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Clemens-McNamee duel has BALCO roots

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Oh, what baseball and the BALCO investigation have wrought.

The IRS probing garbage cans, endless federal grand juries, Barry Bonds indicted for lying and now the spectacle of Roger Clemens, the greatest pitcher in modern times, declaring on national television that he is angry and innocent, while the words of his drug-injecting trainer, muscled out by a BALCO prosecutor in exchange for the man's freedom, assert that Clemens is a cheat and a liar.

George Mitchell might not agree, but they should have titled his 409-page tome "The BALCO Report."

The Clemens public flailing would never have happened without the scapegoat-seeking thrust of the BALCO investigation. Yes, the same Jeff Novitzky who elicited the testimony from trainer Brian McNamee that brought down Clemens burrowed through trash cans to find the evidence that eventually led to Bonds' current perjury case.

If you think the past few days have been a circus – the “60 Minutes” rebuttal, the bizarre tape-recorded phone call made by the star pitcher to his tortured former trainer and federally anointed Judas – get used to it. This is what baseball gets when it refuses to properly drug test its athletes and lets federal prosecutors and investigators turn performance enhancement into federal crimes.

The BALCO investigation was hatched in 2002 with the original intent of bringing down Bonds, and while the inquiry has moved on to also target other athletes, it shows no sign of nearing a conclusion. Cowards abound in this drama, but the weakest knees belong to the men in suits. Blinded by billions of dollars, Major League Baseball – with the active involvement of commissioner Bud Selig and the Players' Association– has violated the most basic tenet of the sport.

Bonds, Clemens, Andy Pettitte and a smattering of others have been served up like food for the lions, while hundreds of other drug-using players have gotten a pass. Is that fair? Just? Smart? Which ballplayers took steroids for years and which took them just to recover from injuries? Should legions of baseball steroid violators be punished by the league? Is the only way out of baseball's dark age to shove hundreds of athletes into potentially criminal inquiries or make them twist in the cold wind of public opinion? Was any of it necessary?

We love the perceived purity of baseball – the balls and strikes, the finality of an inning, a game or a World Series. And yet because the men gripping the sport's bulging purse strings won't stop the most basic form of cheating, it has all become an absurd charade.

Baseball has struck out for more than a decade – it has proven overwhelmingly incapable of cleaning up the game. Yes, "60 Minutes" got a ratings boost out of Clemens' painful public protestations. Sure, next week Congress will host another series of high-profile hearings on performance enhanced ballplayers. Who knows? The Clemens lawsuit against McNamee may even compete with the Bonds perjury trial for headlines.

This is great theater for a nation that loves tearing down its heroes, especially when scripted television has gone dark. But wouldn't it be smarter for somebody to consider where this drama is taking us?

Clemens stands accused of injecting steroids for stretches in 1998, 2000 and 2001 – years before baseball even bothered to have any penalties for taking the drugs. Bonds faces possible jail for allegedly lying about taking steroids during a similar time frame.

Major League Baseball has intricate rules about the size and weight of a bat – but until just a few years ago the body swinging that lumber could be pumped up with any junk available. Congress should subpoena Selig, the owners and the Player’s Association and get the documents and the confidential emails. Ask the tough questions under penalty of perjury of the men in suits about what they knew about steroids. And when they knew it.

Ripping apart one player at a time is getting us nowhere.

That said, Clemens has been unconvincing. He lost me when he started to give rationalizations for why he wouldn't have taken steroids. If you're innocent, you don't need a rationale.

Call Clemens brave, dedicated or foolish. He was a warrior, who by his own words took chances with his health by asking for the painkiller injections he needed to limp out to the mound. He confessed to scarfing down the dangerous painkiller Vioxx like "Skittles." His "60 Minutes" statement that the only penalty for drug cheating should be the damage it may do to the abuser's body, ("It’s a self-inflicted penalty," he said) does not inspire confidence.

Clemens is fighting a battle against the media and public opinion. Where are we headed with this latest circus? Without umpires, without someone to call somebody out – prosecutors can ask questions and hold grand juries for another four or five years for all the good it will do. Baseball needs to be ordered into an Olympic-quality testing program run by an independent agency not under the sport's golden thumb. Players need to be banned for months or years if they violate drug policies. Teams need to lose draft choices and suffer fines. Commissioners need to be canned.

The federal prosecutors behind BALCO have only one hammer – they bring criminal cases and make witnesses turn. It is not a pretty business.

In the age of the BALCO Inquisition, the hammer doesn’t imagine that those nailed may hit back. The feds never dreamed the latest subject of their scorn would dare appear on "60 Minutes." Roger Clemens has turned the tables. He's doing more than defending himself – he's launching a frontal assault. By attacking Brian McNamee's charges, he has called the feds and BALCO liars.

Consider the tape-recorded Clemens/McNamee phone conversation. McNamee sounded wounded. Was it just the meltdown of an ordinary man overwhelmed by being forced to betray his friend? Or was it more calculated than that?

We don’t know yet. We do know that the BALCO prosecutor would not have been pleased to have his case ridiculed by the accused on national television. The feds would have called their man – in this case McNamee – and demanded to know whether he lied and led them astray.

As Bonds well knows, BALCO prosecutors do not like people who don't tell their truth.

Why did McNamee keep asking Clemens on the call, "What do you want me to do?"

Just a decent man drowning in guilt? Or should we read something into the fact that McNamee was once a cop? Could he be worried that the deal that kept him out of jail was going sideways?

Or maybe the feds have encouraged a fishing expedition, hoping that Clemens would fall into the latest BALCO trap.

Whatever the truth, it's turning into one hell of a soap opera.

Stay tuned. In next week's episode, the characters move to Washington D.C. and congressional hearings.

The circus continues.

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