Clemens: More Heat than Light

As sport, it didn't rival a tense World Series game, let alone the recent Super Bowl. As political theater, I have witnessed more compelling scenes on Capitol Hill, ranging from Sam Ervin's Watergate hearings to Ken Starr's impeachment appearance before the House Judiciary Committee, in a hearing room just down the hallway from Wednesday's steroids extravaganza. Even as a fact-finding session, which was supposed to be the main point of the exercise, the House Oversight Committee hearing featuring legendary pitcher Roger Clemens and his nemesis, former trainer and steroids dealer Brian McNamee, was inconclusive. McNamee, or at least his partisans among the Feds, the media and on the committee, scored some telling points against Clemens. But the Rocket and his defenders also scored a few points against McNamee. The final score probably tilted in McNamee's favor, but given that both antagonists walked away wounded, perhaps they were both losers.

Did the general public, or even that section of baseball fandom riveted by the witch hunt for big-name steroids abusers, come away a winner? I wonder. A few days before the hearing, a congressional official involved in the preparatory investigation—who had access to closely guarded depositions from key, supposedly corroborating, witnesses like Andy Pettitte and Chuck Knoblauch—was trying to lower expectations. He advised me that in the end, the bottom line of the congressional probe into whether Major League Baseball investigator George Mitchell fairly and accurately accused the greatest pitcher in modern times of repeatedly using performance-enhancing drugs might be inconclusive. Though the hearing was expected to shape up as a "he said, he said" argument between Clemens and McNamee—meaning one of them would be lying under oath—my congressional friend cautioned me not necessarily to expect a criminal referral, let alone an eventual criminal perjury indictment, against either man as a result of the hearing. The evidence, the official indicated, may just not be strong enough to justify that.

Now that the hearing is over, I think my congressional contact's prediction was perceptive. House investigators assembled pretty formidable evidence that McNamee, a key witness in Mitchell's report about ballplayers' use of steroids and human-growth hormone (HGH), told the truth about Pettitte and Knoblauch's use of performance enhancers. Both of them, in private depositions to the committee, confirmed what McNamee had said about the Yankee teammates. In fact, Knoblauch told the committee he had used HGH more frequently than McNamee had alleged. In his deposition, Pettitte, Clemens's workout buddy, not only confirmed his own HGH use, but offered some indirect corroboration of McNamee's allegations against Clemens. Pettitte told the committee that he had at least two conversations about HGH with Clemens, one about eight years ago and one about three years ago. Pettitte contemporaneously told his wife about these conversations with Clemens. (Both Pettitte and Knoblauch were excused from testifying in public).

Clemens said that even though he still regarded Pettitte as a truth teller, his friend and erstwhile teammate must have been confused in his recollection of their conversations. But Clemens's own testimony, and some of the points he and his legal team made to bolster his case, did not seem to carry as much weight as they might have hoped. Congressional interrogators revealed that in Clemens's own closed-door deposition to the committee last week, he initially denied three times ever discussing HGH with McNamee. But then later in the deposition (which committee officials say will soon be posted on its Web site), Clemens remembered that he had once got mad at McNamee after the trainer injected Clemens's wife, Debbie, with HGH in the family's master bedroom when Clemens was away from home. Debbie apparently took the drug after McNamee called her attention to a newspaper article about it but later expressed regret to her husband after she started itching. Clemens claims he was so upset about the incident he went through McNamee's luggage. But he wasn't so upset that he and his wife bothered to call a doctor—an admission which probably did not help Clemens's credibility.

Two of the most entertaining anecdotes of the afternoon spurred sympathy with those investigators who have questioned what this matter is doing before Congress in the first place. One involved an allegation that, in 1988, Clemens suffered an abscess on his buttocks. McNamee claimed this occurred around the time he started shooting Clemens up with steroids. The committee acquired medical records from the Toronto Blue Jays, for whom Clemens was playing at the time, indicating that he did indeed suffer from a boil, or at least some kind of irregularity (maybe a muscle strain), on his bottom. The problem was sufficiently disturbing to team doctors and trainers that they sent him for an MRI. Closing in, a congressman cited an opinion from a government expert that the MRI images looked like evidence of an infection caused by a steroids injection. But Clemens's lawyers—and more sympathetic committee members—cited a competing expert, who said the MRI images looked nothing like a steroids-related infection. In the end, committee members acknowledged that the Blue Jays' doctors and trainers could not corroborate any suspicions that Clemens was using steroids at the time. Ultimately, this issue probably was a wash.

The second anecdote involved a barbeque in the summer of 1998 at the home of Jose Canseco, the now-retired slugger who was an early whistleblower in the steroids controversy. McNamee claimed to Mitchell that he and Clemens first discussed performance-enhancing drugs not long after the Canseco event. Clemens's lawyers, who apparently hired a small battalion of private gumshoes, supplied the panel with evidence that Clemens was not at the barbecue—including an affidavit from Canseco himself, a golf-course receipt placing Clemens at another location for at least part of the relevant time period, and TV reports from the day which said that Clemens had not attended the event. McNamee responded that he remembers seeing Clemens, his wife and the family nanny at the party and that he and Clemens definitely talked 'roids some time later.

Rep. Henry Waxman, the committee's chairman, disclosed at the hearing that late last week, his investigators had started pressing Clemens for the name and address of the nanny he employed at the time of Canseco's barbecue. On Monday, Clemens's team supplied the nanny's co-ordinates. Waxman said the committee was disturbed to learn that the day before, Clemens had invited the nanny to his Houston mansion and advised her to "tell the truth"--but also apparently advised her that he hadn't been at the barbecue in question. That meeting, Waxman fumed, left an "impression of impropriety"—making some believe that Clemens was trying to interfere with or coach a material witness. But the nanny's own recollection was muddled; she said she remembered both him and his wife visiting Canseco's house, but couldn't recall the details. If Clemens had intimidated her, wouldn't she have corroborated his story about not being there?

Clemens's accounts of his dealings with McNamee and Pettitte did not always seem credible. But McNamee admitted lying in the past to federal investigators, concealing evidence from them, and even billing himself as a Ph.D. in behavioral science—even though the only "degree" he had came from an Internet diploma mill. Could the Feds, if they so choose, build a case against Clemens based on McNamee's testimony? That seemed unclear. But it's a possibility—and the committee-room presence of Jeff Novitsky, the ace Internal Revenue Service investigator who built the Feds' perjury case against Barry Bonds, was a reminder of the stakes at hand.

Waxman said this would be the last hearing his committee would hold on baseball for the foreseeable future. He said he had considered canceling the hearing altogether and issuing a written report but was persuaded by Clemens's lawyers pleas for a public forum for their client. Fans of the national pastime may be all too eager to see Waxman go back to focusing his considerable investigative energies on the Katrina cleanup and contracting practices in the Iraq War. This game ended as a draw.