Friday February 29th, 2008

For a minute more, think back to the image of Roger Clemens sitting before Congress. (Just for another tick of the clock; then we'll take this in another direction). Thick neck. Burr-head. Twitchy, righteous indignation on his face and in his body language. Fish out of water. Fish in a barrel. Either way. Got the image? Okay, onward.

Clemens's protestations to the contrary ( "I could give a rat's ass about the Hall of Fame,'' said the big man famously, weeks before his Congressional appearance), there's a strong case to be made that everything he did that day and everything he does from here on is about salvaging some dignity for his Good Name. About how he is remembered 20 years or 50 years from now. Or 100 years from now. About his legacy.

Will history recall Clemens as the greatest pitcher of his generation or the most notorious cheater? As the cold-blooded staredown artist with the legendary work ethic or as the Texan who was, in the end, all hat and HGH? It's a lot on the line.

Sports fans of a certain age like to debate legacies, like a parlor game. Two weeks ago in the Hartford Courant, the newspaper that is delivered to my home every day, the excellent columnist Jeff Jacobs asked, "who is in charge of putting the stamp on a man's legacy?'' The answer, of course, is the same as Time magazine's 2006 Person of the Year: You. Me. Everyone.

There's another question, too, about whether there is still currency in legacies at all. More on that later. But for now, think about the legacy alterations put in play recently: Clemens, Bill Belichick, Isiah Thomas, Marion Jones, Bode Miller.

So play the game for a minute. Imagine the original legacy, contrast it with the new legacy and pick one.

Some old school examples:

Old legacy: The Hit King. Charley Hustle. The blue collar hero of the national pastime. A guy who would run over his mother to score the lead run in a spring training game, because, you know, it's all about winning and getting dirty. An icon, by any measure.

New legacy: A sad, compulsive gambler whose love for baseball couldn't match his love for the action. An ex-con who wouldn't come clean until it was clear that the truth was his only possible path to Cooperstown.

The winner: New legacy. The last 20 years trump the previous 20.

Old legacy: Flo-Jo. The woman who raced in what she called "a negligee'' and shattered world records. She was a supermodel on a running track. And then she was gone.

New legacy: She died too young, and really, ran just a little bit too fast.

The winner: Old legacy. Griffith Joyner never tested positive for anything banned and, except for a grumpy, suspicious cadre of track experts, is recalled lovingly by the public.

Old legacy: Paul Bunyan. The man with the massive forearms who, with Sammy Sosa in 1998, led baseball out of the dark ages with the Great Home Run Chase.

New legacy: A cheater. A man who stood before Congress, shrunken and with granny glasses perched on the end of his nose, and refused to confess.

The winner: New legacy. Not even close.

Old legacy: The greatest offensive big man in the history of basketball, a 7-foot-1 giant with little-man skills who would still be a force if he were playing today.

New legacy: A guy who wrote that he slept with 20,000 women in his life, a claim that is bigger than the man himself and an image that is harder to shake than scoring 100 points in a single game.

The winner: Old legacy. In the end, his new legacy is comic relief that does little to make us forget the player.

The current crop is even more intriguing, of course:

Old legacy: A modern-day Walter Johnson. The old-school gunslinger who plunked his own kid with a fastball to get him off the plate. Baseball's link to a previous era.

New legacy: Like McGwire, a perceived cheater. A guy who is accused of duping his fans and potentially lying to Congress.

The winner: New legacy. Unless Brian McNamee and Andy Pettitte suddenly decide it was all a dream, Clemens's hole is far too deep.

Old legacy: One of the toughest and most skilled small men in the history of the NBA. The heart and soul of the Pistons' Bad Boys.

New legacy: An egomaniac who helped tear down a proud franchise (that would be the Knicks) in every way imaginable. And maybe a misogynist to boot.

The winner: New legacy. Isiah has successfully undone everything he did as a player, no small task.

Old legacy: The genius behind a modern football dynasty. A man who can make modern athletes care more about the team than about their egos.

New legacy: A guy who thinks the rules don't apply to him, and risks the integrity of his franchise and the NFL by ignoring them.

The winner: The jury is out, but the new legacy is looking better every day.

Old legacy: The new Flo-Jo. A beautiful, charming young woman who could run fast, jump far and, just for fun, win a national championship in basketball. A role model for all the little girls in the next era of Title IX.

New legacy: An admitted steroid user who still won't say that she was complicit.

The winner: New legacy, in a landslide.

Old legacy: An impudent jerk who treated the Olympics like rush week at Clemson and laughed at U.S.A. fans for caring.

New legacy: A gifted skier who has quietly dominated his sport since the Olympics.

The winner: Still the old legacy. But if he sticks around and humbly wins some medals in 2010, the case could be reopened.

Pick another name: Barry Bonds (Home run king or, you know, Ben Johnson in body armor?). Bobby Petrino (offensive genius or serial quitter?) Michael Vick (Superstar QB or dog abuser?). The game is being played every day.

But another question arises: How much does a legacy matter? If Clemens really doesn't give a rat's ass about the Hall of Fame, should any of the stars care about how they are perceived after they are gone? Clearly there was a time when any athlete (or coach) cared deeply, because there are only two types of fame: immediate and lasting; and lasting once was thought to be more significant.

But immediate fame has changed, first with the explosion of money in sport and second with the equally significant explosion of new media. ESPN, sports radio, Internet, YouTube. Something else will come along. Immediate fame is bigger now than ever. One great moment can be worth years of buzz. Fame -- and by extension, legacy -- was once built on a sturdy foundation and augmented over years of performance.

The requirements for entry into stodgy old Halls of Fame will not soon change. Old men hold the keys. The requirements for lasting fame will not soon change. But are we approaching the point where immediate fame is bigger than lasting fame? Where a moment's greatness that leads to wealth and buzz is just as important as a long, unsullied career? (As long as the things to lead to the moment's greatness don't involve illegal drugs or perjury. Ahem).

You get yours and you leave. Let smaller people play parlor games.

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