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Believe Him Or Not

Feb. 25, 2008
Feb. 25, 2008

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Feb. 25, 2008

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Believe Him Or Not

Long before testimony at a congressional hearing cast doubt on his claim that he has never used steroids or HGH, Roger Clemens convinced himself that he has done no wrong

ONE AFTERNOON in April 2003 a group of advertising executives gathered for a luncheon at the 21 Club in New York City to hear Yankees pitcher Roger Clemens speak. There was slight alarm that Clemens might not attend because, it turned out, he was scheduled to pitch that night against the Seattle Mariners, and on the days they take the mound, starters are known to be as edgy and unsociable as thoroughbreds on race day. ¬∂ But Clemens did show, and broader and larger in person than on television, he moved through the doorways and hallways of the historic 19th-century brownstone like a piano under the care of a moving company. With each turn you worried about the fit. It was Clemens's personality, though, that filled the wood-paneled dining room. The greatest pitcher of his generation connected with people, looked them in the eye, laughed and genuinely seemed to enjoy himself. He was 4--0 at the time with 297 career wins; the Yankees were 20--5; and this was going to be his last season in baseball—the first of five such seasons as it happened.

This is an article from the Feb. 25, 2008 issue

I thought of what Clemens said that day as I watched him roast on a skewer in Room 2154 of the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, D.C., where selected baseball legends go to die dressed in mortuary-appropriate suit and tie.

I had introduced Clemens at the 21 luncheon, which came 11 months after I wrote Totally Juiced, the SI special report that detailed steroid use in baseball. (The major leagues' first steroid testing agreement came three months later.)

Clemens thanked me for the introduction, in which I had made statistical references to his prolific career. Then he raised the issue of steroids himself. He thanked me for writing the story and told the executives how "important" he regarded such reporting. "There is no place in the game for steroids," Clemens said, "and we need to make sure the game is clean."

Clemens gave up three home runs that night and lost 6--0. I had forgotten the score of the game and had to look it up. I have never forgotten what he said—wholly unsolicited—about steroids, not now especially.

Somebody could walk into this room
And say your life is on fire
It's all over the evening news
—PAUL SIMON, Crazy Love, Vol. II

THE LIFE of William Roger Clemens is on fire. Film at 11. And 12 and 1 and ... well, the evening news is only one slice of a perpetual, multimedia cycle in the Britneyfication of events. Coverage of the fire ran live on Feb. 13 when Clemens appeared before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform to refute accusations in the Mitchell Report by his trainer, Brian McNamee, that Clemens used steroids and human growth hormone in 1998, 2000 and 2001. Both men stuck to their wildly divergent accounts of the truth. Five hours of testimony proved nothing for certain. What the hearing revealed more than the truth was Clemens himself.

In charcoal suit and red tie Clemens was the same as the Clemens in spikes: cocksure and, but for not knowing whether to be insulted or humored by the unfamiliar word vegan, incapable of the slightest concession. Clemens the pitcher, even on his worst days, never allowed his belief in himself or his stuff to waver. If he got hit, it was because the hitters did their job. "Or," said one former teammate last Thursday, "you'd get word from the trainers' room that he was getting treated for something. Back, groin, whatever."

"You know Roger," another teammate said shortly after the Mitchell Report was released on Dec. 13. "He surrounds himself with his own people and has his own world."

Introspection is not his game. Doubt and those who dare raise it are not permitted. It is a doctrine that helped make him great. And it is still true that if Clemens is getting hit—and he got roughed up by chunks of testimony, especially the friendly-fire deposition from former teammate Andy Pettitte—then it can't be because he didn't have good stuff. He is Rocket, once and for all.

Clemens is unlike any other player associated with the Steroids Era. Hundreds of ballplayers have used performance-enhancing drugs. Only a fraction of them have been publicly identified as users. None have gone anywhere near the lengths Clemens has to defend themselves. He even asked to appear before Congress.

