John Donovan
Wednesday February 13th, 2008

I love this story. I really love it. I can't help it. This has everything that you could possibly ask for in a good yarn. Drama. Mystery. Loyalty and betrayal. A good dose of tragedy. A healthy touch of the absurd. And you know what's best about this real-life struggle between Roger Clemens and Brian McNamee?

You still can't tell the good guys from the bad guys in this thing. Heck, by the time it's over with, there might not be any good guys.

Clemens, the seven-time Cy Young winner, is just hours away from a date with a Congressional committee, where he will stare down his trainer-turned-accuser, McNamee, in what has become a deliciously nasty and incredibly escalating war of wills. Wednesday's public hearing, at 10 a.m. in Room 2154 of the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill, may well turn out to be the defining moment of baseball's Steroid Era.

Forget Barry Bonds and BALCO. Who cares about Mark McGwire and his past, or Rafael Palmeiro and his wagging finger? Jose Canseco? A mere subplot now. This has become more than simply another chapter in baseball's sordid entanglement with performance-enhancing drugs. It has become an epic unto itself, with a whole lot more than a spot in the Hall of Fame, or someone's good name, riding on the outcome.

How can you take your eyes off of this? It has grandstanding politicians and seedy lawyers and crooks and cops and athletes and actors -- oh, man, the acting -- all wrapped up into one ungainly, unseemly package. This is precisely the stuff that good drama thrives on. I half expect to see Jack McCoy heading into the Congressional hearing room Wednesday.

Granted, this is no fun for Clemens or McNamee. And I imagine Major League Baseball would prefer that this latest distraction just disappear -- though, you have to admit, nothing ever seems to faze the grand old game all that much. I suppose, too, that there are a lot of fans who are nearly nauseous at the prospect of more steroids headlines.

But this is different. Ever since McNamee's claims that he injected Clemens with steroids and human growth hormone were made public in the Mitchell Report last December, this has been just too compelling to ignore. There's a new, outrageous wrinkle every day.

The secret recording. The pictures of the syringes and bloody bandages. The accusation about the ace's wife. The party. Clemens' loose-lipped Texas lawyer. The admonishing committee chairman. The ace's best friend, already toting around a load of guilt, begging to go home before things turn even nastier. There's a cast of thousands.

Yet, for all the mud slinging and sound bites, the central questions remain. Nothing has been cleared up. If anything, it's all become even murkier.

Why would McNamee, for one, faced with the possibility of going to prison if he lied to federal investigators, make up a story about repeatedly injecting Clemens with performance-enhancing drugs? (The answer, according to McNamee's lawyers, is that he wouldn't. The answer, according to Clemens' attorneys, is McNamee is a "troubled" man who is lying in a "cheap publicity stunt," offering a tale that is nothing more than a "desperate 'Hail Mary' of a man who wants to ruin Roger.")

On the other hand, why would Clemens lie? He, too, would face a world of legal hurt if he's ever found guilty of fibbing to Congress. (The answer, according to his lawyers, is that he wouldn't lie. He's clean, they say. The answer, from the McNamee side, is that Clemens is trying to save his reputation and what remains of his good name.)

What will happen Wednesday when the two men appear before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform? What if they don't budge?

If these guys stick to their stories -- and, at this point, it'd be the most bizarre twist yet if they don't -- one of them will be committing perjury. In front of the U.S. bleepin' Congress.

What then?

You can almost taste the out-and-out desperation that has taken hold. It started shortly after the Mitchell Report was released, when Clemens' side secretly recorded a phone conversation between the pitcher and McNamee and played it for a salivating media.

Then, last Thursday, McNamee's lawyers, Richard Emery and Earl Ward, revealed that they had given federal investigators vials of performance-enhancing drugs, bloody gauze pads and syringes that McNamee had saved since 2001 and 2002. The lawyers say it's drug paraphernalia McNamee used to shoot up Clemens.

The smoking syringe, perhaps?

The Clemens' side went wild, again questioning McNamee's sanity, publicly wondering why anyone would supposedly save up that sort of "waste" in the first place and cautioning reporters not to fall into McNamee's trap.

"In our view, you're about to see the second edition of the Duke case," said blustery attorney Rusty Hardin, referring to the well-publicized -- and ultimately proven to be unfounded -- sexual assault charges leveled against Duke lacrosse players in 2006. "I warn you all now that in five to six or seven months from now, any of you that have jumped on this bandwagon about Roger taking steroids, and assumed that anything Brian McNamee has to say about Roger is true, will be embarrassed."

Needles, blood, DNA: Where the heck is the CSI team when you need it?

While all that was going on, Clemens went on a very public -- and, to many, a distasteful -- round of Congressional flesh-pressing. He even signed autographs and posed for pictures with some politicos and staff members.

McNamee reportedly told Congress he had injected Clemens' wife, Debbie, with human growth hormone in advance of a layout in the 2003 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue at Clemens' urging.

Clemens roared back, shooting down McNamee's story that the two had talked about steroids during a party at Canseco's house. And Canseco -- who now passes as a character witness in these kinds of matters -- supported Clemens.

It's been revealed since that Jeff Novitzky, the dogged IRS agent at the center of the BALCO investigation, will be seated in the hearing room Wednesday. When Hardin found that out, he had a few harsh words for Novitzky. That prompted a beatdown from committee chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.). Hardin was, at least temporarily, quieted.

Then late Monday, pitcher Andy Pettitte, long thought to be one of Clemens' best friends, begged his way out of Wednesday's hearing, supposedly because he had said all he had to say in his deposition.

What did Pettitte say? What's it all mean? Where's this going? It's as if The Usual Suspects have stumbled their way onto the set of Lost. It's ridiculously confusing. And utterly fascinating.

As weird as this story has become, though, it is destined to end as equally tragic. On one side there's Clemens, a surefire Hall of Famer, likely the best pitcher in a half-century, madly fighting accusations that are bringing the validity of his life's work into question. And facing shame, scorn and jail time if, in defending himself against the charges, he is found to have lied to Congress.

On the other side is McNamee, a one-time New York City cop and Clemens sycophant, a man who is either boldly telling the truth in an attempt to stay out of jail or lying through his teeth in a strange, gutsy, stupid gamble that could put him there.

It's hard not to get sucked into all the intrigue, the lies and the personalities. It's hard not to take sides. It's a corker, all right, a future Hollywood script (someone, no doubt, is working on it right now) that might not reach its final act for months, or maybe years, to come.

I just hope, when it eventually gets there, we'll finally be able to tell the good guys from the bad ones. I just hope there is a good guy in there.

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