The Railroading of Roger Clemens

As Rogers Clemens’ perjury trial begins, one lawyer examines his record and the evidence used against him—and questions whether the former Longhorn baseball star got a fair shake…or the Salem treatment.

Photo courtesy of UT Athletics

On August 30, 1985, barely two years after he pitched Texas to the NCAA Baseball Championship over Alabama, Roger Clemens underwent reconstructive surgery to repair the torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder.

Unlike most of the other 40,000 Americans who undergo rotator cuff surgery each year, Clemens’ daily routine already encompassed the physical therapy proscribed for recovery: shoulder exercises, weight lifting, running, stretching.

It was all part of a legendary workout routine, one dating back to junior high school and extending more than two decades into his professional career—a routine one of the most chronicled in the history of baseball through news stories and television profiles. Despite anecdotal contentions that Clemens abandoned his exercise regime mid-career and became overweight and out of shape, there is no evidence that he did so.

It was the last major surgery and the last major injury of his remarkable 24-year career.  As his Astros teammate Andy Pettitte put it, Clemens “was never injured that much, you know, really.” After that 1985 surgery Clemens pitched the next three years without missing a single start.

The nagging injuries that later constituted put him on the disabled list consisted of groin and hamstring pulls and stiffness in his upper shoulders and lower back, the natural result of a man who stood 6’4, weighed 240 pounds, and possessed enormous thighs.

Clemens’s claimed remedies for these aches and pains—a chiropractor for his back, plus Vioxx, Aleve, Lidocaine and B-12, taken both orally and via shots—are consistent with the aspirin that pitchers have always taken for late season sore arms.

In contrast, Human Growth Hormone (HGH) is considered a remedy for healing after surgery and for sexual potency, allegedly an issue for Clemens. Anabolic steroids increase strength and muscle mass.

Numbers Don’t Lie

Many baseball authorities consider Clemens the greatest pitcher in the 142 year history of the game. He won the Cy Young Award for best pitcher seven times, the most ever. He won 354 games and lost 184, a superlative winning percentage of .658. He ranks No. 3 in career strikeouts, with 4,672.

Contrary to his reputation as lousy in the post season, Clemens actually performed better as the level of difficulty and pressure increased throughout his career. His E.R.A. declined from 4.8 in first round divisional games to 3.8 in second round championship games to a stingy 2.37 in the World Series. His strikeouts per game rose from 5.8 in first round games to 7.8 in second round games to 8.16 in six World Series games. His walks per game declined from 3.5 in first round divisional play to 2.9 in championship round games to 2.0 in the World Series.  And Clemens never lost a World Series game. He was 4-4 in first round games, 5-4 in divisional championships, and 3-0 in the World Series.

Because Clemens never pitched a single no hitter or a perfect game his dominance over a generation is understated. In 9 of the 14 seasons in which he did not win the Cy Young Award he was either on the disabled list or pitched only partial seasons. To put it another way, when Roger Clemens was healthy and pitched a full season, or as they say in employment law, was “ready, willing, and able” to work, he won 7 Cy Young Awards in 15 years, an astonishing accomplishment.

He had the consistency of a Swiss clock. In 21 American League seasons his strikeout to walk ratio was 2.96 per game. In three National League seasons in Houston it was 2.97 per game. Clemens’s ability to throw strikes was so regular, in fact, that in years 14-24 his number of walks per year was within a hundredth of a percent of what it had been in his first 13 years in Boston, 65.846 to 65.818.

Clemens achieved this consistency even though the ravages of age eventually affected his durability. In innings pitched and games completed he declined across the board in years 14-25. In his first 13 years in Boston, Clemens averaged 213.5 innings a year. In 11 seasons in Toronto, New York, and Houston his innings per year fell to 194.5, or almost an inning less in every game. In the first half of his career he averaged 7.7 complete games, compared to 1.6 complete games in the second half of his career.

…But People Can

It is this consistency that is at odds with the Justice Department’s claim that will be propounded in a federal court room in Washington, D.C. this month that insists Clemens grew fat and lazy in mid career and turned to steroids and HGH to revive his diminishing talents. Clemens is charged with perjury, obstruction of justice, and making false statements.

