Commentary

In court of public opinion, a Clemens verdict: Game over

Updated: December 12, 2008, 4:52 PM ET
By T.J. Quinn | ESPN

HOUSTON -- Even the faithful think the game is over for Roger Clemens.

Not in any legal sense, of course. But in the great court of public opinion, and in that lesser but nonetheless powerful court of baseball writers who vote for the Hall of Fame, he has been pronounced guilty by a split decision.

"I think people have made their minds up on everything, no matter what the story is, whether it's right or wrong," says Clemens' former teammate, Craig Biggio, who probably is headed to the Hall of Fame himself. "Everybody has really forgotten all the good things that he's done."

No, Clemens' seven Cy Young Awards and his history of good works haven't been part of the conversation.

A year after the release of the Mitchell report, which named Clemens as a steroid and human growth hormone abuser, his fate is in flux, subject to the currents of the criminal and civil justice systems. The FBI has been investigating him for perjury after he denied the accusations before a congressional committee in February, and his defamation lawsuit against his accuser, former personal trainer Brian McNamee, is still pending.

The feds have been collecting DNA samples to see whether seven- or eight-year-old syringes were used to inject him with steroids. And they've been digging through his medical records and interviewing potential witnesses, as ESPN reported this week, even revisiting some witnesses as recently as September.

[+] EnlargeRoger Clemens
AP Photo/Brett CoomerDoesn't seem like that long ago that Roger Clemens won his seventh Cy Young Award. But that isn't what people remember about him these days.
It is still possible that U.S. Attorney Jeffrey A. Taylor in Washington, D.C., could decide there isn't enough evidence to bring a perjury case, and he could make the decision quietly, providing no public sense of finality. A judge in Houston also could soon rule whether to dismiss Clemens' defamation suit on the grounds that McNamee was compelled by federal prosecutors to speak to former U.S. Senator George Mitchell. If the judge allows the lawsuit to proceed, he also could grant McNamee's request to move the case to New York.

But polls of fans and eligible members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America have consistently shown that the damage had been done by the time Clemens left Capitol Hill on Feb. 13, having declared under oath, before Congress and the world, that he had never used steroids or HGH.

A USA Today poll taken shortly after the hearings showed that 57 percent of people sampled believed Clemens was lying, while 31 percent thought he was telling the truth. That was before accusations surfaced that he'd had affairs with several women, further eroding his credibility as a family man who played clean. Clemens' attorney, Rusty Hardin, declined repeated requests for comment.

If Clemens is innocent, the implications are staggering. It means McNamee, who spoke to Mitchell under threat of prosecution, lied only about Clemens. Andy Pettitte and former Yankee Chuck Knoblauch admitted that McNamee was correct about their drug use.

It means Pettitte either lied under oath about his conversations with Clemens or profoundly misunderstood them. He told congressional investigators he had no doubt that Clemens told him he was using HGH. Several friends of Clemens and Pettitte say the friendship between the pair of pitchers has been destroyed, and that Pettitte came away from the experience disillusioned about Clemens. Pettitte's agent, Alan Hendricks, did not return messages seeking comment.

It means Clemens didn't discuss HGH with McNamee, but McNamee injected Debbie Clemens with it in their home, and without Roger's knowledge.

[+] EnlargeMitchell Report
Mario Tama/Getty ImagesThe Mitchell Report spelled it out in black and white: Clemens was being accused of using peformance-enhancing drugs.
It also would mean a man's life has been devastated for no good reason.

"With Roger, part of me feels like he's fighting this hard, so, if he's fighting this hard, I almost think there's something behind it," says former Astros catcher Brad Ausmus.

Because if Clemens is guilty, the implications are just as mind-boggling.

It means Clemens lied to the public, lied to Congress, lied to his friends and family. It means Clemens let his wife undergo the humiliation of admitting her own HGH use while he denied his.

It would mean that rather than admit the truth, he decided to risk imprisonment.

And he chose this path.

In the days before he faced Congress, Clemens had a way out.

Rep. Henry Waxman, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, told Hardin that Clemens didn't have to face the cold of Washington in February or the heat of a congressional hearing. Waxman was prepared to release a report of his committee's investigation and leave it at that. But Clemens and his legal team decided they deserved a public forum to defend him against accusations in the Mitchell report.

[+] EnlargeRoger Clemens and Drayton McLane
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyClemens and Astros' owner Drayton McLane have had happier times, such as this celebration after they won the NLCS in October 2005.
To some of the men who know Clemens, it was what they expected.

"Roger wants to be the perfect guy: the perfect player, the perfect pitcher -- the best of all time. [To admit to using steroids] would mean he wasn't," one longtime friend says, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "I think Roger looks at everything as a ballgame, and that's probably his biggest downfall. He goes after everything high and inside."

Houston Astros owner Drayton McLane says he hasn't known Clemens long, but he knows how driven he can be.

