Commentary

What's at stake for Clemens? His future public life

Originally Published: February 12, 2008
By John Helyar | ESPN.com

If congressional hearings had catchier titles, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee's steroids extravaganza on Wednesday could be called "You Bet Your Life."

That's what Roger Clemens is doing. He's putting his baseball legacy and future as a public icon on the line in a duel of conflicting testimony with his former personal trainer Brian McNamee.

[+] EnlargeRoger Clemens
Jonathan Ernst/Getty ImagesWho'd have thunk it? Roger Clemens' future as a public figure depends as much on his performance in a suit on Wednesday as his performances in a baseball uniform over the past 24 years.
The 1950s quiz show, "You Bet Your Life," involved a secret word. Contestants who said it won prizes. This Capitol Hill show involves a secret world, one where trainers like McNamee and clubbies like Kirk Radomski score steroids for major leaguers like Andy Pettitte and allegedly Clemens.

No prizes for the witnesses here; just potentially huge prices to be paid in terms of reputation. The very person who has pressed for this moment -- Clemens -- is also the one who has the most to lose. His legacy is at stake as surely as was Mark McGwire's in March 2005, when he dissembled to this same committee and turned from home run hero to baseball outcast.

Will Clemens be the 2008 model McGwire? The man who finished 2007 (and probably his career) with 354 wins, 4,762 strikeouts and seven Cy Young Awards was a surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer. The one who is accused of taking steroids and who has diminished himself by gutter-fighting with his former trainer could get something like a Big Mac attack from Hall of Fame voters. McGwire hit 583 career home runs but was on only 23 percent of voters' HOF ballots in 2007, his first year of eligibility. That percentage didn't move this winter, in his second year on the ballot.

Clemens could yet be vindicated by Wednesday's hearing (which, incidentally, does have a title: "The Mitchell Report: The Illegal Use of Steroids in Major League Baseball, Day 2") and by other proceedings, including his defamation suit against McNamee. Clemens' attorney, Rusty Hardin, has said he wouldn't have taken on the case if he didn't believe his client's vehement denials. McNamee has some credibility problems, including his account of a 1998 party at Jose Canseco's home where he may have inaccurately placed Clemens.

[+] EnlargeNolan Ryan
AP Photo/Donna McWilliamNolan Ryan just became the Texas Rangers' team president. Will Clemens ever have an opportunity like that?
But there is no question that Clemens' future hangs in the balance here. Depending on how the hearing and subsequent events play out, he could face starkly different fates.

The rosy scenario for Clemens is one that resembles Nolan Ryan's post-pitching life. Ryan, Clemens' predecessor as a Texas fireballer, has leveraged his legend into continuing roles in baseball: as an owner of two minor league franchises, as a consultant to the Houston Astros and, now, as the newly named president of the Texas Rangers. Ryan managed to retain cachet as a commercial endorser, too, pitching Advil long after he was done pitching baseballs.

The thorny scenario is Pete Rose. To be sure, gambling is a more serious offense in the world of Major League Baseball than doping. Betting on the game will get you kicked out of the sport; juicing will get you a 50-game suspension. But the way Rose lied about the extent of his betting as aggressively as he once ran the bases -- 14 years of denying he bet on baseball, until a book confession -- has kept him barred from baseball and denied him entry to the Hall of Fame.

Clemens was certainly poised to take the Nolan Ryan track. Prior to the Mitchell report, he signed a multiyear, personal services contract with the Astros, effective upon his retirement as a player. He'd be a consultant to the team, and that gig is still on. But there is clearly a shadow over this and Clemens' other off-field interests. If he can't successfully rebut the steroid charges, for example, there are bound to be some negative ramifications for the Roger Clemens Institute for Sports Medicine & Human Performance, which he opened in conjunction with a Houston hospital in 2006.

Clemens' stock has already suffered in what you might call the legacy futures market. Mastro Auctions, a sports memorabilia concern, held an auction days after the Mitchell report came out in December. A game-worn Clemens jersey from the 2000 World Series, which was expected to fetch $6,000 to $8,000, sold for $3,585, according to Mastro president Doug Allen.

Pete Rose
AP Photo/Nick UtPete Rose isn't in the Hall, or even officially in baseball. But his problems haven't kept him out of the public eye.
Allen now expects Clemens gear to sell at a 20-30 percent discount from its former prices at upcoming memorabilia auctions.

And Clemens' value as a commercial pitchman is probably nil. He cleared $3.5 million in endorsement income last year, estimates Sports Illustrated. Now, says sports marketing expert Bob Dorfman of Baker Street Partners ad agency in San Francisco, "Unless he's totally exonerated and has a clean slate, I don't see where any advertiser would have anything to do with him."

The charges are bad enough, according to Dorfman. But the vehemence of Clemens' denials and his counterattacks make him even more toxic to advertisers -- unless he's cleared.

