Commentary

Did Rocket aim too high and hard?

In this whole new ballgame, Congress can retaliate against Roger with a prison term

Updated: July 6, 2011, 9:44 AM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

Roger Clemens made himself a big mess. Too bad it's not as simple as asking Mariano Rivera to clean it up. The Rocket thought he could stare down Congress, throw a little high heat and reduce this monumental challenge to his greatness to something smaller than a rosin bag.

Instead Clemens walked and talked himself into a federal trial, into a case that threatens plenty more than a future induction speech at the Hall of Fame.

If convicted, Clemens could go to prison as a felon. He is charged with perjury, false statements and obstructing Congress by swearing under oath that he never spent any part of his epic pitching career as a steroid-pumped fraud.

Jury selection in his trial begins Wednesday, and the men and women selected to sit in judgment of the former world champion New York Yankee might spend the coming weeks asking themselves this one confounding question:

Why in the world did a baseball bully named William Roger Clemens decide to pick this fight?

"He wasn't under subpoena and he didn't need to testify," said former Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, the leading Republican on the House committee that conducted a 2008 hearing on performance-enhancing drugs in baseball, speaking Tuesday by phone.

"But Roger felt very strongly in his innocence, and he got caught up in some contradictions in his testimony."

The Justice Department went after Clemens about those contradictions, so here we are with yet another superstar athlete locked in yet another courtroom struggle over his or her legacy, freedom and good name.

Losing in this arena brings consequences that don't impact the race in the American League East.

Clemens built his career on intimidation, on playing baseball with a middle linebacker's maniacal intensity. From 60 feet, 6 inches away, he never backed down.

But the terms of engagement were different here. Clemens didn't have to take his case to Mike Wallace and "60 Minutes." He didn't have to file that defamation suit against his former trainer, Brian McNamee, who claimed to have injected The Rocket with steroids and human growth hormone, and he didn't have to hold that absurd news conference to play that absurd tape of that absurd phone conversation he had with McNamee.

More than anything, Clemens didn't have to march to Capitol Hill as though he were storming the Yankee Stadium mound, hell-bent on making his opponents cower in the box.

[+] EnlargeRoger Clemens
AP Photo/Kathy WillensRoger Clemens, in his battle with Congress, may have thrown one brushback pitch too many.

Over the phone, Davis called Clemens "a remarkable baseball player and a very generous human being" with charitable causes. And -- oh yeah -- one of the dozens of big league ballplayers fingered as cheats in the Mitchell report.

"Everyone was going 50 in a 40 mph zone, and all of a sudden they started to give out speeding tickets," Davis said. "[Clemens] got caught up like everyone else but said, 'No, I was only going 40.'

"He was very loud in his protest and is taking a different path. It could've been 'Just pay your fine and you go on.' That's where this thing could've gone, easily."

But Clemens was too proud to take the Mitchell report hit without swinging back, and too arrogant to believe that a seven-time Cy Young Award winner couldn't make the feds see he wasn't the chemically altered ace McNamee made him out to be.

But the feds didn't buy The Rocket's claims, just like they didn't buy the claims of Barry Bonds and Marion Jones. Clemens was hurt badly by the deposition and sworn affidavit of his former teammate, friend, protege and workout partner, Andy Pettitte, who said Clemens told him of his own HGH use.

"He was very powerful," Davis said of Pettitte. "There was no reason for him to invent anything."

Asked if he believed Pettitte to be more credible than either Clemens or McNamee, Davis said: "Absolutely, because Pettitte didn't have a dog in the fight. Otherwise it's a he-said, she-said. Pettitte didn't have any reason to do anything but tell us what really happened, and he came across that way."

The federal judge in the case, Reggie Walton, said he isn't likely to allow statements from Pettitte, Chuck Knoblauch and Mike Stanton that they received PEDs from McNamee. Pettitte has acknowledged using HGH -- provided by the trainer -- to recover from injuries, a confession that did little to hurt his popularity among the fan base or to diminish his standing as one of the game's Honest Abes.

Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte
AP Photo/Mark LennihanRoger Clemens and his lawyers will have their work cut out for them if former teammate Andy Pettitte is allowed to testify.

Pettitte never wanted to help build anyone's case against Clemens, not after taking their bromance from the Bronx to Houston and back, but an oath is an oath. If Pettitte is allowed to testify about his conversation with Clemens -- who claimed Pettitte "misremembered" their conversation and that he actually told his former teammate that his wife Debbie had used HGH -- then The Rocket's lead attorney, Rusty Hardin, will need to be at the top of his own game in response.

And yes, that would be something of an upset. Hardin hasn't exactly pitched a Don Larsen to date.

But in the end, Clemens is responsible for Clemens. Davis warned him against lying in a congressional hearing that wasn't mandatory to begin with, and the government believes the pitcher ignored that warning. A federal grand jury indicted Clemens on six felony counts, and now Hardin and the prosecutors will start squaring off in court.

"It's just unfortunate," Davis said. "I hope whatever happens to Roger, people remember his feats on the field and his generosity. None of us are perfect. To some extent, you have to look at the complete individual.

"I think it's just a mistake he made along the way, but we'll have to see. Maybe he'll be vindicated."

Maybe the accused in this trial will emerge with all stains removed from his 354 victories and his 4,672 strikeouts.

Or maybe when the verdict comes in, Roger Clemens will end up as just another Rocket who popped off one time too many.

Ian O'Connor is the author of The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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