In his view, Clemens goes on trial for exercising his First Amendment right to question a done political deal, a report written by former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell intended to get Congress off the back of Major League Baseball for its perceived indifference to the use of performance enhancing drugs. The only other player to question the report, Miguel Tejada, was also prosecuted by the Justice Department.

The ranking Republican member during the 2008 hearing, former Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia, admitted upon Clemens’s indictment in August 2010, “The hearing was called because the Mitchell Report had been called into question. We were invested in the Mitchell Report, and it was important historically to show that the Mitchell Report was correct.” Congressman Henry Waxman opined, “Senator Mitchell’s report was impressive and credible.”

Mitchell and his staff were barred from interviewing the players themselves because of a union agreement that protected their constitutional rights, and therefore talked to team employees instead, who were ordered to cooperate under penalty of fine or dismissal by Commissioner Bud Selig. An investigation into Mitchell’s methods reported the inquiry did not look seriously into the operation of steroids or HGH in major league clubhouses but rather headhunted for famous names to implicate.

The result was a 311-page report long on the kind of secondary sources that used to get you hauled into your professor’s office for a lecture on how to write a term paper. It was short on evidence obtained from Mitchell’s multimillion dollar investigation.

The secondary sources consisted of published newspaper, magazine, and book innuendos and rumors about players taking banned substances, such as the best-selling, if one-sided, investigation into the alleged steroids use by Barry Bonds. Mitchell also padded the report with a history of drug testing in other sports, and recommendations on how to curb future drug use and amnesty for past violators.

Mitchell could not even claim credit for gathering the physical evidence in the form of cancelled checks and mailing receipts that implicated baseball players such as Jason Grimsley, Denny Nagle, David Segui, Miguel Tejada, Mo Vaugn, and Kevin Brown. That evidence was dumped on Mitchell’s desk by IRS agent Jeff Novitsky; almost all of it was obtained during Novitsky’s investigation of New York Mets clubhouse attendant Kirk Radomski. As Radomski said of the Mitchell investigation, “Basically, without me they had almost nothing.”

The evidence did include cancelled checks from Roger Clemens’ personal strength coach, Brian McNamee, to Radomski—but from 2003 and 2004, years in which McNamee claimed not to have injected Clemens. McNamee says he stopped injecting Clemens in 2001, which coincidentally was beyond the five-year statute of limitations for which McNamee could be indicted in 2007.

The evidence did not support Mitchell’s contention that steroid and HGH use were “pervasive,” and that baseball had suffered through a “steroids era.” It made no showing to prove that PED use exceeded the estimated 5 percent of players who tested positive during the 2003 random test conducted by Major League Baseball.

Despite efforts by congressional lawyers to trap him into contradictions during a deposition regarding the date on which his wife Debbie received an HGH injection, Clemens has been as consistent in denying his use of performance enhancing drugs as he was in throwing strikes.

The FBI conducted a two-year investigation, and we will not know until trial what it turned up. But based on the known evidence, the case against Clemens has a lot of holes in it. It consists of a vial of liquid that allegedly contains Clemens’ DNA in a steroids solution and syringes, which Brian McNamee, an ex cop, cannot prove he held in his house for nearly 10 years (five years after he continued to work for Clemens). It may not, therefore, be admissible at trial. Clemens has conceded that McNamee could have samples of his DNA, albeit from B-12 or Lidocaine shots.

McNamee’s story contains many contradictions and versions, particularly how he got paid for injecting Clemens and where the steroids and HGH came from. McNamee has said variously he wasn’t sure, they came from Radomski, or they came from Clemens, or maybe they came from Jose Canseco. McNamee told Andy Pettitte that the HGH came from a family doctor.  As late as 2010, nearly three and a half years after agreeing to cooperate with Senator Mitchell and tell his story to the nation through the New York Daily News, McNamee theorized that maybe Clemens paid him through his foundation, providing the FBI a legal excuse to examine those records.

Pettitte is expected to repeat his statement at the trial that he thought he heard Clemens once admit to using HGH, although Pettitte has never been able to summarize the gist of that conversation and admits he did not remember Clemens’ alleged admission at the time of his own use. McNamee, who was there and agrees he and Pettitte had a discussion about Clemens’ apparent confession, admits he did not hear what Clemens said. Senator Mitchell, who of course was not there either, has attempted to elevate the credibility of the conversation by suggesting that McNamee’s reaction was “an excited utterance,” an exception to the hearsay rule that would normally bar from court what each man said to the other.

