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February 15, 2008

Prospectus Hit and Run

Smoked

by Jay Jaffe

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I viewed the entirety of Wednesday's Congressional dog-and-pony show from within Fox News Radio's studio, where I was a guest commentator for the proceedings, a situation similar to two months ago when the Mitchell Report was released. Along with host Dave Anthony, I pecked out notes on a computer, oohed and aahed at the revelations, groaned at the grandstanding and waited to get a word in edgewise. The payoff in terms of time spent watching to time spent talking wasn't great, but the chance to talk with fellow guest Jim Bouton, who joined us via telephone from his Massachusetts home, was a treat.

Bouton has played no small part in my life since the age of nine, but I've been dismayed by the "hang 'em high" stance he's offered lately when it comes to steroids. Back in 1970, Bouton extolled the virtues of greenies and practically foresaw the whole steroid era when he wrote in Ball Four, "If you had a pill that would guarantee a pitcher twenty wins, but might take five years off his life, he'd take it." Yet his more recent statements have been rather draconian, calling for a lifetime ban for players who have taken performance-enhancing drugs with significantly less than a guarantee of such success. In our conversation regarding the hearings, a Bouton more in line with the former pitcher and iconoclastic author re-emerged, offering a more nuanced viewpoint. Bouton allowed that he sympathized with the players in general; in his view, a good portion of the blame for the whole steroid saga belongs with the commissioner, the Major League Baseball Players Association and the owners, who did little to protect the players from their own competitive nature.

In any event, Wednesday's hearings weren't so much about the House Committee on Oversight and Governmental Reform's interest in the culpability of the commissioner, the union, or the owners as they were about Roger Clemens' decision to challenge the findings in the Mitchell Report in an attempt to clear his name. Without Clemens' vehement campaign to discredit the work of the Mitchell Commission while denying the charges that he used steroids and human growth hormone, there would have been no hearing. But given his goal of vindicating himself, it's difficult to conclude that Clemens did anything but fail miserably on a grand stage.

As skeptical as I am of the report and of star witness Brian McNamee's character (to say nothing of the Congressional committee), I came into Wednesday's hearings ready to believe that Clemens had used performance-enhancing drugs. Mind you, I don't particularly care that he may have used. Though Clemens' late-career accomplishments certainly fit a pattern not unlike that of America's previous Public Enemy #1, Barry Bonds, I'm more skeptical than ever about what the drugs in question may have done to his performance. Statwise, there's no smoking gun, and in the context of the dozens or even hundreds of other players who allegedly used PEDs prior to baseball's beefed-up policy, his case isn't especially remarkable. It's the denials which have amplified the coverage and given the story legs. Indeed, so few other players named in the Mitchell Report have substantially challenged their inclusion--Jack Cust and David Justice come to mind; no word on when they get their day on Capitol Hill--that I've had a harder time buying into the Clemens camp's endless refutations. As Shakespeare (or maybe Red Smith) wrote, methinks the lady doth protest too much.

Furthermore, every weird turn this case has taken prior to Wednesday--the Mike Wallace softball interview on 60 Minutes, the taped phone call with Brian McNamee, the dispatch of private investigators to debrief (and tape) McNamee, Pettitte's admission of HGH use, the ancient needles and gauze hoarded by McNamee, the entry of Debbie Clemens into this mess, the Rocket's glad-handing and illegal souvenir distribution on Capitol Hill, Rusty Hardin's down-home machismo--further eroded my confidence in Clemens' version of events. The only major point scored in the pitcher's favor between the report's release and the hearings was the revelation that he was not in fact named in the Jason Grimsley affidavit, contrary to the Los Angeles Times' previous reports.

The hearings did little to turn the tide. Pettitte's testimony, which was leaked on the eve of the hearings, appeared to be the most damning, at least in the court of public opinion. While questions about the credibility of Clemens and McNamee were the order of the day, Pettitte was held up as a paragon of integrity. Not only had he lent credibility to the Mitchell Report and to McNamee by admitting to his own past usage of HGH, he swore that Clemens told him that he used HGH and that McNamee told him that Clemens used. If that's not enough, an affidavit from his wife Laura detailed his relaying of that conversation and backed up his chronology of the events. While his deposition shows his assertions of Clemens' use to be more convoluted than presented, that's understandable given his reluctance to testify; there's still enough in his testimony to contradict Clemens' assertions that they had never discussed HGH. Clemens had no solid explanation for why Pettitte would "misremember" the nature of their conversations about HGH, nor why this honest and honorable friend would come forward to contradict Clemens' account and put him in legal jeopardy.