"I think he's trying to preserve his integrity and his honor, and I think that's what's important, and I think he thinks this is something he didn't do," McLane says. "I think he wanted to attack it instead of maybe think through a better way.

"It's just like his fastball. It's either overpowering or it's out of there."

Clemens made his career not just by throwing hard but also by imposing his will on batters, imposing his will on everything around him. In the clubhouse at Yankee Stadium earlier this year, after one of Clemens' many denials, a member of the organization, speaking under his breath, said, "What they don't get about Roger is that he believes what he's saying. If he says the sky is purple, then it is purple, because he said so. He doesn't think he's lying. I'll bet you anything he'd pass a lie-detector test."

It was clear the speaker assumes Clemens is guilty.

[+] EnlargeBrian McNamee
Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty ImagesBrian McNamee didn't hold back when he spoke to Mitchell's investigators and again in front of Congress. Now he's the subject of a defamation lawsuit.
Few people in this world can impose their wills on Congress, on a skeptical media, on a public that has grown accustomed to heroes who cheated along the way. Some athletes, such as the indicted Barry Bonds, don't seem to realize that lesson even after it blows up in their faces. Will made them what they are.

"A majority of athletes are like that," a former player says. "They just can't let it go. I know how hard it was for me." And that player was no Roger Clemens.

In private conversations, a number of current and former players say they think Clemens probably used steroids and growth hormone, and that he would have been forgiven had he simply admitted it.

Nolan Ryan, one of Clemens' heroes and a co-investor in a restaurant called the "Earl of Sandwich" in Houston, spoke about Clemens in August as though he assumed Clemens had doped.

"It's just a shame that Roger has gotten caught up in this situation and that he took the stance that he did, and that so many things have come out that have really casted a bad light on his career," he told a radio show. "Because if you look at what Roger accomplished, it was a phenomenal career; and if you look at what happened with some of the other players, and they stepped up and they said, you know, 'Hey, I did it, I knew it was wrong' and they asked for forgiveness, and they've gone on about their business.

"I just think it's unfortunate that Roger took the position that he did and that so much has come out about it."

Clemens has kept a low profile since the hearing, staying mostly in Houston, where his name is still revered. Before the Mitchell report, Roger and Debbie Clemens were fixtures in the social scene, frequently photographed at charity events in recent years. Roger and Debbie were featured either alone or together on the magazine covers of Texas Family, Houston Woman, InTown: Houston, Avid Golfer: Houston, Women's Golf: Texas and Houston Pet Talk.

Those friendly media requests seem to have dwindled, and a number of organizations that were involved with Clemens have broken ties with him, at least until his case has some sort of resolution. The New York Daily News recently reported that the Roger Clemens-Giff Nielsen Day of Golf for Kids, for example, will no longer include Clemens' name.

[+] EnlargeRoger Clemens
Mark Wilson/Getty ImagesClemens told his story to Congress in February, and he's been adamant about sticking to it.
However, Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston decided to maintain the name of the Roger Clemens Institute for Sports Medicine, which he helped fund, and he recently gave the hospital $3 million to expand its pediatric center.

For the most part, his longtime friend says, the Clemens family's lives in Houston aren't all that different than they were.

"They're still doing things. They're not in as many photos. They don't want it to be a spectacle anymore. But they're under the radar and not too out in the open," he says. "And I don't think anyone in Houston is upset with them and not talking to them. To be honest, no one's really talked about it."

The family doesn't go out to dinner much, the friend says, but Clemens still plays golf frequently at Shadow Hawk, his private club, where no one questions his place in the firmament.

After country music singer Mindy McCready told the New York Daily News that she had a lengthy affair with Clemens, Debbie Clemens "was devastated," the friend says. "But they're staying together. They've been together for so long, I don't think [a separation] was going to happen."

Biggio says he doesn't expect Clemens to vanish altogether.

"I think he's just going to go on with his life. He's got five kids. That's a full-time job itself," Biggio says. "Laying low, it's probably a good thing because it doesn't keep bringing it up over and over again."

Clemens' response to the Mitchell report a year ago was anything but low-key. He chose the route that an innocent man would take, a man who had no fear of perjury charges or empirical contradiction. After an initial hesitation to respond that was generally viewed as a mistake, he denied the charges, with gusto.

[+] EnlargeRoger and Debbie Clemens
AP Photo/Isaac BrekkenThe last year hasn't been easy on Debbie and Roger Clemens, but friends say they're still together.
He went on "60 Minutes" and denied the charges again.

He sued his accuser for defamation. (But he did not sue Mitchell or Major League Baseball, which published Mitchell's report. It is the equivalent of suing a source for libel, but not the reporter or the newspaper.)

He personally lobbied members of the House committee, and it paid off, in part. The Republicans on the committee came to his defense during the hearing and attacked McNamee, especially after they felt the Democrats were too quick to condemn Clemens. When Waxman, a Democrat, submitted a request to the Department of Justice that Clemens be investigated for perjury, Republican Tom Davis, the ranking minority member, helped formulate a response that challenged McNamee.

