Roger Clemens, Suzy Waldman, And The Freakout Heard 'Round The World
"Oh my goodness gracious," now and forever.
by David Roth
May 11 2017, 4:30pm
Photo by ANDREW MILLS/THE STAR-LEDGER via USA TODAY Sports
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It was clear even by early May that the whole Kei Igawa thing was not working out, and almost certainly would not work out. Carl Pavano was going to need Tommy John surgery, although all parties were still at the point of talking about "elbow strains" and Whether He Wanted To Be A Yankee and suchlike. Three New York Yankees pitchers, including de facto staff ace Chien-Ming Wang, had already missed time due to hamstring injuries, and strength coach Marty Miller had lost his job as a result. When a 26-year-old rookie righty named Matt DeSalvo threw his first pitch on May 7, he made a small and saddish dent in baseball history. DeSalvo was the 10th pitcher to start a game for the Yankees in 2007, more than any team had ever used over a season's first 30 games; six of those were rookies. DeSalvo pitched extremely well in his debut, as it happened, but Kyle Farnsworth gave away the lead, Mariners third baseman Adrian Beltre hit a homer in the ninth off Mariano Rivera, and the Yankees fell to 14-16. This was not what Yankees fans were talking about that Monday.
On Sunday the 6th, the Yankees cruised to 5-0 win over Seattle behind a solid start from Darrell Rasner, who was not the sort of pitcher who was supposed to be in the Yankees rotation. After the seventh-inning stretch, public address announcer Bob Sheppard directed fans attention to George Steinbrenner's owner's box, flush behind home plate. Someone in that box was going to make an announcement. His torso was notably wide, his hair a bristling box, his voice both foreign and familiar. "Well, they came and got me out of Texas," Roger Clemens told an assemblage of fans that had already watched Rasner, Scott Proctor, and Sean Henn pitch for baseball's most ostentatiously elite team. "And I can tell you it's a privilege to be back. I'll be talking to y'all soon."
Before anyone knew the terms of the contract, it was clear that Clemens' return, whenever it happened, would be expensive; the deal, it emerged, was for $28,000,002 prorated over the amount of time he spent on the big league roster. Clemens wouldn't make his season debut until the second week of June, but was still paid more than any other Yankees pitcher that season. It was also clear that it was a risk, given that Clemens would turn 45 in August, and would only take the mound after flaking off the rust he'd accrued following a solid but unremarkable partial season with the Houston Astros the year before.
But the Yankees were not an organization that stressed one or two or three ten-figure sunk costs, and Roger Clemens was Roger Clemens, and more to the point this was a moment. The Yankees, who had outbid the Red Sox both in terms of money and various leniency clauses for Clemens services—the contract stipulated that Clemens would be allowed to return to his home in Houston between starts if he so desired—intended for the announcement to be received as a Very Dramatic Thing.
Only Yankees color commentator Suzyn Waldman, who was calling the game on WCBS 880 AM, really rose to the dramatic occasion. The sleepy Sunday game, the drawling hamsteak in the owner's box—it wasn't popping. And so Waldman, in a radio call that instantly became legendary, made sure that fans appreciated the world-historic gravity of the moment in which a dense fortysomething ace announced that he would be rejoining his old team, at some point, probably soon. Oh boy did she make sure of that.
If you listened, then you have heard it. If you played it with the sound off, the words are probably seared smoking into the wall behind you in looping Yankees cursive. But, for the record, after Roger Clemens' brief and dorky speech announcing his return to the team, Waldman cannonballs into the moment and explains what has just happened.
"Roger Clemens is in George's box, and Roger Clemens is coming back! Oh my good"—and there's a pause, here, as Waldman covers her microphone and says something to the production staff, or perhaps to play-by-play partner John Sterling. Then she is back, throaty and ecstatic and, to be honest, about three quarters of a mile over the top. "Oh my goodness gracious! Of all the dramatic things, of all the dramatic things I've ever seen, Roger Clemens standing right in George Steinbrenner's box, announcing he is back. Roger Clemens is a New York Yankee. And there we go, John … Now we don't need to discuss who takes that spot in the rotation."