Speaking of wives, Debbie Clemens' role in this whole surreal affair helps the Rocket even less. Particularly problematic--other than the part about Clemens throwing his spouse under the bus, I mean--was the fact that despite maintaining before the committee that he'd never discussed HGH with Brian McNamee, Clemens in his depositions had admitted to discussing HGH with McNamee, specifically in the context of the trainer either supplying the drug to Debbie to inject herself (Clemens' version) or performing the injection himself (McNamee's version). Either way, apparently Clemens misremembered that part as well.

(Here I was reminded of another quote from Ball Four, something along the lines of "The toughest part of a road trip is explaining to your wife why she needs a shot for your kidney infection.")

Also damning was the information connected to Jose Canseco and to the Clemens family nanny. Let me see if I have this straight: Clemens wasn't at the June 1998 party that McNamee says he was, an account supposedly backed by a 10-year-old golf receipt (and you thought McNamee was the only one hoarding archaic evidence) and an affidavit from Mr. Credibility himself, Canseco. Yet the unnamed Clemens nanny--a witness who may have been tampered with by Clemens before being turned over to investigators, no small matter in and of itself--confirms that Clemens, his wife, his nanny and his kids were at the Canseco home during that time period, and even spent the night. Whether or not Clemens and Canseco had their infamous discussion of stacking and cycling at this time, as McNamee related in the Mitchell Report, isn't the biggest issue here anymore; it's the appearance of impropriety with regards to Clemens' recent discussions with the nanny.

A word here about the Congressmen (and women) we saw on parade Wednesday. If the old saw that we get the elected officials we deserve is true, then we as a nation must have collectively befouled some ancient burial ground to bring forth the grandstanding of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. The proceedings featured a partisan divide that might have been predicted by Clemens' political allegiance and friendship with the Bush family, with Democrats going after Clemens and Republicans attacking McNamee. The histrionics largely tended to come from the GOP side, with Dan Burton, Darrell Issa, Virginia Foxx and my old nemesis Christopher Shays being the most egregious, though William Clay's question about which uniform Clemens would be wearing in the Hall of Fame and Eleanor Holmes Norton's assurances that Clemens was going to heaven showed the Democrats couldn't resist inappropriate conduct either. According to committee chair Henry Waxman, former committee chair Tom Davis and Mark Souder were the only Republicans to actually read through the depositions. Souder, one of the few representatives on either side to resist the partisan divide, noted the lack of coincidence as to the way things broke: "It wasn't an accident that word got to me that he's a Republican, or he said that President Bush called him." In hindsight, Waxman reportedly regrets that the hearing was held at all, a sentiment most of us probably share. A pox on both houses.

Clemens came into the hearings needing to cast doubt on the Mitchell Report, on Pettitte, and on McNamee, and at best, he went a weak one-for-three. The proceedings raised credibility questions about his former trainer, demonstrating that McNamee basically fits the profile of someone desperate who gets backed into corners like these--allusions to a Florida rape case where the charges didn't stick, a fake diploma and some shady misrepresentation, a seriously ill son, and a sudden desire to set things right for the youth of America so as to avoid jail time. His accounts appear to be in a constant state of evolution, which opens him up to facile charges of lying but which are, as Souder pointed out, characteristic of people forced into such deals. For certain, McNamee is no prize pig, something we've known for months; Clemens and his allies on the committee didn't get very far beyond that, and in fact Clemens created new problems for himself while dealing with the body blow of the other major revelations.

Indeed, experts suggest the probability of a Department of Justice perjury investigation versus Clemens, though I'm skeptical there's enough evidence to convict him. Meanwhile, there's much less to suggest McNamee is in danger of being proven as lying about the Mitchell-related allegations and thus in violation of his proffer agreement, or that Clemens' defamation suit against McNamee will gain any traction. Had Clemens simply copped to using HGH (and only HGH) as Pettitte did after the report came out, this sordid saga would likely be over. Clemens and his legal team look foolish for not recognizing that unless the Rocket was absolutely spotless--and here, the unchallenged information about Debbie Clemens' HGH use looks especially bad--he was going to be hung out to dry.

Roger Clemens was very good at intimidating batters for over 20 years, but his brawn and bravado simply don't work in a legal or pseudo-legal setting. He's gotten far more than he bargained for in his quest for vindication. Instead of throwing smoke, he's simply been smoked.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

Related Content:  Roger Clemens,  The Who,  Hearings

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