ROGER CLEMENS was shocked—shocked!—at how little rooting capital he had after his seven Cy Young Award--winning career. "You'd think I'd get an inch of respect," he complained to CBS's Mike Wallace on Sunday night. "An inch." But these are unforgiving times for athletes who carry the taint of steroid abuse, and a rush to judgment has long since replaced the walk down memory lane. Too many of them have lied for too long, and a fan's protective reflex, no matter what the level of defiance offered in protest, has finally become disbelief.
This is too bad for Clemens, who is mounting a spirited campaign to clear his name, including his interview on 60 Minutes, during which he repeatedly said trainer Brian McNamee's alleged injections of steroids or human growth hormones "never happened." On Sunday night, after the conversation with Wallace aired, he and his attorneys filed a defamation suit against McNamee, claiming 15 statements that the Rocket's former pal had offered baseball drug investigator George Mitchell—and which became the juiciest nuggets of the Mitchell report—were false. On Monday, Clemens and his lawyer Rusty Hardin presided over a press conference at which a 17-minute tape recording of Clemens's Friday phone conversation with McNamee was played. What might have been a juicy eavesdrop proved to be an uncomfortable and oddly momentum-free chat in which both parties seemed eager for the other to say a certain something, though what that something was remains unclear. McNamee, sounding at times desperate to be forgiven, asked Clemens to "just tell me what to do." Clemens seemed hesitant to respond but at least once said that he "just needed somebody to tell the truth." After the tape ended, Clemens restated his innocence much more passionately than he had in the phone call and again expressed his anger at not getting "the benefit of the doubt." He then cut the questions short.
Baseball fans have learned that there are lies, damned lies and perjury, and they will likely withhold further favor unless Clemens rouses the same indignation before a Jan. 16 Capitol Hill hearing, at which both he and his accuser may have to face off under oath. Clemens said on Monday that he will go to Washington and tell the congressmen "everything I know about steroids," though he added, "That's not much." In any case, a lie there and he joins Barry Bonds on the docket. A sniveling Mark McGwire defense, and he takes his place in HOF limbo (something Clemens said on Monday that he "could give a rat's ass about"). But even if he confronts Congress in full fury and is able to expose McNamee for the self-preserving scoundrel he claims he is, Clemens may find that forgiveness and understanding are beyond his considerable reach. Unforgiving times, like we said.
What Clemens demands is kind of a stretch, anyway. As an alternative to that rush to judgment, he is suggesting a shambling stroll to Crazy Town, where third ears grow out of foreheads and athletes pull tractors with their teeth—which Clemens told Wallace were proven by-products of steroid abuse. Also, in Clemens's strange world, trainers inject their heroes with local anesthetics like lidocaine. And then shoot them up with B-12 vitamin bombs. McNamee told Mitchell that he injected Clemens with far more potent compounds in 1998, 2000 and 2001 and that he did the same for Clemens's pal Andy Pettitte (who, in contrast to Clemens, immediately confessed to then unbanned, but still-scorned, treatments of HGH, bolstering McNamee's credibility). But Clemens insists his shots were all benign.
Clemens is a known workout hound and would not be the first athlete to have made a fetish out of his conditioning. And attention to detail surely accounts somewhat for the longevity of his career, which found him pitching at a high level, and high income, well into his 40s. While nobody doubts that Clemens, now 45, would have required some salve along the way (he now wonders if the painkilling Vioxx he was eating "like Skittles" might revisit him with side effects), doctors nevertheless find it strange that a trainer would administer a prescription drug like lidocaine or that anybody needs to inject B-12. That, by the way, has become one very notorious vitamin; Rafael Palmeiro said he was mistakenly dosed with steroids during a routine B-12 shot. The question remains: Can't anybody just grab a handful of Flintstones and be done with it?
Clemens, for all his vehemence, may be all too mindful of his predicament. "I don't know if I can defend myself," he told Mike Wallace, who had done friendly interviews with Clemens in the past. "A lot of people have already made their decisions." It's true, we have become a suspicious bunch, more and more inclined to assign guilt when a wait-and-see attitude might be more appropriate. The wrongfully accused Duke lacrosse players ought to be a reminder that even fishy defense stories can be true. And that there are motives at work among our law enforcement officials beyond truth-seeking.
But Clemens is falling victim to more than just an unlikely story, whether it's his or McNamee's. If he's not a steroid abuser, as the Mitchell report claims, and is simply a B-12 vitamin freak, as he insists, he will still pay the price of his peers who undeniably and unapologetically juiced through one of baseball's most shameful eras, and largely without any penalty. The public blowback was slow building, but it's finally arrived. Clemens will get no slack, no understanding, not much room to maneuver here. A nation that's been duped for so long has become predictably vengeful, not much given to tolerance, on the lookout for scapegoats, philanderers and rogue vitamin monsters. Heroes, treated to vast reservoirs of trust, must now drink from briny puddles of skepticism.
Roger Clemens, for all his passion and presumed innocence, will not get much respect, not even an inch, as shocking as that may be to him.
"A fan's reflex, no matter what the level of defiance offered, HAS BECOME DISBELIEF."
Read Jon Heyman's interview with Brian McNamee and full Mitchell report coverage.
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PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY JOHN UELAND