Andy Pettitte helps pal Roger Clemens' steroids case by backpedaling on the witness stand

WASHINGTON – Andy Pettitte came here in an act of betrayal so agonizing he wouldn't look at the man he is supposed to send to prison.

He stared at the floor. He gazed at the ceiling. He looked for long periods at the courtroom's back wall.

But then in Wednesday's destruction of his once friend, teammate and idol Roger Clemens, Pettitte was handed a chance to take it all back and escape that scorching glare Clemens kept fixed upon him. And given the choice of breaking Clemens or the government's perjury and lying-to-Congress case against Clemens, Pettitte picked his friend.

Maybe this was the way Pettitte intended it all along. He was obviously tortured by being the government's most critical witness against Clemens – the one whose credibility stood in contrast to the slimy workout gurus and steroid peddlers who will eventually enter Courtroom 16 of the E. Barrett Prettyman Federal District Courthouse to testify.

Questions were asked about the conversation in 1999 or 2000 he had with Clemens in which he remembers Clemens saying he took human growth hormone. Pettitte fidgeted in the witness chair. His answers were soft. He looked tormented.

Then came the life preserver.

It came in a line of questioning from one of Clemens's defense attorneys, Michael Attanasio, who wondered if – as Clemens has maintained – Pettitte might have misunderstood his friend's admission. Even though Pettitte had said the day before that he remembered the conversation well and had said as much to Congressional investigators, the pitcher paused.

Attanasio pounced.

Might it be "50-50" that Pettitte remembered right?

"Is that fair?" Attanasio asked.

Pettitte nodded.

"I'd say that's fair," he replied.

And in four words he might have destroyed the case of the attorneys for whom he was supposed to be the star witness.

Pettitte has always been the key to this trial – the reason the government took it on when it was sure Clemens lied to Congress in 2008 by testifying that he never took steroids. Pettitte, who admitted his own use of human growth hormone, has long been seen as the only credible man in the picture. With nothing to hide and no reason to ruin a friendship, the government expected his testimony to be pure, especially when compared to the other critical witness, trainer Brian McNamee, who has been portrayed as a petty and troubled creep.

Prosecutors did not expect Pettitte to say the very thing Clemens has maintained all along, that he "misremembers" the earlier conversation. When Clemens first spilled that word, everybody laughed. In a believability test of baseball players, Pettitte will always be chosen before Clemens. "Misremember" seemed to come from some fantasy world manufactured in Clemens's head. Now suddenly Pettitte was saying that Clemens might be right.

Once again, the government's attorneys who bungled the first Clemens trial last year are on their way to blowing the case. Lead prosecutor Steven Durham wobbled through a weak cross-examination that even surprised the judge, Reggie Walton.

"My understanding is [Pettitte's] position is at this time he is conflicted," Walton told attorneys after Pettitte and the jury had left the room. "He doesn't know."

But how much does Pettitte know? It's hard to imagine his memory has turned hazy, yet Clemens is a hard man to defy. Even in court, intensity radiates from him. Clemens' eyes never left Pettitte as his old friend sat on the stand. Pettitte could not return the gaze.

Several times during Wednesday morning's testimony, Walton called the attorneys to the bench. Their words were muzzled by static played through a speaker, but since they were spoken about five feet from Pettitte's head one would think he would listen. Most witnesses in this situation do. Instead he dropped his head, holding his cheek with his gigantic left hand. At times he made a fist and rested his mouth against it. He seemed to do anything to keep from looking at Clemens.

And Clemens, when he wasn't staring at Pettitte, was writing. He had a notebook in front of him and his famous right hand moved furiously. Pages turned. From across the courtroom it was clear to see the pages were college-ruled and all the lines were filled with writing.

It must have been an intimidating sight for anyone there to send Clemens to prison: this vision of a staring Clemens listening to every word and taking notes. So when Attanasio tossed Pettitte a chance to escape the glare and come back to his old friend, Pettitte ran toward it.

Did Pettitte crack? Did he decide it was better to break the heart of the government than risk the ire of Roger Clemens? Or was this the plan all along: To answer the prosecutor's questions literally while hoping for something that could send him running back to Clemens's side?

Or maybe it was the ultimate act of friendship in a relationship broken by this case.

Whatever the reason, the man who came to put Roger Clemens in handcuffs, threw him a get-out-of-jail-free card instead.

Then he was gone, down six flights of steps and out onto the sidewalk where a black Suburban with Virginia vanity plates "BB Group" idled. Questions flew.

How did he feel?

Why didn't he look at Clemens?

Was he happy with his testimony?

Pettitte said nothing. Instead he jumped in the back seat, closed the door and the Suburban drove away leaving behind the rubble of the government's case against Roger Clemens.

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