As titillating, tawdry and undignified as the blood feud between Roger Clemens and Brian McNamee has been, the real showdown Wednesday before Congress is not between Clemens and McNamee, but between Clemens and former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell.
If members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee ask the important, probing questions regarding Clemens' alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs that this latest hearing deserves, it is unlikely the testimony will result in a stalemate.
Each participant in the drama, from Mitchell to Clemens to McNamee, has been too absolute in his position for the day to end with any gray areas. Mitchell has steadfastly stood by his report on performance-enhancing drugs in baseball, not allowing the possibility of error. For his report to be accurate and truthful means McNamee has been telling the truth, which by extension means Clemens is not. For Clemens to be telling the truth means McNamee is not. And if that's the case, Mitchell and the law enforcement agencies that produced the information from McNamee will have been guilty of serious incompetence and possible misconduct, and any shred of credibility the Mitchell report once had would go up in smoke.
There is no way each entity can walk out of Wednesday's hearing with his story intact. Somebody is going to take a career-ending, legacy-destroying fall.
It appears the committee is aware of this. And without Chuck Knoblauch, Kirk Radomski and Andy Pettitte, and with the addition of Mitchell's lead investigator Charlie Scheeler, Wednesday's hearing is even more sharply focused on Clemens and Mitchell.
The integrity of committee members, who undermined their own standing by acting like star-struck teenagers when Clemens visited their offices last week, is also at stake. And if committee members now play patty-cake with Clemens instead of asking hard questions, they will be indirectly discrediting Mitchell's report. Do not forget that the only reason this hearing is being conducted is that Clemens had the nerve to challenge Mitchell's findings after the report was released Dec. 13.
When Mitchell, union head Donald Fehr and baseball commissioner Bud Selig testified in Room 2154 of the Rayburn Building on Jan. 15, Mitchell was praised for his "fair and impartial" report, produced under the difficult circumstances of not having the players' cooperation. Mitchell's approach, methodology, findings and conclusions went unchallenged. No member of the committee probed with specific questions about the information gathering process on Clemens, even though each knew within a month that Clemens, and McNamee, would testify before them.
When Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., asked Mitchell about releasing additional documents he used to corroborate his report, Mitchell refused, saying the material belonged to Major League Baseball. No one on the committee followed up with Selig asking him about making the documents public. Mitchell's reputation was enough. The committee members assumed McNamee was credible because Mitchell was credible. They assumed this with the knowledge that even as the Jan. 15 hearing had taken place, Clemens already had appeared on "60 Minutes" and had held a passionate -- if not bizarre -- news conference defending himself against McNamee's charges.
Yet, when Mitchell appeared before the committee, members treated him as if he were Gandhi or the pope. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., the committee chairman, even apologized to Mitchell for keeping him longer than anticipated because they were aware Mr. Mitchell had to catch a train -- as if there could be anything more important to Mitchell that day than defending 20 months and tens of millions of dollars worth of an investigation. The committee accepted everything George Mitchell said.
After all the deference, if Mitchell was wrong, that would mean the Mitchell report was wrong and the committee showed great naivete by not questioning a highly controversial document. It would mean the report cannot be trusted and that Mitchell could not, to a large extent, be trusted. If Clemens, the biggest name in the report, was wrongly accused, Mitchell would have to come forward and explain himself and repudiate his work. Scheeler's testimony would be viewed carefully by the baseball hierarchy.
Clemens has dug in so deeply and with such angry conviction that these proceedings can only result in his vindication. If he wavers, he will have destroyed himself. Since the report's release, there has been nothing equivocal about his defense. Therefore, he cannot plead the Fifth Amendment if he is cornered. One of his lawyers, Rusty Hardin, already has said Clemens will not take the Fifth on any questions. It will be interesting to see if that extends to the question as to McNamee's latest grenade, that he injected Clemens' wife, Debbie, with growth hormone. It's a charge that so far has not been denied by anyone in the Clemens camp.
Clemens is asking the public to believe that his once-trusted personal trainer obtained and distributed growth hormone; that his friend and most loyal protégé, Pettitte, admitted using growth hormone administered by McNamee; and that Clemens' wife used growth hormone, also administered by McNamee but Clemens himself did not.
Clemens is asking the public and his government to believe this. What's riding on it is a potential indictment for perjury and certainly a congressional investigation of the sort that is currently zeroed in on Miguel Tejada.
And then there is Pettitte, who will not attend the hearing but remains key. Pettitte already has been deposed, and if he said he believes Clemens used growth hormone, Clemens is finished. If Pettitte lied to the committee, then he soon will be finished. And if he knew Clemens did not use and said so, then the veracity of the Mitchell report again goes on trial.
Going forward, McNamee is the least important player in the act. He already is finished. If he lied to Mitchell and law enforcement officials, then he likely will go to jail. If not, he retains his credibility to what he has testified about Clemens, but will remain ruined professionally, for no athlete in the country with half a brain would work with him again or take him into his confidence. Regardless of the outcome, McNamee needs a new line of work.
Regardless of the collateral damage to baseball or Clemens, the most important outcome of these proceedings is if McNamee has told the truth. If he has not, then every citizen in this country has reason to fear the motives and competence of the justice system. For when authorities in New York snared McNamee last year, the goal was not to produce false confessions, but to compel McNamee to tell the truth about what he knew and his part in this scandal. The Mitchell report, which is heavily based on information provided by federal law enforcement agencies, would be one such example of the consequences of government impropriety.
Wednesday will be a day of reckoning with numerous reputations at stake. Interpreting the significance of the steroid era has always been about the integrity of the institutions and individuals involved. It is only fitting that after months of defiance from Clemens and haughtiness from Mitchell, one will be forced to admit he isn't exactly what he's seemed.
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine. He is the author of "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball," and "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.