But despite his defiance and public skepticism about the eminently unsympathetic McNamee, Clemens couldn't get around one thing: Pettitte. Even Clemens' supporters concede that when Pettitte admitted his own use and then told investigators that Clemens had doped, his admission made it difficult to believe Clemens.

"That did not help Roger at all," McLane says. "I think it raised a huge question because Andy was also held in such high regard. It didn't convince people, I don't think -- it raised issues. It made the accusation possibly be more believable. But I don't think [everyone] formed an opinion."

Pettitte's admission of his own use came with an explanation that people seemed to buy. He said he did it only to recover from an injury so he could help his team. When Pettitte's name is mentioned these days, the question is whether he will sign with the Dodgers or someone else. With Clemens, the question is whether he'll be indicted.

In the volumes of evidence congressional investigators collected, several sections of testimony in particular caught the attention of staff lawyers. Pettitte and McNamee independently recalled a conversation in which Pettitte asked why McNamee wasn't giving him the same "stuff" that Clemens was getting.

From Pettitte's testimony:

Q. … Did you ever mention to anyone else what Clemens had told you about his using HGH?
A. Yeah. I mean I told -- I told McNamee. I asked McNamee about it.

Q. And was that soon after you had that conversation with Clemens?

A. Yeah. It would have had to have been.

Q. And what was McNamee's response?

A. He was upset. You know he was -- you know, I went to Mac and just had told him, "You know that Roger had told me that he had took it." And he was -- he was -- he was pretty upset. I remember him just kind of getting angry and said, "You know, who told you that?" And I -- I'm like, "Well, Roger did." And you know, he was like, "Man, he shouldn't have done that." I don't remember a whole lot more than that. But I just remember that he was upset that I had told him that Roger had told me that.

Q. Was he saying that he shouldn't have told you or he shouldn't have taken the HGH?

A. He was saying he shouldn't have told me that, yeah, yeah.

And from McNamee's testimony:

A. … Andy Pettitte was having a conversation with Roger five feet away. I walked in between the middle. Andy started to back up, back up, back up. He was getting further away from Roger. And all he did was bark at me and say, "Why didn't you tell me about that stuff?"

Q. That was Andy Pettitte speaking?

A. Yes. And I said, "What stuff are you talking about?" And I said -- he goes, "Growth hormone." And I said, "Why?" He goes, "Well, Roger is telling me that he's taking it and you know you get me all this protein and this recovery stuff and why don't I take it." And I said, "Well, Andy, it's illegal, and I know how you are." And he just looked at me and he says, "Well, if it's illegal, then never mind, never mind."

"The key was simply McNamee's reaction," said one source familiar with the congressional investigation. "When Andy told him Roger said he was using [HGH], McNamee blew up."

[+] EnlargeRoger Clemens and Andy Pettite
AP Photo/Duane BurlesonOnce fast friends, Andy Pettitte and Clemens are now at odds over their versions of the truth about steroids and HGH, according to people who know them.
Which means prosecutors might argue that Pettitte and McNamee corroborate each other's accounts that Clemens discussed his own HGH use, and that Clemens was aware it was something he shouldn't be doing.

"[Either Pettitte or McNamee] could have incorrectly recalled their own conversations with Roger. But in this case, they independently recalled the same conversation," the source says.

Very little is publicly known about the FBI's investigation, and until there is some resolution, Clemens can't do much to restore his name.

"You can't make an assumption for someone else when you don't know all the facts," McLane says. "I would certainly hope that he did not, but if he did -- and I have no knowledge one way or the other -- but if he did, if Roger would say so -- and again I'm not saying he did -- I think it would certainly help him bring a resolution to that."

"I think more than anything, it's going to take time," Ausmus says. "When your reputation gets soiled the way his has, more than anything it takes time. Over the long haul, despite how everyone will remember everything over the last 12 months, Roger pitched for 20 years, and people took a lot of joy in watching him.

"I have not seen or talked to him. Every once in a while, I'll shoot him a text message saying 'hello.' In his text messages, he always seems to be in good spirits."

But Clemens' longtime friend, the one who doesn't want his name used, keeps coming back to the same question he has had for a year now: Why didn't someone tell Clemens he would be better off admitting the drug use, telling fans he was sorry and that he did it only for a short while to recover from injury?

Of course, that friend thinks Clemens is probably guilty.

"He knows that it's possible to avoid prosecution in a case like this," the friend says. "But in the court of public opinion, with the fans, it's already over."

T.J. Quinn is a reporter for ESPN's Enterprise Unit. He can be reached at tjquinn31@yahoo.com.

T.J. Quinn joined ESPN in November 2007 as an investigative reporter for ESPN's Enterprise Unit, which is charged with developing long-form, investigative features to be presented across multiple platforms.