Foregone Conclusion

Roger Clemens Acquitted in Bogus Perjury Trial

Allen Barra says it was a waste—and the push to bar Clemens from the Hall of Fame is petty and spiteful.

Saul Loeb, AFP / Getty Images

It needs to be recorded in some history that at the time that the United States of America was fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, reeling from terrorist attacks, enflamed with immigration debates, sagging from high unemployment, and battling back from near economic disaster, the Justice Department and federal investigators spent upward of $120 million to determine whether a handful of professional baseball players used performance-enhancing drugs.

Let it also be recorded that in its zealous pursuit to nail some big-name ballplayers, in April 2004 federal agents illegally seized 103 positive test samples of players and selectively leaked the names of some of them to The New York Times and Sports Illustrated. (You did know, didn’t you, that that’s the only way those publications could have “scooped” everyone else with the news that Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, and David Ortiz had used PEDs, didn’t you?) That this was a gross violation of the players’ civil liberties—the drug tests were anonymous, taken only after Major League Baseball and the players’ union had come to an agreement on testing—was scarcely noticed by the press.

Let’s put an even finer point on it: the players were accused of using drugs that, at least for the most part, were not illegal at the time and were not even banned within their own sport.

Now we come down to Tuesday’s verdict in the Roger Clemens’s perjury case: not guilty on all six counts. And the biggest question of all—why this happened—remains unanswered.

The immediate answer is that Congress was angry that Clemens, who was accused without proof of drug use in the 2007 report by former Sen. George Mitchell, angered a congressional committee by loudly proclaiming his innocence. And now that Clemens has walked, the post-trial grumbling has become almost deafening.

“That’s what happens,” former New York Mets clubhouse attendant and admitted drug dealer Kirk Radomski told the New York Daily News, “when you have money. You can hire enough lawyers to create reasonable doubt.” As if Congress didn’t have money to burn to spend on this circus—the tab for Clemens’s trial alone came to more than $3 million, and that doesn’t count last year’s trial, declared a mistrial by Judge Reggie Walton when the prosecution defied him by presenting hearsay evidence.

“The criminal system,” whined Richard Emery, an attorney for Clemens’s chief accuser, Brian McNamee, “made this case about Brian McNamee. It should have been a case about Roger Clemens.” The truth is that the trial was, from the very beginning, a case of Roger Clemens vs. Brian McNamee, and practically no one else. It wasn’t hard for anyone who has followed the proceedings to predict that the government’s case wasn’t going anywhere since McNamee, Clemens’s former personal trainer, was the only real witness against him.

You may or may not like Roger Clemens; many don’t, especially sportswriters who find him arrogant and uncommunicative as well as unfashionably Republican. (Clemens’s support on the congressional committee investigating drug use broke down almost exclusively along partisan party lines.) But it was obvious that Clemens looked like a font of integrity compared to McNamee, a drug dealer whose past includes such unsavory episodes as being a suspect in a 2001 rape case at a Florida hotel in which the victim had traces of a date rape drug in her bloodstream. He was never charged.

Is it possible that federal prosecutors could have been dim enough to believe that in McNamee they had hitched their cart to a winner? And if they had nothing better to build their case on, wasn’t there one soul in their ranks to suggest they should just drop the matter altogether?

So now that Clemens has been acquitted, a petty spiteful sports media intends to strike back him the only way it can, by denying him admission to the Baseball Hall of Fame—or as the Daily News’ back page phrased it in huge letters, “Hall No!” We’re even hearing the lowest of arguments, that Clemens wasn’t HOF-caliber until he met McNamee. This is a lie.

Roger Clemens was a Hall of Fame pitcher long before the alleged drug use. McNamee testified that he injected Clemens with PEDs in 1998, 2000, and 2001, and also HGH in 2000. Even if you find baseball statistics boring, I ask you to give me your attention for a couple of minutes.

Clemens pitched his first big league game for the Boston Red Sox in 1984, was with them until 1996, and then, in 1997, the Toronto Blue Jays. Over that period he was 212-118 for a won-lost percentage of .642, higher than most pitchers in the Hall of Fame. He led the league in lowest ERA five times and strikeouts four times. If he had quit after 1997, this would have been more than good enough for Cooperstown. If the rest of his career had been mediocre—if he had pitched for just eight more seasons (instead of the 10 he did pitch) and averaged just about 10 wins per season—he’d have been close to 300, which automatically gets you a plaque.

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But here’s the thing: according to McNamee’s testimony, 1998 was the first year Clemens used PEDs. That season he led the league in victories (20), ERA, and strikeouts, but he didn’t have as good a season as he had the year before.

2000 is the next year McNamee says he gave Clemens a shot. He was good that year, 13-8, but with an ordinary 3.70 ERA. The third and last time was 2001. Clemens was a terrific 20-3 that year, but analysts are in agreement that the main reason for his success was the extraordinary run support from his New York Yankees teammates. His ERA was a respectable 3.51. So where’s the PED boost?

From 1998 on, Clemens’s record, unlike that of Barry Bonds, reflects no improved performance at all—especially in the categories where drugs are supposed to make a difference. After age 35 Barry Bonds not only bettered the performance of the young Barry Bonds, he became the greatest power hitter in the history of baseball. Clemens, in contrast, maintained a very high level of performance from age 35 on, but nothing like his young, pre-35 self. Nor did he do anything that many before him hadn’t done: in 2005, at age 42, Clemens was 13-8. In 1963, Warren Spahn, also at age 42, was 23-7.

From 1998 through 2007, Clemens was not an extraordinary power pitcher; he led the league in strikeouts only once over those 10 seasons, and he was most certainly not stronger or more durable, completing just nine games over that span. He completed nine in 1997 alone before he hired McNamee.

I don’t know whether Roger Clemens used PEDs, though the New York press certainly thinks it knows. “Truth Strikes Out!” screams the front page of the June 19 Daily News. I do know that if he did, it was unequivocally wrong of him to lie to Congress, but I also know that it was at least equally wrong for Congress to force questions on him it had no right to ask in the first place.