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Against all reason, Roger Clemens took a risk and now he's facing the consequences

By Thomas Boswell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 20, 2010; 12:14 AM

When Roger Clemens decided to testify before Congress in February 2008, I sat a few yards behind him and thought about all the years I'd known him. We'd talked together in the locker rooms of four different teams. Once, he'd set some kind of record for patience as I bugged him with questions all day as he played 36 holes of golf.

I'd seen him do favors for people he'd never met before and would never meet again. I'd watched him stand in a polo shirt, teeth chattering, on a chilly evening for an extra hour so that a young magazine photographer who'd showed up unprepared for her first big assignment wouldn't get fired. "It's fine, no problem, I'm okay," he'd say. "I'll wait 'til she gets her shot."

Once, he'd been at a remote golf course in New England, just enjoying his day off, when an old man asked if he'd pose for a photo with a little boy. Clemens said, "Sure." The little boy was my son, visiting his grandparents, though Roger didn't know it. That's the only personal picture of a ballplayer I have in my house.

Of course, I'd also seen him go ballistic cursing at an ump in a playoff game and throw a broken bat at Mike Piazza from point-blank range during a World Series game. I'd seen him act like a prima donna, too. I thought I'd seen it all.

But I hadn't. That day before Congress, when he said, "I have never used steroids, human growth hormone, or any other type of illegal performance enhancing drugs," I thought, "He's not stupid. So how can he be this dumb?"

Maybe we'll never know. Maybe he just couldn't bear to go down without a brazen fight, until every last long-shot chance had been taken to clear his name. Even when there was a man sitting next to him, an ex-cop and his own former personal trainer, who was swearing under oath that he had injected Clemens in the buttocks numerous times with steroids that Clemens had provided.

Now Roger Clemens will have to stand trial after being indicted on three counts of making false statements and two counts of perjury during his testimony to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Under current sentencing guidelines, a conviction might bring only 15 to 21 months. Do you get time off for teaching the guards to throw a splitter?

Here's what's so amazing, almost incomprehensible, about Clemens's dilemma: The federal indictment against him is 19 pages long. But indictments are always wordy. The proverbial indictment-against-a-ham-sandwich could probably run 20 pages. But in December of '07, two months before Clemens came to Capitol Hill, baseball itself had issued the Mitchell Report. The centerpiece, the huge blockbuster revelation, in it was the sport's own official condemnation of Clemens as a PED cheater.

The "Roger Clemens" section of the Mitchell Report - that would be former senator George Mitchell - was nine pages long, an indictment in itself.

-- "Clemens said he was not able to inject himself and he asked for (Brian) McNamee's help."

-- "Clemens asked McNamee to inject him with Winstrol which Clemens supplied."

-- McNamee injected Clemens approximately four times in the buttocks over a several-week period with needles that Clemens provided."

-- "Clemens did not like using human growth hormone . . . he did not like the 'bellybutton shot.' "

And on and on.

Clemens had two months to decide whether to face McNamee before Congress and contradict him about everything. The Rocket had a choice: Congress can't make you incriminate yourself.

Yet Clemens took a double risk. If he was lying, he could end up convicted of perjury. Or, if he was telling the truth - I don't believe it, but it's theoretically possible - he could still be charged with perjury and get convicted incorrectly. Justice can miscarry.

Clemens had to realize that, in a forum this public, somebody was going to end up facing perjury charges. And the Mitchell Report, after an enormously long and expensive study by his own sport, had already thrown him under the bus and made him the poster boy for the Steroid Age.

That very day, as Clemens and McNamee testified, committee chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) summed up the obvious problem: "They don't disagree on a phone call or a meeting. If Mr. McNamee is lying, he has acted inexcusably and he has made Mr. Clemens an innocent victim. If Mr. Clemens isn't telling the truth, then he is acting shamefully and has smeared Mr. McNamee. I don't think there is anything in between."

Somebody, even if it took a couple of years to complete the case, was going to be charged with perjury. And now, no surprise to anybody - except perhaps to whomever was giving the Rocket legal or public relations advice - it's turned out to be Clemens.

Great athletes never think they are beaten, never show weakness and fight until the last out. Or at least that's the worldview they're fed from childhood until, finally, they digest it until that code becomes part of their flesh and bone.

Now, Barry Bonds, the only seven-time MVP, and Clemens, the only seven-time Cy Young winner, will both stand trial for lying. Bonds's day in court is scheduled for next March.

In Clemens's case, this was so unnecessary. And, apparently, he was the only one who didn't know it. The night before Clemens testified to Congress, I was at a function where some of the usual Washington suspects from law and politics were mingling. In this town, discussing probes and indictments is like chatting about the soybean harvest in more sensible places. All night, I heard the same question: "How can he testify? Doesn't he realize that, once he does, they can't let it go of it until they get to the bottom of it?"

For Clemens, this is just the latest chapter in his book of misery. However, for baseball and for sports in general, his fall has provided, unintentionally, an enormous and useful cautionary tale.

Every athlete who is tempted to use illegal substances, or banned training methods, now has one more reason to change his or her mind. It's not just that you're cheating or that you may seriously damage your health. Look at all the ways you can get caught - as your sources or your trainer or your friends decide to roll over on you. Look at how many ways your attempts to defend yourself can backfire or condemn you.

Baseball's steroid era, which has provided us so much ambiguity and pain for more than 20 years, will not go away quickly, quietly or conveniently. We're sick of it. But it will drag on - through the Clemens and Bonds trials, at the very least.

So many others who have been caught or confessed to PED use are now back playing or coaching. But they didn't take the congressional gamble that Clemens chose. Perjury charges are hard to prove. Still, the once unthinkable is now on every tongue in the game.

"Roger Clemens may go to jail," said one stunned baseball executive Thursday. "That's just hard to imagine."

And the better you know him, the harder it is to believe.

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