The hearing was alternately confusing and depressing. McNamee, wearing the hangdog look of a ruined man, and Clemens, so indignant he had to be gaveled into silence by chairman Henry Waxman, were each called unbelievable by committee members. Bleaker still, Congress exposed itself as incapable of examining an issue, even one as nonpolitical as baseball, in a nonpartisan manner. The Democrats largely hammered Clemens, and the Republicans largely supported him, none more embarrassingly than Virginia Foxx (R., N.C.), who rushed out of her seat upon the final gavel to embrace Clemens and his wife, Debbie.

LET THERE be no confusion about this when it comes to Clemens: The man is convinced he is telling the truth. He sleeps well at night because he knows he is right. His certainty allows only two possible explanations for the highly detailed story that McNamee is telling, part of which Pettitte has supported: Either it is complete bunk—an elaborate ruse in which McNamee is knowingly perjuring himself and risking prison time for no apparent reason ("We don't have an answer for why he's lying," Clemens's lawyer Rusty Hardin admitted in his client's deposition)—or it did happen and Clemens reached a point years ago when he convinced himself it never did.

"I think he's the one guy who could probably beat the [lie-detector] test," McNamee told SI.com after watching Clemens on 60 Minutes last month.

When deposed by the committee on Feb. 4, Pettitte said Clemens told him in 1999 that he had used HGH. Pettitte spoke about that conversation with his wife, Laura, and McNamee immediately afterward.

"You have no doubt about that recollection?" Pettitte was asked in his deposition.

"I mean, no," he said. "I mean, he told me that."

So in March 2005, after Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro brought their reputations to the Rayburn Building grill room, a nervous Pettitte, according to his deposition, asked his buddy Clemens, "Dude, what are you going to say if ... any of the reporters ask you if you had ever used HGH?"

"What are you talking about?" Clemens replied.

"You had told me you had used HGH."

"I never told you that."

"You didn't?"

"No, I told you that Debbie used HGH."

Clemens told the committee that Pettitte "misremembers" the 1999 conversation to which Pettitte referred, that he had spoken of HGH use by his wife. But Clemens also told the committee that Debbie used HGH only in 2003, which would have been four years after the first conversation with Pettitte.

The reference to his wife's HGH use fit a pattern in which Clemens, in his testimony, assigned responsibility for various missteps to others rather than himself. Those people included:

• His agents, Randy and Alan Hendricks, who Clemens said did not inform him that former senator George Mitchell made written requests to interview him for Mitchell's report on steroids in baseball. Last week Randy Hendricks replied to SI by e-mail that it would be "inappropriate" to comment on Clemens's claim. (Pettitte, also represented by the Hendricks brothers, testified that Randy Hendricks did notify him of Mitchell's request but that Hendricks did not show him the letter and that Hendricks told him "there's no active players that are talking," so Pettitte obeyed the code of silence.)

• Commissioner Bud Selig, who Clemens suggested was obligated, because of Clemens's service to the game, to call him to recommend he speak to Mitchell. Such contact would have violated the collectively bargained procedure that interview requests had to go through the players' union, as well as Selig's mandate for Mitchell to run an independent investigation without the commissioner's involvement.

• Toronto Blue Jays physician Ron Taylor, who Clemens suggested might have been responsible for a "palpable mass" in his buttocks in 1998 because of a B12 shot. "If he gave me a bad shot, he gave me a bad shot," Clemens said. In his deposition Taylor told the committee he gave "close to one thousand B12 shots" and never had such a complication. (McNamee said the mass resulted from steroid shots he improperly administered.)

• His late mother, Bess, who Clemens said advised him to take B12 shots.

• McNamee, who Clemens said came up with the ideas to give him lidocaine for his joints and to give Debbie the HGH before an SI Swimsuit shoot. ("She feels part of a trap that McNamee has set," Clemens testified.)