Let us count the ways in which Clemens might not have helped his own cause: (1) submitting to the "60 Minutes" interview, which not only failed to squelch McNamee's allegations but whetted Rep. Henry Waxman's interest in probing more deeply than Mike Wallace did; (2) calling a news conference to play a secretly taped 17-minute conversation with McNamee, which was not only inconclusive but led to testy exchanges between the Rocket and the news; (3) getting into a mudslinging contest with McNamee that not only makes Clemens seem like a bully but escalated to the point that Mrs. Clemens was pulled into the muck as an alleged HGH user.

Mike Paul, a New York crisis public relations expert, said he believes the Clemens camp has approached its defense against McNamee's allegations as it would a legal case rather than an effort to win the hearts and minds of fans.

"Rusty Hardin is a very good attorney, but there's a difference between a court of law and the court of public opinion," says Paul, the self-styled "reputation doctor" who is representing three other people named in the Mitchell report. (He won't say who.)

[+] EnlargeMark McGwire
AP Photo/Win McNamee, poolThree years ago, Mark McGwire stared down Congress and said ... nothing. That didn't work so well for his public image.
"In court, all you have to do is create reasonable doubt with a judge or a jury. In the court of public opinion, you're addressing hundreds of audiences and they've got other standards [for the accused]. Does he show humility or ego? Is he showing transparency or is he hiding? Is he showing accountability or acting above the law?"

It isn't hard for athletes who live on a plane above us mere mortals to consider themselves above the law. They're worshipped as celebrities, catered to by toadies, given a pass on many of life's usual worries. They needn't quite grow up completely, nor let go of the childhood notion that the world revolves around them.

"When you are among the high-flying adored, your view of the world becomes blurred," writes psychologist Stanley Teitelbaum in the book "Sports Heroes, Fallen Idols: How Star Athletes Pursue Self-Destructive Paths and Jeopardize Their Careers." "Off the field, some act as if they are above the rules of society; hubris and an attitude of entitlement ('I can do whatever I want') become central to the psyche of many athletes. They may deny that they are vulnerable to reprisals and feel omnipotent and grandiose as well as entitled."

Clemens' sense of privilege can only have been heightened in recent years. He's been paid huge sums to play partial seasons, after bidding derbies between the teams he's willing to join. He has made his comebacks from faux retirements with announcements befitting royal entrances. (The grandest was his greeting to fans from the Yankee Stadium owner's box last May, as he disclosed his return to pinstripes.) He's been excused from road trips.

Clemens' first reaction to being investigated was to be offended.

"I'm angry that what I've done for the game of baseball and in my private life, I don't get the benefit of the doubt," he told Wallace. "It's hogwash for people to even assume this. Twenty-four, twenty-five years, Mike. You'd think I'd get an inch of respect."

[+] EnlargeRoger Clemens
Mike Ehrmann/WireImage.comWill the Rocket's red glare help him get out of this jam?
That's why Wednesday's hearing is such a big risk for Clemens, beyond the conflicting stories he and McNamee have told. It represents a huge step out of the gated jockocracy in which he usually dwells. Capitol Hill bears no resemblance to the world he usually bestrides. They pitch inside differently up here; they know how to make you sweat under the klieg lights.

Clemens might have eased his ordeal -- and might finally have made a smart public relations move -- by meeting individually with some congressional committee members last week. Some of them swooned so much you'd have thought a K Street lobbyist bearing large campaign donations had entered the office.

(That goodwill was at least partly undone when Hardin took offense to IRS agent Jeff Novitzky's plans to attend the hearing, telling The New York Times, "If he ever messes with Roger, Roger will eat his lunch." Committee chairman Waxman sent Hardin a stern letter, warning him against trying to intimidate a federal law enforcement official.)

But if Clemens does a big finger-wagging, brow-sweating, denial-and-damning number on Wednesday and it turns out he didn't pitch Congress the truth … well, the perjury indictment likely to follow is just one in a very long list of legacy problems.

In the sordid recent history of doping allegations, the louder the accused proclaim their innocence, the harder they fall if and when they are found guilty. Marion Jones has come to be seen by her betrayed fans not just as a confirmed doper, but as a serial liar.

And yet, says John Hoberman, a University of Texas professor who has written histories of doping in sports, Clemens may have no choice. Given the parade of drug busts in sports in recent years, the accused must now crank up the volume with their protests of innocence to get them to register with a cynical public.

"Clemens is taking a great risk, but it's a risk worth taking if he's innocent," says Hoberman. "If he says 'no comment,' we've seen that with McGwire, and he's toast."

Clemens has pitched out of tough jams before, but never in this kind of arena and never with so much on the line.

John Helyar is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He previously covered the business of sports for The Wall Street Journal and Fortune magazine and is the author of "Lords of the Realm: The Real History of Baseball."

John Helyar

Sports Business
John Helyar is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He previously covered the business of sports for The Wall Street Journal and Fortune magazine and is the author of "Lords of the Realm: The Real History of Baseball."