Commentary

Odds, and history, don't bode well for Clemens' denials

Roger Clemens has much riding on his "60 Minutes" interview with Mike Wallace, but history isn't on Clemens' side when it comes to denials of steroid usage, writes Howard Bryant.

Originally Published: January 4, 2008
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

Great expectations lie upon Mike Wallace, whose interview of Roger Clemens that airs Sunday night on "60 Minutes" could be another defining moment of the steroid era. Similar to Bud Selig's approach in selecting George Mitchell to lead his steroid investigation, the Clemens camp is hoping Wallace's career as an uncompromising newsman will provide a degree of legitimacy to the pitcher's predictable yet largely implausible denials that his longtime personal trainer injected him with performance-enhancing drugs.

On the other side, Wallace will be judged on his ability to do what Clemens hasn't done on his own: begin the dialogue that will explain why Brian McNamee might be telling the truth about everyone except his biggest client, the man without whom he wouldn't ever have entered the New York Yankees' clubhouse in the first place.

[+] EnlargeRoger Clemens
Mike Ehrmann/WireImage.comIn his '60 Minutes' interview on Sunday, Roger Clemens likely will try to convince the public that he deserves the benefit of the doubt.
Wallace, who turns 90 on May 9, is every bit the legend in his field that Clemens is on the pitching mound, but it isn't as if "60 Minutes" is throwing a particularly intimidating fastball these days. If the Clemens interview is anything resembling the program's recent soft-toss profiles of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez, Clemens will be seated for just another celebrity, woe-is-me interview -- more Barcalounger than hot seat. Thomas was portrayed sympathetically, allowed to attack his enemies and tout his new book while his unimaginative and dogmatic record as a justice went unchallenged; Rodriguez denied using performance-enhancing drugs with a short "no" without even the most basic follow-up by Katie Couric, never the most dogged of inquisitors.

Clemens has two major issues on Sunday night: Wallace and history, and not necessarily in that order. History has shown during the early years of steroid fallout that no player who has famously resisted the allegations has ever come out clean on the other side. Jason Giambi denied and fell; five years ago, he was being discussed as a Hall of Fame-track player. Mark McGwire hit 583 home runs, 70 in a season, yet received just 23.5 percent of the vote in his first year as a Hall of Fame candidate and isn't likely to be elected in his second year when the votes are released Tuesday. Sammy Sosa, once the sport's greatest populist, is now the most uninspiring 600-home run hitter in history.

Rafael Palmeiro, Eddie Murray, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron are the only players in the history of the sport with at least 500 home runs and 3,000 hits, and Palmeiro has disappeared from the game, a pariah on a scale with McGwire. Barry Bonds is currently jobless, alone with his record, awaiting trial.

The only person claiming vindication is Jose Canseco, but it should be recalled that Canseco's original message from his best-selling book, "Juiced," was that steroids, if used properly, are good for the body. Though not as high-profile as Mark McGwire in his disgrace or Rafael Palmeiro in his empty defiance, Canseco employed an impressive backpedal during the seminal March 17, 2005, congressional hearings when he told the House Government Reform Committee that the enormity of the moment made him see steroids in a different light.

[+] EnlargeMike Wallace
Mark Von Holden/WireImage.comMike Wallace's interview with Clemens will be judged in part on Wallace's ability to examine the accuracy of Brian McNamee's allegations about other players, too.
The Mitchell report has belonged to the public for nearly a month now, and yet the conflict remains between its unequivocal allegations of player use and the ensuing public denials by players. For two years, Andy Pettitte said he never used growth hormone, only to admit after he was named in the report to using it as a recovery tool from injury. Brian Roberts said he never used steroids, only to admit the day after the report was released that, yes, he did, but for only one day. Fernando Vina said essentially the same, admitting after countless denials that he used growth hormone but not steroids.

In the fiercest of defenses, David Justice appeared on ESPN Radio to express his anger that he was named in the report. Justice claimed he never met steroid dealer Kirk Radomski and wasn't given the opportunity by Mitchell investigators to respond to allegations that he had purchased growth hormone from Radomski. Justice might not have ever used growth hormone, but in his animated public defense, he left out his verbal commitment to speak to Mitchell about the Radomski-McNamee allegations that appear on pages 181 and 182 in the report, along with the several phone calls Mitchell's investigators made to him to reschedule and the certified letter sent to his Poway, Calif., home. Justice signed for that letter; Mitchell's investigators provided ESPN.com with a copy of its receipt that contains Justice's signature.

Each of the denials has come with a commonsense counter that has not yet been answered by the players, their union or the Mitchell investigators: Why didn't Pettitte or Roberts or Vina or Justice or anyone else simply tell Mitchell what each has told the public since the report was released?

Now it is Clemens who wants America to believe that he, and only he, deserves, in his words "the benefit of the doubt." Just before Christmas, Clemens posted a video on his Web site that contains the following quote: "Let me be clear: The answer is no, I did not use steroids, human growth hormone, and I've never done so. I did not provide Brian McNamee with any drugs to inject into my body."

Now, according to a partial transcript of the "60 Minutes" interview, Clemens is playing word games with that last sentence. Instead of "any drugs" by McNamee, Clemens is now saying McNamee injected him with only lidocaine and vitamin B-12. Already, the denial has softened, perhaps giving Clemens plausible deniability, Bonds-style, that he didn't know what McNamee was injecting. It is a strategy already being discredited by McNamee's attorneys.

[+] EnlargeBrian McNamee
AP Photo/Steven SenneBrian McNamee and his legal team appear ready to counter any attacks from Clemens on the credibility of his allegations.
"Brian has a master's degree in sports medicine," McNamee attorney Earl Ward told ESPN The Magazine's Shaun Assael. "He knows the difference between lidocaine, B-12 and testosterone. What he injected into Roger Clemens wasn't lidocaine or B-12. It was testosterone."

Vitamin B-12 is an old, not particularly clever, defense. Clemens should remember that when Palmeiro was investigated for perjury by the House Government Reform Committee in 2005, he said the substance he took was vitamin B-12. The House committee report said that in Palmeiro's case, team doctors refused to administer B-12 shots on medical grounds.

Clemens should also know that -- outside of an experimental approach to combat chronic fatigue syndrome -- many doctors universally reject the efficacy of B-12 shots for healthy people who don't suffer from vitamin deficiencies.

When Miguel Tejada was stopped for possessing syringes during a routine airport security check as a member of the Oakland A's, he said the syringes were for, yes, vitamin B-12 injections. Tejada had shipments of B-12 sent to both the Oakland and Baltimore clubhouses. When the medical staffs for both teams refused to provide the shots to Tejada, he administered them himself.

And certainly, Clemens should know that insiders from the bodybuilding community believe vitamin B-12 is an effective masking agent for urine tests.

Clemens will make for interesting television on Sunday, but history and the strength of McNamee's claims are against him. In these tired days of forceful denials that have nothing behind them -- Clemens can still make his case under oath in front of Congress on Jan. 16 -- the odds that he'll be vindicated are about as good as a 42-year-old's posting a 1.87 ERA through clean living and exercise.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.