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WASHINGTON – Back when Roger Clemens was the "Rocket," muscled-up and heaving fast, he came hard all the time, boasting through a Texas twang about striking out hitters with "Mr. Split" and hitting the strike zone in invisible places he called "middle-middle" and "middle-high." Everything was swagger. Everything was loud.
Then he'd stalk to the mound, huff deep and fire his fastballs through the night.
So now that he is in the fight of his life, facing a prison address and an inmate's jersey number, he and lawyer Rusty Hardin are going to have to come meaner than ever. Forget middle-high. These next pitches, thrown in U.S. District Court in a trial that begins Wednesday with jury selection, must be high and heavy and aimed at the heads of some of his one-time closest friends and allies. The stakes are serious – up to 21 months for lying to Congress. His only chance is to be what he always was: standing alone, armed with a heater and a whole lot of Texas bravado.
Roger Clemens walks out of a federal court in Washington on Tuesday, July 5.
He isn't going to beat the government in its perjury-and-obstruction-of-Congress case with a mountain of paper evidence that he was telling the truth when he stared into the cameras on Capitol Hill and declared that he never used steroids. Federal prosecutors are prepared to drop a pile of empty vials, used syringes and blood-stained gauze that they say were used to fill Clemens with steroids. The government also plans on marching in former Clemens trainer Brian McNamee and former friends and teammates of the pitcher, including Andy Pettitte, to testify to their awareness that Clemens was using steroids in the early part of the past decade – back when he was overpowering as ever at an advanced age.
His best hope is to prove that he is the persecuted one while the lineup against him is stacked with lowlifes, liars and opportunistic slimeballs. It's not a simple task, given the most compelling testimony against him will come from Pettitte, who has always enjoyed a golden reputation.
"I believe Andy Pettitte," said John C. Coffee Jr., a professor at the Columbia University School of Law and an expert on fraud and white-collar crime. "I'm a Yankee fan. He seems believable."
And this is a problem for Clemens. The pious Pettitte, cast throughout his career as the sincere straight man to the bully act of his good friend and fellow Texan Clemens, has always struck people as sincere – a belief further solidified by the fact he admitted his own performance-enhancing drug use and apologized for doing something against baseball's rules. That Pettitte and Clemens both used McNamee as their trainer is another big problem for Clemens. McNamee's accusations are the heart of the case against him.
Much of the evidence appears flimsy, especially if you contend – as David Cornwell, an attorney who has created a niche practice defending athletes with positive steroid tests, does – that proof of steroid use can come only from two samples run through a testing process. Bloody needles and sullied gauze probably would not have gotten Clemens a suspension from baseball, but it could be enough to send him away.
"Unfortunately for Clemens, he comes at it from a bad place," Cornwell said. "He and his attorney have intentionally antagonized the government. I think there is a credibility battle for Roger that he's going to have to win.
"But I can't believe he's going to testify," Cornwell continued. "For if he is to testify that [the government] says 'It's performance-enhancing substances' and he says 'It was not,' [the prosecutor] says 'Then tell us what happened? Do you really believe that every time you were being injected, it was [vitamin] B-12 [as Clemens maintains]? If you have that abscess from multiple insertions of a needle, you thought it was B-12?'
"He's going to have to turn this into a he said, she said."
Much like that infamous night when he bounced a pitch off the helmet of Mike Piazza, Clemens is going to have to hurl a whole lot of fastballs at the heads of McNamee and Pettitte. And Clemens and Hardin will have to hope that those zingers will not only knock them down, but that the dust that kicks up will be filled with enough mud and doubt that a jury will be left to seriously wonder if anybody is decent in this. If Clemens can achieve this – dragging up an old rape allegation against McNamee while making Pettitte look less than saintly – he has a chance to win.
And this is what makes Clemens so dangerous now. He is desperate. The case against him is not one he can win simply by walking out and being Roger Clemens. He tried that years ago with Congress and it landed him here. Back then, he was only trying to protect his legacy – to crush the thought that those extra 124 victories after he left Boston in 1996 were illegitimate, the product of something illegal thrown into a syringe and jammed in his buttocks. Now he's trying to save his freedom and the rest of his life.
Clemens has no choice but to be the nastiest he's ever been. He faces six felony counts and a government determined to make this a far stronger case than the one it had against Barry Bonds. This time, the person the government accuses of placing the steroids in the accused man's body is talking. So are old friends. If Clemens is going to win, he and his lawyers are going to have to make this ugly.
It's the best hope he's got.