Was it a bit much? It was, if we are being honest, a bit much. History has not been especially kind to Waldman's hyperbole—of all the dramatic things she'd ever seen would have been difficult to support even if Clemens had made a brilliant and moving speech and the dugout and stadium had erupted in tearful gratitude. None of that quite came through, and then Clemens went 6-6 with a 4.15 ERA in 18 starts for a Yankees team that wound up getting bounced from the playoffs by the Indians in the AL Division Series*; the Boston Red Sox, who were outworked and outbid in their free agent run at Clemens, cruised through the postseason and dispatched the Colorado Rockies in the World Series. But if history was unkind to Waldman's performance, her peers in radio were significantly more so.
The audio of Waldman floridly losing her shit at the stadium that day became a sort of proto-meme, a shared joke grounded both in Waldman's deliriously and undeniably over-the-top performance and some other, uglier elements. In the days after Waldman briefly left her body live on the radio, Mike Francesa and Chris "Mad Dog" Russo played the clip over and over again on their WFAN show; shows like Opie And Anthony put it in similarly heavy rotation, not just in the days immediately afterwards but for years, less for any pressing sports-related reason than because it is so luridly, lividly ridiculous.
Or, anyway, that was part of it. In one representative bit, Opie and Anthony and co-host Jim Norton try to figure out who or what or who Waldman sounds like in the heat of her Oh My Goodness Gracious moment, running through Pee Wee Herman, Louis Armstrong, a gutshot Tim Roth in Reservoir Dogs, Homer Simpson drinking buddy Barney Gumble, and Sesame Street's Grover. "You should be fired," Norton says, "when you're a woman and you sound like Bobcat Goldthwait." The Opie And Anthony riffs on Waldman are funny, but they are also astringent and gendered and sometimes cruel. Francesa and Russo are slower-moving and more riff-averse creatures, and their mockery would naturally be both less funny and less profane. But all of it existed on a strange continuum. The clip of Waldman's ecstatic warbling is absurd and hilarious on its own bellowing merits; there are many funny responses to it. But there are also some less funny and more obviously outwardly sexist ones, and all of these responses are adjacent to one another. The laughter that Waldman's performance naturally evokes did not necessarily come from the same place or run in the same direction, although it did all end up in the same place.
"Well-embedded Yankee moles tell me that deviants, who get their kicks harassing women, have come out of the woodwork and landed on Waldman," Bob Raissman wrote in the New York Daily News, nearly a month after Waldman's on-air rhapsody. "These creeps are fueled each and every time they hear some sports talkie play the tape of Waldman going gaga over Clemens' arrival. Playing this tape has become the macho thing to do." Raissman reported that Waldman was receiving crank calls and "perverted emails," and had taken to checking into hotels under an assumed name.
Waldman was not any happier with this than you would be, and confronted Russo when she ran into him outside the radio box at Shea Stadium. "Russo, according to well-embedded moles, tried defusing the situation by telling Waldman, "We were just having some fun," Raissman reported. "Waldman wasn't buying Russo's damage control/jive. She said she hoped he had 'his two days of fun,' but had 'ruined her life' in the process." Raissman reports that when Russo followed Waldman and attempted to cool her down, she "dropped two fat F bombs on Russo before accusing him of 'talking behind my back' for '20 years.'"
"I was very, very good," Waldman told the New York Times about her musical theater career, back in 1993. "I just wasn't an original, you know? People would say I had the heart of Judy Garland and I belted like Streisand and I had the range of Barbara Cook. But these people already exist." Waldman had a long and distinguished career on Broadway, and starred in Broadway revivals of No, No, Nanette and Man Of La Mancha, but realized in her thirties that her future lay elsewhere. "I stopped being cute and perky and 21," she told the Times in that 1993 story. "I look pretty good for 46, but I can't dance anymore with the 21-year-olds." She found her way into radio, and then sports radio; when WFAN launched in 1987, Waldman's was the first voice listeners heard.
"It was very different back then," Waldman told Adweek about her early days in sports radio. "I can't even go back in that timeframe because it was so confrontational. I'd get used condoms in the mail and death threats. Horrible things happened in those first few years." Denied the assignments she wanted, Waldman went ahead and made up her own, carving out beats covering the Knicks and the Yankees.
