How I Knew Clemens Was a Liar

When Roger Clemens allegedly perjured himself to Congress, Randall Lane watched with another of baseball’s steroids rogues, who explained why pro athletes leave destruction in their wake.

08.20.10 6:36 AM ET

When Roger Clemens allegedly perjured himself to Congress, Randall Lane, author The Zeroes: My Misadventures in the Decade Wall Street Went Insane, watched with another of baseball’s steroids rogues, who explained why pro athletes leave destruction in their wake.

When the Mitchell Report on steroids in baseball, overseen by the former Senate majority leader, was released on December 13, 2007, the New York Times featured giant photographs, each bigger than a postcard, of four of the alleged culprits above the fold of its front page. One of them was pitcher Roger Clemens, better known as The Rocket. Another was outfielder Lenny Dykstra, better known as Nails.

Which made for an odd evening exactly two months later, on February 13, 2008, when Nails and I watched the Rocket testify and, according to yesterday’s federal indictment, perjure himself, to Congress.

I knew he was lying to me; he knew he was lying to me. Yet there I was at the St. Regis.

The awkward confluence—one that both sheds light on the Clemens indictment and the destructive character of today’s pro athlete—was entirely accidental. Dykstra had hired the company I ran to produce a glossy magazine aimed at professional jocks, The Players Club, but was behind with a $250,000 payment. So I sat with him in his palatial suite at New York’s St. Regis hotel, trying to collect, as he turned on the television, which was set to CNN, trying to divert.

Clemens’ testimony from that day was on an infinite loop. Larry King played the highlights at 9 p.m., giving way to Anderson Cooper at 10 p.m., who repeated them for an hour again at 11 p.m., before ceding the network to a midnight repeat of Larry King. As I described in The Zeroes, my recent book recounting some of the more colorful characters of the past decade, it was like sitting in the Stuttgart living room of your grandfather, the rumored SS officer, as the History Channel played a World at War marathon.

Both Dykstra and Clemens had steadfastly and publicly denied using the steroids, human growth hormone or other performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). But now, Dykstra was sitting with me in a $5,000 hotel room, while Clemens was being grilled under oath on Capitol Hill. And while several hours of Congressional hectoring just made Clemens resolute ( “I take great issue with the report’s allegation that I used these substances. Let me be clear again: I did not.”), several hours of the Rocket’s denials wore Nails down.

“You know,” Dykstra finally said, breaking the ice, “I was like a pioneer for that stuff.”

From there, the floodgates opened. No longer the uncomfortable World at War marathon, I was now watching the Nuremberg Trials alongside Rudolf Hess. Dykstra took me inside, explaining how he and other players obtained steroids. When they took them. Why they took them.

To me, Clemens testimony already seemed perilous: his trainer and teammate both relayed conflicting accounts, and the former had retained physical evidence. To Dykstra, it was all a joke. Of course, the Rocket used PEDs, he scoffed: Look at his body, look at his superhuman performance after age 40, look at the intensity in his eye, his need to win. Look at the money. (“Do you have any idea how much money was at stake? Do you?” Dykstra asked me at one point, before describing how his 1993 season, boosted by enough steroids to transform himself from a short toothpick to a human fire hydrant, yielded him an ill-gotten $25 million contract.) Nails said none of this with disdain; rather, it was all conveyed with the respect a former jewel thief might have upon hearing about a particularly lucrative heist.

Dykstra intuitively understood that Roger Clemens merely reflected the modern-day pro athlete: self-centered and destructive. A jury will determine if Clemens lied to Congress, but there’s hardly a pro athlete out there unskilled in the art in fibbing. Ask any sportswriter. Or handler. Or wife.

Most pros have been recruited, deified and enabled since they were 12. They can speak or act pretty much with impunity, and if anyone in their life has problem with that, dozens wait in the wings as replacements. I’m surely guilty as charged. When the Mitchell Report came out, Dykstra lied to my face about his steroid use as freely as he had to the reporters of The New York Times, the New York Post and Deadspin. I knew he was lying to me; he knew he was lying to me. Yet there I was at the St. Regis, continuing to court his business—as long as his checks were clearing.

The only thing that separates Clemens—the reason his alleged lies are a federal case, while acknowledged liar Alex Rodriguez will make $30 million this year—is hubris. His testimony to Congress wasn’t given under subpoena, or coercion—he volunteered it. And while pro athletes typically get away with hubris as elegantly as they get away with lying (witness last month’s LeBron James announcement disaster on ESPN), Clemens raised the stakes recklessly. Athletes are role models, whether they like it or not, and the Feds thus seem keen to impart a cut-and-dried civics lesson on America: if you lie to Congress, you go to jail.

There’s also something more dangerous going on. The most troubling part of the Clemens testimony came when discussing someone else who dabbled with his ex-trainer’s PEDs: “My wife received a shot of (human growth hormone) from Brian McNamee at my house,” he swore to the House panel. “ I think it was in our master bedroom. The year, I’m going to say 2003 possibly.”

In other words, Roger Clemens threw his wife under the bus. (Even if he’s completely innocent, his hubris needlessly turned her into a national punchline.) Just as another alleged steroid abuser in the federal crosshairs, Barry Bonds, let his childhood friend rot in jail for more than a year rather than encourage him to testify to a grand jury. Or how smarmy Hall of Fame point guard/basketball player Isiah Thomas overdosed on sleeping pills, according to police, then told a reporter it had actually been his 17-year-old daughter. Or how former NBA star Jayson Williams accidentally shot his limo driver, and then placed the gun in the dead man’s hands and told all the witnesses to lie to the cops. I could list a dozen more from the past five years, without even tapping the jocks whose friends take credit for various guns and pot found in their cars on a seemingly weekly basis.

Pro athletes in our society are portrayed as heroes—a character trait that should involve taking the fall, rather than letting us others do it for you. Yet we’ve so enabled them from adolescence that the vast majority, when pushed, will act like cowards.

That seems to include the Rocket. And it definitely includes Nails. Since watching the Clemens testimony together, Dykstra filed for personal bankruptcy, but not before tearing through the assets he shared with his wife, brought his brother-in-law into a questionable penny stock deal, rang up thousands on his mother’s credit-card and may have blown the money that his son got as a minor league signing bonus. On the plus side, he’s not in jail. Clemens might not be so lucky.

Randall Lane is editor at large at The Daily Beast. The former editor in chief of Trader Monthly, Dealmaker and P.O.V. magazines, and the former Washington bureau chief of Forbes, he is the author of The Zeroes: My Misadventures in the Decade Wall Street Went Insane.