NOWHERE IN his testimony does Clemens second-guess himself—it's the same Clemens I've known around baseball. I trained with him once, in 2003 under McNamee's direction. We ran through one of his famous SEAL workouts on a turf field and then in a gym near Clemens's apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. It was early one wet morning, after he had pitched the previous night. McNamee, gloomy as the leaden sky, spoke only to softly grunt the next order or number of repetitions.

"Oh, he was fine, he was great," Clemens said in his deposition about McNamee's skills as a trainer. "Not much of a personality, but that's all right."

What struck me about Clemens, on the other hand, was how much he enjoyed the work. He cracked jokes and came more alive with every rise in his pulse rate, each drop of sweat that fell. It seemed he never left the high school jock phase, more boyish and unsophisticated in his fervor than clinically professional. He was, after all, a pitcher who wore Ninja Turtles on his shoelaces and eye black on his face for a playoff game from which he was ejected for arguing; who swathed much of his body, including his groin, with hot liniment to prepare for starts; and who kept his equipment in a hard case labeled MIB, a nod to the movie Men in Black, giving it the unintended approximation of a kid's lunch box.

After our workout Clemens drove his Hummer, another grown-up toy, which he called the Mean Machine, to a diner and ordered his usual: a bacon cheeseburger with a slab of chicken on the side. When I asked Clemens why he worked so hard, he gave two reasons: It gave him "peace of mind" whenever he took the mound—security in diligence—and he feared losing his fastball. Clemens would rather have retired than transition to a finesse pitcher. He was a power pitcher as much as he was a Texan, as much as he was his mother's son. There could be no other way.

The grilling in the Rayburn Building did not change Rocket. McGwire, in his St. Patrick's Day--green tie and his grandpa glasses, shrunk before our eyes. Sosa lost his nerve and his charm. Palmeiro wagged a finger to emphasize his innocence, but that display is remembered for its impudence, given his positive steroid test just two months later. Jose Canseco denounced the pro-steroids message of his own book virtually before the ink dried. But Clemens gave no ground.

Hardin, Clemens's attorney, knew his client was putting himself at risk of a criminal investigation by protesting so loudly and testifying on his own behalf. Clemens, though, is too sure of his innocence to have known any other way.

MCNAMEE'S STORY is full of potentially damning details: blood, he said caused by steroid injections, seeping through the seat of Clemens's designer pants; used syringes and steroid vials (undergoing lab analysis); confirmation from Pettitte and former Yankees infielder Chuck Knoblauch that what McNamee told Mitchell about them was true without exception; the HGH admission by Clemens, as recalled by Pettitte; a boast McNamee said he heard Clemens make to Canseco, the admitted steroid user, at a bar in Miami: "I won two Cy Young Awards on that s---."

Was all of it made up? On the day before the Mitchell Report came out, McNamee agreed to meet with two Clemens-hired investigators, who taped the interview. McNamee has known Clemens since 1998, when both worked for the Blue Jays, and Pettitte since 2000, after Clemens, in his second year with New York, persuaded the Yankees to hire McNamee with money taken from Clemens's salary. McNamee knew the two pitchers well enough to tell the investigators exactly how they would react to his story: "Well, I can't see Andy telling you anything different than what I told you, and Roger probably, because he doesn't remember any of it, I don't know. I can't see Roger remembering all that...."

Clemens does not remember because he believes none of it happened. Rocket is sure of it.

The hearing was alternately confusing and depressing. MCNAMEE wore the hangdog look of a ruined man.
Clemens said DEBBIE used HGH only in 2003, which would have been four years after his talk with Pettitte.
PETTITTE asked Clemens, "What are you going to say if ... any of the reporters ask you if you had ever used HGH?"

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PHOTOPhotograph by Simon Bruty / Digitally Altered by SI ImagingSEE NO EVIL Unshakable in his version of events, Clemens placed the blame on others for the claims being made against him.TWO PHOTOSPhotographs by Simon Bruty / Digitally Altered by SI ImagingPHOTOCHUCK SOLOMON (PETTITTE)