When Waldman was on the Yankees beat for WFAN in the station's early days, Steinbrenner refused to talk to her; she was not invited to the annual lunch that the team held for beat writers at Manhattan's 21 Club. "Waldman sent an overnight letter to Steinbrenner at his office in Tampa," John Solomon wrote in Sports Illustrated in 1997. "She pointed out that more people heard her daily reports on the highly rated Mike and the Mad Dog show than read the local sports pages, and she included a breakdown of the advertising rates the station received for her spots. 'I'm coming down to Tampa next Wednesday, and I expect an interview,' the missive concluded."
Steinbrenner gave Waldman the interview, against what he considered to be his better judgment. "I like my women to spend my money and look real pretty," Waldman recalled Steinbrenner saying to her. "I don't like them to be pilots, policemen or sports reporters." During her years covering the team, Waldman's relationship with Steinbrenner was as good as any relationship with Steinbrenner could be, which is to say that it whipsawed between sentimental largesse and wild roaring cruelty depending entirely upon the moods of one of the moodiest manchildren in sports history.
Steinbrenner bullied Waldman to tears, then receded to more acceptable levels of boorishness days later. In the peculiar ways in which Steinbrenner was loyal, though, he was loyal to Waldman, and if she was never quite safe from the blasting unmanned firehose of Steinbrenner's personal cruelty and sexism, he worked to protect her from the cruelty and sexism of others; when she received death threats from Yankee fans in 1989, Steinbrenner hired Waldman a plainclothes security detail. In 2012, Waldman told Adweek that Steinbrenner was "as important a human being in my life as anybody, except my family." The Yankees hired her as the color commentator for the team's WCBS radio broadcasts in 2005.
Waldman also admired the star in Steinbrenner's luxury box that mildly dramatic day in 2007. Waldman had been friends with Clemens for many years, a relationship that predated Clemens' arrival in the Bronx. "They shared an interest in baseball and soap operas," Raissman wrote in the Daily News, in 2012. "For Waldman, Clemens was always a stand-up guy. She liked his family and loved his mother." Given that Clemens had been accused by former teammate Jason Grimsley of using PEDs at the end of the 2006 season, and given his longstanding reputation as a high-handed redass, Waldman's affection for Clemens was not widely shared around the game. This did not make her any less inclined to stand up for him.
When Clemens was named in the Mitchell Report after the 2007 season, Waldman said she did not know whether he had or hadn't taken PEDs, but she vigorously defended him as a man, and a friend. "I can only judge people on what I observe and how they treat me," she told Newsday's Neil Best. "And since the mid-'80s, I've known him and all of his family and watched the kids being born and knew his mother and know his sisters … I never saw this stuff. I don't know if it's true. Does it change what I think of Roger Clemens? I don't think so." When a jury acquitted Clemens of six felony charges of lying to Congress in 2012, Waldman did not hide her happiness at the result, or her disdain for peers who continued to believe that Clemens was guilty as charged. "Waldman had some choice words about commentators with that particular opinion," Raissman wrote. "The only ones fit to print in a family newspaper are 'self-important.'"
The Yankees radio broadcast team is, in a way that is not always charming, a throwback to the ramshackle monomania of George Steinbrenner's years, when the Yankees were defined by both their swinging-dick grandiosity and incessant petty internecine office bullshit. The people that lasted, in that organization, were not necessarily the best or the brightest. They were the ones who truly believed—who saw Steinbrenner not as a world-historic butthead but a passionate man of vision, and who put up with his shit because the mystique and majesty of the franchise made it worth it. Caring about any team is a matter of faith, but the people that rose and stuck in the Yankees culture had to believe in a way that canceled out the ugliness and stupidity roiling around them.
Waldman was and is one of those—a survivor, absolutely, but also a believer. That the Yankees would try to stage the announcement Clemens' return to the team as a sort of WWE-style MOMENT is a testament to the deep tackiness of their decision makers. That Waldman would sell it as such, and sell it twice as hard as necessary because of how lame it was, was just her doing her job. The confluence of the team and its bellowing herald and this surly pink brick of a pitcher are what made this the dippy and hilarious and absurd moment that it was. But for all the things that are memorable and funny about this moment, only one is truly essential—if Waldman didn't really somehow believe that she was witnessing one of the most dramatic moments she'd ever seen, it wouldn't have stuck. She really believed it, and there's nothing more absurd or more dramatic than that.
* This piece has been corrected to reflect that the Yankees made the playoffs in 2007.
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- Oh My Goodness Gracious