Roger Clemens was not guilty of perjury but whether he took steroids is a separate question

Roger Clemens proclaimed his innocence Monday afternoon, and unlike so many things he has said during the sordid, sad end of his career, this was true. Clemens was innocent, on all six counts levied against him by the government, which through its equally repugnant zealotry turned a cheater into a martyr.

"It is a beautiful day," brayed Rusty Hardin, Clemens' lawyer, and indeed it was, because for the rest of his life Clemens can utter the following: "I'm innocent." Of what it doesn't matter. Hardin tried to conflate the verdict with Clemens never having used steroids or human growth hormone, and Clemens' family nodded along behind him, and some lady kept mouthing, "That's right, that's right," like it actually was, when the entire charade was anything but right.

Just because the government chose to hand Clemens a life preserver doesn't render void the overriding fact in this case: Not guilty of perjury is not the same as never took performance-enhancing drugs.

Of course, that's not how Clemens spun it, and chances are, it's not how history will treat it. Bold headlines and juries of 12 peers are baseball's modern chronicle, and the confluence of the two will to many counter the accusations originally levied against Clemens in the Mitchell Report, which becomes more anachronistic by the day.

Where George Mitchell found Brian McNamee's story credible, the jury did not – not his needles in a beer can, not the blood on gauze pads, not the allegations from a former steroid mule turned stoolie. Then when pitcher Andy Pettitte hemmed and hawed about Clemens using HGH, up popped the ephemeral question: If millions of federal tax dollars flush down the toilet, do they make a sound?

[Les Carpenter: Case against Clemens never should have gone to trial ]

A trial was Clemens' salvation. No, this is not going to get him into the Hall of Fame, not unless the voting bloc of the Baseball Writers Association of America undergoes a drastic overhaul or a singular event – say, a current Hall of Famer being tied to steroid use – opens the minds of those who believe a player's worthiness is tied to the efficacy of his drug dealer.

That, remember, is the difference between Clemens and those who didn't get caught, between Barry Bonds and the players who live knowing what they did and hope nobody ever squeals: Brian McNamee and the BALCO boys got caught, the others' suppliers didn't.

Without that, and the hubris of those who believed lying might save their legacy, baseball's steroid taint would have ended with the sport's embarrassment. Instead, we're all dumber for having sat through this sham, sold to the public as setting an example not to lie to federal authorities instead of what it really was: the government's attempt to leech off the public's displeasure that athletes might not be all natural.

Except something happened along the way: The public stopped caring. And thus opened up Clemens' alleyway to pretending he was clean. He had his day in court. He had a fair trial (after a mistrial, no less, the government going a tidy 0 for 2 in the cases of U.S. vs. Clemens). He had a chance to be found guilty, and he wasn't, and Hardin did the celebrating for him afterward.

"Using steroids and HGH is cheating," Hardin said, "and it was totally contrary to his career."

This is what he can claim now.

This is what he can stand on.

And he deserves it.

That's the saddest part of it: the obstruction of truth, the obfuscation of reality, the spin of history. Why Clemens took what he took is immaterial; plenty of his peers did, too, and it's all part of an ugly era in baseball, one that only gets more difficult to judge. Without a misguided attempt to nail his carcass to a wall, his place in that era is far less blurry.

Now, for Clemens, "this is time to be very thankful." He looked good, healthy. A not-guilty verdict is the natural Crème de la Mer. Surrounded by family, supporters, people who believe, or at least want to believe, he barely could spit out a coherent sentence, this man who, when holding a baseball, carried himself with more confidence than anyone.

[Y! Sports Radio: What are chances an acquitted Roger Clemens makes Hall of Fame?]

Then he started to cry. The weight of everything – the decision to use what he allegedly used, the eventual involvement of his family, the hearings on Capitol Hill, the erosion of his legacy, the trials – would bring tears to even the most stoic. His entourage clapped. He swallowed a deep breath.

"Thank y'all very much," William Roger Clemens said, and off he walked into a beautiful day, into a Texas summer, into a life as a free man, innocent as one wants to believe.

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