The holy warriors of the anti-doping crusade have achieved the near-impossible: They have made me feel sorry for Roger Clemens. When George Mitchell’s report on the use of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball, requested by commissioner Bud Selig, made Clemens its poster boy, the reputation of one of the best pitchers the game has witnessed was instantly destroyed. The allegations were based almost entirely on the testimony of Clemens’s former personal trainer, Brian McNamee, who was threatened with prosecution if he lied to Mitchell’s investigators. That’s what the crusaders were waiting for, a big name, someone less odious than, say, Barry Bonds. We may learn the truth from the upcoming FBI investigation into whether Clemens committed perjury, or the conflict between Clemens and his accusers may remain unresolved, but either way, the damage is done. “Mitchell has thrown a skunk in the jury box,” Rusty Hardin, Clemens’s Houston-based attorney, told me. “Whatever happens now, we’ll never be able to remove the smell.”
A shadow of suspicion has trailed Clemens since October 2006, when the Los Angeles Times reported that an affidavit for a search warrant, sworn to by a federal investigator, fingered McNamee, Clemens, and several other players in a performance-enhancer drug case. Clemens steadfastly denied using performance enhancers (and, indeed, fourteen months later, the Times ran a correction saying that he had not been named in the affidavit after all). He repeated those denials after the Mitchell report appeared in December, first in an interview with Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes, in which he admitted to taking injections of vitamin B12 and the painkiller lidocaine but angrily rejected McNamee’s contentions that he’d received steroids and human growth hormone ( HGH), then in a press conference so packed with self-righteous indignation that he stormed off the stage when the questions got too sticky.
To rebut allegations that Clemens’s career rebounded about the time he supposedly first started using performance enhancers, his agent, Randy Hendricks, released an 18,000-word report, complete with statistics, maintaining that his remarkable longevity (Clemens is 45) was due to his ability to adjust his pitching style. To compensate for a decrease in the velocity of his fastball, which had been his trademark since he broke in with the Boston Red Sox, in 1983, Clemens, the report said, utilized a split-finger fastball. Indeed, he won the fourth of his seven Cy Young awards in 1997, at age 35, a year after the Red Sox decided he was washed-up and a year before McNamee claims that Clemens started using steroids.
On February 13, Clemens went to Capitol Hill to repeat his denials, this time under oath. The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform had all but commanded his appearance, because he had dared to challenge the Mitchell report. “How did we reach the stage where a guy is criticized for publicly denying guilt?” Hardin asks. Clemens hasn’t been charged with a crime, but the court of public opinion has already rendered its guilty verdict.
It’s almost as though the holy warriors were waiting for a star of Clemens’s magnitude to make it official that performance enhancers are our newest national hysteria, nudging aside old standbys like bird flu, sharks, and red hordes. This has gone beyond silly. Who among us hasn’t used performance enhancers, preferably with ice and an olive? Steroids, synthetic substances similar to testosterone, can be as benign as those that are commonly prescribed for allergies and as harmful as those that have sent many