What’s Left?

The comments of all three men, however, do not account for the big elephant in the room, Roger Clemens. What was he doing and saying when all these excited utterances were bouncing off the walls of his Houston home?

The fact that McNamee could not identify the brand of anabolic steroids in the syringes and vial in his congressional deposition did not bother the press or public. It will bother a jury.

The prosecution’s major problem may turn out to be its theory of the case: that Roger Clemens was washed up by 1996 and his career was revived by taking anabolic steroids and HGH. Yet as they say in baseball, the numbers don’t lie. In his supposedly washed-up year of 1996, Roger Clemens matched his game high strikeout mark of a decade earlier, 20, and led the American League in strikeouts, with 257. He also ranked first in the American League in strikeouts per 9 innings,second in the league in hits per nine innings, and was fourth in complete games.

In fact, the widely held view that there was ever a “decline” in Clemens’s career is a myth. The period most often cited to prove that assertion is 1993-1995, when he won 30 games and lost 26, as he fought through chronic muscle strains in the left side of his back, the back side of his right shoulder, and his groin, plus a briefly inflamed elbow and a pulled hamstring.

Clemens gave up only one more walk in 1993, arguably his worst season, with an 11-14 record and 4.46 ERA, than his career average, and his strikeouts per nine innings of 7.5 was only one strikeout per game under his career average of 8.6.  In 1994 he led the entire major leagues in holding opposing batters to a .204 average. In 1995 he went 10-5, gave up more hits and more walks than his average, but barely missed his 8.6 career average of strikeouts per nine innings, punching out 8.5.

In 1997 Clemens won the Cy Young with his new team, the Toronto Blue Jays, who gave him the largest pitching salary in history.

Brian McNamee says he arrived with the Blue Jays in the spring of 1998 and started injecting Clemens after the pitcher struggled early in the year. The problem with McNamee’s story is that Clemens’s pitching performance without steroids or HGH in 1997 was almost identical to his pitching performance with anabolic steroids and HGH in 1998. If anything, Clemens’s 1998 statistics were slightly worse. In 1997, without steroids, Clemens made 34 starts, struck out 292 batters, had a 2.05 E.R.A., and went 21-7. With steroids in 1998 Clemens made 35 starts, struck out 271 batters, had a 2.65 E.R.A., and went 20-6.

Clemens was traded to the Yankees in 1999. And despite a Cy Young Award and a 20-game winning streak aided by the first team to win 14 straight World Series games in history, Clemens suffered the worst years of his career. These included the seasons, 2000-2001, that constituted the majority of his alleged use of performance enhancing drugs. His E.R.A. with the Yankees elevated to 4.01 compared to his career average of 3.12. He gave up 8.5 hits per nine innings with the Yankees compared with his career average of 7.6. His New York walks per nine innings increased to 3.2 compared to a career average of 2.8. His career strikeouts to walks ratio of 3.3 innings declined to 2.55.

When Clemens retired from the Yankees, then came back from retirement with the Houston Astros, his pitching performance improved in every category. He turned 40 years old on August 4, 2003, was apparently no longer on anabolic steroids, and yet pitched better than in his years on steroids in New York. From 2003 to 2005, Clemens went 38 and 18 for a winning percentage of .679 on weak hitting Astros teams. His E.R.A. was a career best of 2.40. He gave up only 6.8 hits per nine innings, compared to 8.5 with the vaunted Yankees. His walks per nine innings with the Yankees declined from 3.2 and returned exactly to his career average of 2.8. His strikeouts to walk ratio per nine innings also improved in Houston, rising from 2.55 to 2.97. His Houston Astros walks per nine innings were 2.8, down from 3.2 with the Yankees.

These numbers prove what many baseball fans do not want to hear: the pitching performance of Roger Clemens in the second half of his career was not enhanced by performance enhancing drugs, if in fact he took them.

That fact—along with the shaky evidence used against him—ought to trouble any justice-seeking American who thought witch-hunting ended in Salem and railroading was reserved for Amtrak.


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