Commentary

Rocket's victory more like a defeat

Clemens doesn't come out unscathed from a game he never should have started

Updated: June 19, 2012, 1:25 PM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

Roger Clemens won the decision but lost the game. This victory in the courtroom was far more Pyrrhic than any of the 354 he claimed on the mound, even now as he exits stage left and eagerly laterals all the performance-enhancing burdens to another tainted Texan, Lance Armstrong.

A half dozen counts of perjury, making false statements and obstructing Congress were sent to federal jurors, who met them with verdicts of not guilty. Six up and six down for Clemens, who looked and sounded more like a survivor than a winner after realizing he wouldn't be going to jail.

[+] EnlargeRoger Clemens
Saul Loeb/GettyImagesRoger Clemens appeared small and deflated when he addressed reporters Monday.

A hulking figure who huffed and puffed from 60 feet, 6 inches away, always dealing in the currency of intimidation when he was on the mound, Clemens appeared small and deflated when he addressed reporters outside the Washington, D.C., courthouse. He choked up after referencing "all you media guys that know me and followed my career," repeatedly rubbing his nose and mouth before gathering himself with one big whew and noting the blood and sweat he poured into his career.

Truth is, Clemens never should have pressed this case. He never should've done the Mike Wallace interview on "60 Minutes," never should've played the tape of that phone call with Brian McNamee, and never should've marched on Capitol Hill in a million-to-one effort to clear his name. They were all wild fastballs that got him indicted and landed him in a trial that turned out to be a colossal waste of everyone's money and time.

The jury needed only 10 hours of deliberations to come to a predictable verdict: They were never going to convict Clemens on the testimony of his former strength coach, McNamee, a disgrace to the New York City police uniform he used to wear.

But no matter how often attorney Rusty Hardin wanted to call his client "a hell of a man," or call Monday "a day of celebration," Clemens wasn't walking away whole, not even close. Way back when, during the Congressional hearings on steroid use in baseball, Clemens acknowledged, "I'm never going to have my name restored."

He was never so right.

Clemens thought he could make the Mitchell report and everything else go away by staring down Congress the way he could stare down batters and reporters. Only the opposition didn't blink this time. On the day a federal grand jury indicted Clemens, Rep. Tom Davis, the top Republican on the House committee running the hearings, told ESPNNewYork.com that Andy Pettitte's sworn statement that his former teammate and mentor admitted using HGH was the real game-changer.

"If it was just Roger versus McNamee," Davis said at the time, "it's a different matchup. … Without Pettitte, neither McNamee nor Clemens was that articulate or credible."

But then Pettitte changed the game again, agreeing with the defense's suggestion during the trial that there was a 50-50 chance he might've misunderstood, or misremembered, what Clemens had told him. Once good ol' Andy came around, or took one for the team, the government was stuck with McNamee, and that was never going to fly.

So the feds couldn't nail Clemens any more than they could nail Barry Bonds, meaning it's high time they get out of the business of hunting down baseball stars. But even after the government bungled its way to a mistrial and then to a decisive defeat at the Rocket's hands, Clemens failed to truly escape just like Ryan Braun failed to truly escape.

Braun beat his suspension on a technicality, so that positive test will stay with him forever. Clemens? He beat the feds fair and square, but a vast majority or right-minded fans still believe he used performance-enhancing drugs, and still believe the Rocket was lucky his supplier was a strength coach with enough credibility problems to fill a weight room.

In thanking friends and teammates and family members for their support, Clemens made special mention of the woman who stood by her man. "My wife," he said, "has been a rock behind us."

The same rock that allowed McNamee to inject her with HGH.

Debbie Clemens admitted taking the same drugs from McNamee -- in her own master bathroom -- that the trainer said he'd injected into her husband. This pathetic disclosure was reason enough for Clemens to have stayed as far away as possible from Congress when he had the chance.

"This wasn't a mandatory hearing," Davis said of Clemens' appearance in 2008. "We weren't hanging [Clemens] out to dry."

Davis said that he warned Clemens that he'd better not lie to Congress if he decided to go forward, and that it was Clemens' choice to go ahead with the hearing. Now a jury has decided the Rocket didn't lie after all, a verdict that signals the unofficial end of the Mitchell report era.

"When a man says he didn't do it," Hardin said, "let's at least start out giving him the benefit of the doubt."

As a seven-time Cy Young Award winner, as a pitcher who competed against scores of juicers, Clemens deserves the benefit of the doubt as a talent who would've built a Hall of Fame career with or without steroids or HGH.

But in the court of public opinion, Clemens doesn't get the benefit of the doubt as a clean athlete who outperformed chemically enhanced frauds. In an arena in which nobody gets indicted or convicted or sentenced to prison, the Debbie Clemens admission goes down as the common-sense clincher.

Yes, Roger Clemens suffered a defeat in this victory. He gets to retreat to the sidelines now to watch U.S. doping officials take it to Lance Armstrong, but that doesn't mean the Rocket is in the clear.

He'll never be in the clear.

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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