Roger Clemens trial reminds us that baseball’s steroids saga is not fading away

By now, 13 years after an Associated Press reporter spotted a bottle of androstenedione in Mark McGwire’s locker, eight years after federal agents raided the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative lab in Northern California, six years after Rafael Palmeiro pointed his finger at Congress, four years after the release of the Mitchell Report, and three months after the end of Barry Bonds’s perjury trial, people within baseball have developed a near-universal response to the steroids issue:

When will it ever go away?

To say baseball suffers from a case of steroids fatigue would be an understatement. League officials would rather trumpet the success of their current testing program and the relative absence (Manny Ramirez notwithstanding) of recent, high-profile flare-ups than confront, once again, the sins of the past or the new, unseen challenges of the future.

Players and team executives, if they don’t run from steroids questions, answer by talking in circles, so as not to say anything controversial. Off the record? This is the response: A roll of the eyes, a shrug of the shoulders.

When will it ever go away?

But with the perjury trial of pitching legend Roger Clemens, currently in the jury-selection phase at the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, baseball faces yet another flashpoint in the steroids saga. And even for a sport grown numb to the sting of peformance-enhancing-drug-related scandal, this one could be different. The Clemens case matters, and here are three reasons why:

l The most decorated pitcher in baseball history could very well go to jail. The twin trials this year of Bonds and Clemens could not have been more convenient for future historians.

“There’s a certain sad symmetry to it,” said Bob Costas, television host for NBC Sports and the MLB Network. “Clemens and Bonds are the bookends of the steroids story.”

Here you had the greatest player of his generation, if not all time, and the pitching version of the same — Bonds won a record seven most valuable player awards, Clemens a record seven Cy Youngs — on trial almost simultaneously for lying about alleged steroids use.

“The unfortunate part for me, when I look back on this, [is that] the best hitter of my generation and arguably the best pitcher . . . are cheaters and are trying to stay out of jail,” former pitcher Curt Schilling, an outspoken anti-steroids voice as a player and now a part-time analyst on ESPN’s “Baseball Tonight,” said in a recent radio interview.

Bonds, for the most part, beat his rap, gaining acquittal on the most serious perjury charges and losing on only an obstruction of justice charge. But the legal community perceives the government’s case against Clemens as being far stronger than the one it brought against Bonds, largely because Clemens’s alleged supplier, former personal trainer Brian McNamee, is testifying against him, while Bonds’s refused.

“I think [most] baseball fans have concluded that not only Roger Clemens, but also Barry Bonds and hundreds of others, used steroids,” said former baseball commissioner Fay Vincent. “It was a terrible time in the history of baseball. So, even if Clemens is acquitted, no one is going to think he didn’t do steroids. They’re going to think the government couldn’t prove its case.”

But even to a hardened fan base, jaded by the revelations of the past decade and a half, perhaps the sight of Clemens, baseball’s John Wayne, taken away in handcuffs would jolt the sport out of its steroids snooze.

l Clemens brought this mess upon himself. Unlike Bonds — or, for that matter, the vast majority of defendants in similar cases — Clemens was never subpoenaed or otherwise compelled to testify. He insisted on going before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in 2008 to rebut claims made by McNamee.

“You’ve got elements of Greek tragedy here, with the protagonist, this god, suffering from largely self-inflicted wounds,” Costas said.

Many have put forth the opinion that the federal government has better things to do than go after steroids cheaters in baseball. But it is useful to remember that Clemens, like Bonds, is not on trial for steroids use, but for lying under oath before the U.S. government.

“I remember saying to him, ‘Whatever you do, don’t lie,’ ” Thomas M. Davis III, a former U.S. representative from Virginia and the ranking Republican member of the government reform committee at the time of Clemens’s testimony, said last year. “I didn’t want to refer this thing to Justice, but . . . we just can’t let people go up and flaunt and lie” to Congress.

On a higher plane, the bigger question posed by this trial isn’t whether Clemens or McNamee is telling the truth, but why, if Clemens really used steroids, he would go to such great lengths, even jeopardizing his personal freedom, to deny it.

“It’s a huge puzzle,” said Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer of the Baltimore Orioles. “And you like to think it will be solved. If he’s telling the truth, this was a bold move, but the right move, to clear his name. And if not, he’s going to get exactly what he deserves.”

l The process of sorting through the damage done by the steroids era is far from over. There is a tendency in baseball to view the Bonds and Clemens trials as some sort of closure to the steroids scandal, the theory being that once the era’s two towering figures are brought to justice — and with the sport’s testing program now stronger than ever — there is nowhere left for it to go.

But that viewpoint is wishful thinking at best, dangerously naive at worst, according to many observers inside and outside the game. For one thing, it assumes there are no more bombshells to be dropped. As the case of Ramirez showed in April, even in the performance-enhancing-drug-testing era there are big-name players willing to gamble on not getting caught.

“I’m reminded of the old [Winston] Churchill line: ‘This isn’t the end. It’s not even the beginning of the end. It may be just the end of the beginning,’ ” Vincent said. “We’re not at the end by any means. There are a number of players who have not come clean, in my view, who almost certainly used steroids.”

But even if no player is ever caught again using performance-enhancing drugs — an unlikely proposition — baseball will be dealing with the fallout of the scandal for years, every time a new class is voted into baseball’s Hall of Fame.

For better or worse, 10-year members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America are charged with adjudicating the Hall of Fame cases of confirmed or suspected steroids users. And since McGwire first appeared on the ballot in 2007, with paltry support from voters, the debates have raged over how to factor steroids into the Cooperstown equation.

“Since baseball is so dependent on its history, and the generational comparisons spawned by that history, the sport is never going to put this behind it,” Costas said. “It’s going to come up in the Hall of Fame conversation every time. And even if you get past that, there is the matter of the numbers, which used to be sacred in baseball. So I don’t think we can ever totally get past it. It comes up in every historical context.”

Clemens and Bonds will appear on the Cooperstown ballot for the first time in 2013. They could remain on the ballot for up to 14 more years. When will it ever go away? Check back in 2027.

Dave Sheinin has been covering baseball and writing features and enterprise stories for The Washington Post since 1999.
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