Commentary

Clemens' interview offers everything but closure

Originally Published: January 7, 2008
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

Roger Clemens didn't have to throw a two-hit shutout to make himself look good Sunday night. When you're sandwiched between Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf blaming Benazir Bhutto for her own death and Andy Rooney babbling on about presidential-sounding names, the standards aren't exactly sky-high.

Still, sports fans who tuned in to watch Clemens and Mike Wallace on "60 Minutes" had high expectations because we're conditioned to equate Nielsen ratings with gravity and a sense of closure. The larger the audience and more prestigious the forum, the more earthshaking the revelation. That's the way it works these days, right?

2007 Season Stats
GM W L BB K ERA
18 6 6 31 68 4.18

When the interview was over and viewers went to bed or turned their attention to "The Amazing Race," they had good reason to feel conflicted -- because there were two Roger Clemenses on display Sunday night.

The first Rocket expressed the requisite outrage and sense of betrayal. Suspend your natural sense of disbelief for a moment and think how you might respond if Brian McNamee were your friend and wrongly accused you of steroid use. Your eyes would flash with anger, and you'd use words like "angry," "upset" and "pissed off," with a "hogwash" thrown in for effect.

I'm sure I'm in the minority here, but that Roger Clemens -- the hurt and betrayed friend -- seemed to pass the plausibility test.

The other Clemens … well … he had some holes in his arguments that were bigger than the Yankees' luxury tax bill. That guy made you think this prime-time appearance wasn't such a great idea.

Venting your outrage before a national audience can be a risky proposition. When Alex Rodriguez appeared on "60 Minutes" with Katie Couric a few weeks ago, it seemed like the ideal setting to repair his image. Then Couric began asking him about steroid use and the Mitchell report, and A-Rod got that All-Star-third-baseman-caught-in-the-headlights look about him.

The stakes were bigger for Clemens, of course. We're talking about a guy who never has been particularly smooth, glib or prone to sound bites. And the only things he's fighting for are his legacy, his good name, the legitimacy of his 354 victories and a spot in the Hall of Fame.

In contrast to A-Rod, Clemens had to know which questions were coming. But amid the heated denials, there were inconsistencies that fueled nagging doubts that will only serve to stoke the debate.

Much of the pre-interview speculation focused on the role of Wallace because Clemens expressly asked for him to conduct the interview. Wallace is chummy with Clemens and enjoys watching Yankees games from owner George Steinbrenner's private box, so it was assumed that he'd lob all sorts of softball questions and look at Clemens in that annoying, hero-worshipping sort of way.

Let's give that one a rest. Unless you expected a suave, 89-year-old journalist-about-town to grab Clemens' shirt collar and wring a confession out of him, Wallace did fine. People who thought he was soft on Clemens don't remember the classic Lesley Stahl-Scott Boras interview on "60 Minutes." Now that was fawning.

Could Wallace have followed up on several core elements and pressed Clemens for details? Sure. For all we know, he did but Clemens' responses were edited down to fit into a neat little 13-minute, 54-second package.

Wallace asked enough pertinent questions to induce Clemens to trip over his own shoelaces, and that was enough.

The Andy Pettitte question, for starters. Clemens and Pettitte are down-home Texas buddies who are joined at the hip, right down to their trainer. To think that Pettitte would be juicing and Clemens would be "shocked" to learn about it simply defies logic.

It's almost as hard to believe as Clemens' contention that if he took performance enhancers, "I should have a third ear coming out of my forehead" and "be pulling tractors with my teeth." Clemens has pitched in the big leagues since 1984, and he expects us to believe that he thinks Winstrol turns you into a circus freak?

Two words, Roger: Rafael Palmeiro.

Clemens' biggest problem, in the eyes of most dispassionate observers, is explaining why McNamee would falsely sell him out in the Mitchell report. The two men were, by all accounts, close friends, and McNamee faced a prison term if he wasn't truthful with federal authorities.

"What did McNamee gain by lying?" Wallace asked.

Clemens' reply -- that McNamee was just a desperate steroid peddler looking to avoid a jail sentence -- seemed defensive and woefully inadequate. It just didn't ring true.

Wallace did ask the two obligatory questions du jour posed to every public figure who has been wronged: If Clemens is so desperate to prove his innocence, why doesn't he: (a) file a lawsuit or (b) take a lie-detector test?

Clemens' measured response to both questions won't play well in middle America. But lie-detector test results are inadmissible in a court of law, and the notion that every celebrity with a tarnished reputation should assume the burden of proof and spend millions on legal fees has, frankly, grown a bit tiresome.

The minute Clemens consents to a lie-detector test, dozens of columnists will be ripping him for grandstanding or engaging in a publicity stunt. And he knows it.

That's our country, isn't it? Guilty before innocent.

--Roger Clemens

"That's our country, isn't it?" Clemens said. "Guilty before innocent. That's the way our country works now."

Near the end of the interview, there was one snippet of true enlightenment. Two years ago, at a World Baseball Classic news conference, Clemens expressed concerns about the long-term impact of all the painkillers he took during his career. He reiterated those concerns to Wallace on Sunday.

"I was eating Vioxx like it was Skittles," Clemens said. "And now these people who were supposedly regulating it tell me that it's bad for my heart. I don't know what the future holds because of the medicine that I've eaten. But I trusted that it was not harmful."

That's a heartfelt sentiment, but it doesn't feed the steroid "gotcha" frenzy that drives sports news or prompts congressional hearings. We really don't care about the health of fat NFL linemen who die prematurely from heart disease or pitchers who take painkillers -- only the ethics of pitchers who use performance enhancers to help our favorite teams and our fantasy teams.

News flash: The steroid saga is a complicated mess. So let's take the Clemens interview for what it's worth. If he's telling the truth, he got his chance to vent. And if he's lying, he's out on a very tenuous limb.

Realistically, the millions of baseball fans who've made up their minds on Clemens weren't going to be swayed one iota by his encounter with Wallace. They probably had more faith in that "60 Minutes" Boston mob hit man than in the Rocket.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer