David Epstein: Clemens vs. McNamee saga heating up - Sports Illustrated

War of words

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As Roger Clemens opens a new chapter in his career -- the one where he defends everything that came before: the seven Cy Youngs, the 354 wins, the 4,672 strikeouts -- one aspect of the journey should be familiar to him. As was the case when he stared down hitters from the mound, Clemens has a single adversary with whom to do battle: his former personal trainer Brian McNamee.

McNamee, of course, is the man who, in return for freedom from prosecution, told former Sen. George Mitchell and federal investigators that he procured performance-enhancing drugs for several major leaguers, and that he injected Clemens with steroids and growth hormone during the 1998, 2000 and '01 seasons. On Sunday night the Clemens PR machine revs into full gear when the pitcher's exclusive interview with Mike Wallace airs on 60 Minutes. On Monday, Clemens will speak directly to reporters for the first time since McNamee's accusations became public.

Just like the Mitchell Report itself, though, the eagerly anticipated 60 Minutes segment and ensuing press conference are likely to mark the start of a protracted and public battle, rather than provide closure. Even though the content of the Clemens interview isn't fully known, its impending broadcast has pushed the posturing between the Clemens and McNamee camps to a fevered pitch, with McNamee's lawyers threatening to take Clemens to court should he continue to attack McNamee's reputation.

Since the Mitchell Report was released on Dec. 13, Operation Save Roger's Image has been gaining steam at the expense of McNamee's credibility. The day the report came out, Clemens' lawyer Rusty Hardin called McNamee "a troubled man" who gave investigators big-name players because he was "threatened with criminal prosecution." (The other big name that McNamee gave was Andy Pettitte, who subsequently admitted to using human growth hormone). Ten days later Clemens released a video on his foundation's Web site and on YouTube denying that he ever used performance-enhancing drugs.

McNamee has remained quiet, but 60 Minutes could be just the prime time salvo to spur the trainer to action. One of McNamee's lawyers, Richard D. Emery, says that if Clemens casts his client as a liar during the 60 Minutes interview, he should expect a defamation lawsuit.

According to a release by CBS, Clemens told Wallace that the only injections McNamee gave him were of vitamin B-12 and a painkiller called Lidocaine. "It's for my joints," Clemens says during the interview, "and B-12 I still take today." Clemens goes on to "swear" to Wallace that he never used banned substances. On Thursday, Hardin responded to Emery's lawsuit threat by saying that, in the piece, "Roger told the truth... I encourage Mr. McNamee to watch the program."

And watch he will, or at least Emery will, with his finger hovering over the lawsuit button. "If [Clemens] says that Brian is a liar, or uses words that, to a reasonable person impugn Brian's credibility, there will be a defamation case," Emery says. "Brian does not want to hurt Roger Clemens, there's no ill will, but if Clemens damages his ability to make a living in the future or his standing among social peers, Brian would have to take action." If Clemens simply denies using steroids and growth hormone, it is unlikely that McNamee would take legal action. "It's if he goes after Brian, that's where there's a problem," Emery says, adding that the legal minefield does not end with 60 Minutes. "It will be interesting to see how [Clemens] handles the press conference [on Monday]," Emery says, "because if he goes after Brian there, it's the same issue."

If it does come to a defamation lawsuit, Clemens and McNamee would finally be on equal footing, both testifying under oath in the same forum. And if they each maintain the stances that they have thus far, it's likely that someone would be committing perjury. In a civil trial perjury is still a criminal offense, though it is rarely prosecuted.

Even if there is no defamation suit in the offing, members of the House Oversight Committee have asked Clemens and McNamee to testify in a steroid hearing on January 16. However it plays out, this is just the beginning of a saga that may end up with both men staking their freedom on their words.