The End of the Affair).

  • Linda says:

    There’s a huge difference between “I don’t read my own reviews, because it only bothers me,” and “I don’t think it’s right to write reviews.”

    As you say, Sarah, writing is very hard, but so is creating pharmaceuticals, and we don’t say, “Well, you shouldn’t tell people whether a drug works or not, because the scientists worked really hard.” I definitely agree with not seeking out attacking reviews of your own work, but that’s a very different thing.

  • Liz says:

    Though McNamee exercised perspicacity when he surmised Clemens to be a typical superstar blowhard…

    I cannot stop giggling.

  • Todd says:

    @Linda: Right; I agree. But I don’t believe he buys that line himself. My follow-up above was more in reaction to his having read this entry at all, and called attention to it.

    Specific to the comments on reviewing: he didn’t link to a *positive* review of his book on the way to telling us he doesn’t write reviews anymore, even though there were positive ones out there. “I just don’t feel comfortable slamming the literary work of others […]” Reviewing only becomes slamming when the reviewer feels the book has brought it on itself. Slamming does not define the process any more than raving does.

    Unless a reader has an agenda (which I did not), he or she goes into any book with neutrality — if anything, tilting toward hope, because we’d all rather have a wonderful time in the days or weeks it takes to read something of several hundred pages. The reading experience has to determine the judgment, and all sorts of variables shape the tone and the presentation, if a written review follows.

    Jeff Pearlman knows all of this, of course. If he prefers not to write reviews (even supportive and encouraging ones, when the book merits it) for whatever reason, he should not. But there’s nothing inherently unsporting about reviewing.

  • Rhiannon says:

    @Todd: Thank you. For some reason, that was the only thing in the book that the Canadian media seemed to pick up on, so I thought it would be a much bigger deal.

  • La BellaDonna says:

    @L: Well, there goes the hopeful bit of slack I was willing to cut some of the books I’ve read lately. Turns out that I was willing – even eager – to find a reason to not be annoyed as all get-out over editing choices that were not just awkward, but incorrect. I’m with Sars; when I plonk down my hard-earned dollars, I want to like what I’m reading. Quite often, I’m looking for information, so I want the author to know more than I do. With any luck, the author should know lots and lots more than I do [about the subjects that interest me]. When I stub my toe on a big clanker, I get all kinds of distressed. And then, if I suck up the nerve to write the author and say how much I liked the recent release – except would he/she please clarify the part where he/she wrote XXXX – and the author writes back to me, stating, basically, “It doesn’t matter that it’s wrong!” – well, THEN I go berserk. I don’t pay cold hard cash to go berserk; I can do that for free.

  • Lisa says:

    I almost ordered this book yesterday, based on the Amazon reviews. Thanks, Sars and Todd, for saving my hard earned money.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    @Liz: I know, right?

  • JASONIAN says:

    I actually read the book and enjoyed it, for whatever that’s worth.

    I’ve read all four of Pearlman’s books and thought they were all good. The one I thought was best was his Barry Bonds book, which seemed to get the least amount of attention, perhaps because the SF Chronicle writers who investigated BALCO came out with their own book at around the same time.

    If you are a sports junkie, books like Pearlman’s are good because they’re full of anecdotes and asides that you don’t get on ESPN or on sports radio. Some of the stories about the players’ hijinx in the Dallas Cowboys book are just unreal.

  • Jackson Stilp says:

    I actually liked the book, disagree with Todd’s review. Sorry, but you come off as being harsh for the sake of sounding smart.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    Pearlman’s strength is not prose, it’s reporting, I suspect. One is not better than the other; they’re different skill sets, and I will be the first to admit that I’m a shite reporter and interviewer. …Well, not shite, not all the time, but bare-minimum adequate. And with certain genres like sportswriting and true crime, readers kind of know that, in exchange for exclusive info and behind-the-scenes dirt, they’ll often have to give up something when it comes to the writing, which is fine.

    But in the Mets book, I didn’t see much material I wasn’t already familiar with; he got some very good quotes, but most of the anecdotes themselves I already knew from contemporary reporting or from reading them in Baseball Babylon. And if you’re not a very good prose stylist, and you’re straining to be one, that’s more irritating, at least to me. Ann Rule is great at what she does in a lot of ways — she gets access nobody else gets — but when she tries to go deep with the imagery, it falls flat every time. She has zero ear for it. Pearlman, same thing; I just can’t get past the “spoiled scrod” line. Tries way too hard, clangs like a bell.

    You want to blow it off as me trying to sound smart at someone else’s expense, I can’t stop you, but I’m a culture critic, and when a piece of culture doesn’t work for me, I try to get at why. Nailing the “why” means I’m doing my job right; I don’t take any per-se pleasure in identifying writing as poor. Liking Pearlman’s books doesn’t make anyone DUMB; I like Ann Rule. But good writing it ain’t.

  • Todd says:

    @JASONIAN: That’s why I skipped the Pearlman book on Bonds — it hit so close to “Game of Shadows,” which I had read and thought really captivating, and everything I could have wanted on Bonds and BALCO for a while.

    @Jackson Stilp: It’s cool that you liked the Clemens bio and believe I gave it less than its due. But I should note that with minor edits for tidiness, my piece here is exactly as it was in an e-mail to Sars that I imagined at the time would be read only by her. (When she asked for permission to run it at TN, I was surprised and flattered.) I’ve been communicating with Sars off and on since we both were writing about TV for different sites eight or nine years ago; I would not be going out of my way to seem smart to her. She doubtless reached a verdict on that one, for better or worse, some time ago. Heh.

    @SDB: I feel you on the “clangs like a bell” thing. Not quoted by me, and not quite at “spoiled scrod” or “supermarket pudding sale” level, there was another one about RC mustering all the enthusiasm of a toaster salesman when expressing his gratitude at making an All-Star team. I give Pearlman credit for trying hard to be colorful and vivid in his descriptions; the problem is, the “trying” part usually is too obvious.

  • Lil' Len says:

    You’ve picked out 10 or so passages that are “not good” at worst, and used them a the lynchpin for your argument that this book is “dreadful.” The passage where you question his usage of “considered for the HOF,” for example, is comically nitpicky. FAIL on your part. Feel free to be a culture critic, but this reads as if you have an axe to grind.

  • rocketbride says:

    as a toronto baseball fan, i believe we *actually* said, “whoa, a Hall of Famer, eh?” :)

    not that anyone cares this late in the game, but casual canadian bashing is a persistent irritation for me in badly written books. the writers use a lazy shortcut to show off a stereotype, like a bad 80’s comedian. “canada is nowhere! am i right?”

  • […] of an uncooperative subject, and that’s precisely what Pearlman is criticizing me for. And, as Sarah D. Bunting wrote of Pearlman’s assertion that Clemens never truly wanted to play for …, “This kind of mind-reading is all over the book, and usually it is just this flatly […]

  • Sandman says:

    A shame Pearlman didn’t know that A-Rod would be singing the cabaletta to Clemens’s steroid aria.

    Ridiculously late to the party, but – Dude, nice!

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