The other day, retired baseball pitcher Roger Clemens was acquitted on charges that he lied to Congress when he testified, under oath, that he never used performance enhancing drugs.
Technically, the case was about perjury, not PED use, per se. But the perjury charges hinged on the government proving that Clemens lied when he told lawmakers that he never used PEDs.
Therefore, the big question before the jury as it deliberated had to be whether the government had demonstrated that Clemens had, in fact, used steroids, human growth hormone or some other illegal or improper substance during the latter part of his storied baseball career. The jury's answer – an acquittal on all counts – may not end the matter, but it does strongly suggest that the case evidence Clemens is not very strong.
The government's case faced more than its fair share of problems.
For one, the key witness for the prosecution, Clemens' former trainer, Brian McNamee, was a somewhat shady character that claimed, among other things, that he kept old syringes used by the pitcher in an old beer can in his basement on the off chance that one day, the DNA might be usable as evidence.
Who does that?
And Clemens' former star teammate, Andy Pettite, who claimed before the trial that Clemens told him he had used PEDs, hedged a bit off at trial, saying he was only “50-50” sure that Clemens actually said it.
Any responsible jury would have a hard time sending someone to prison based on "50-50" testimony.
In the wake of the verdict, Clemens bashers took to the airwaves to remind listeners that the statistical evidence still suggests that something fishy was going on late in Clemens' career.
Without bogging down in too much detail, here, Clemens had a late career surge in performance that was, for baseball fans, almost breath-taking. When Clemens left the Boston Red Sox after the 1996 season, he was still an effective 34-year-old pitcher, but his statistics clearly suggested that he was in decline. Then Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette famously stated, "Roger is in the twilight of his career."
After joining the Toronto Blue Jays in 1997, however, Clemens became his old self again, and then some, winning two Cy Young Awards for the Jays before going on ring up other highly effective seasons with the New York Yankees and Houston Astros. He retired after the 2007 season, at the age of 45, as statistically one of the top three or four greatest right-handed pitchers in baseball history.
According to a study conducted and published by Clemens' sports agency, Roger's career path, though unusual, was very similar in some ways to other star hurlers such as Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling and Nolan Ryan, none of whom have been linked to PED use. All three hurlers were, like Clemens, big, strong power pitchers, and all of them remained effective strikeout pitchers well into their late 30s and/or early forties. And though Clemens did, the report concedes, did get even better in some ways as he got older, the writers attribute that improvement to his late-career mastery of a split-fingered fastball, a devastating pitch that looks to the batter like a fastball, before it suddenly drops six to twelve inches as it reaches home plate, leaving batters completely befuddled and waving their bats at air.
Others analysts, not surprisingly, claim that the Clemens report is misleading.
In a study first published in the New York Times and re-cited this week in the Daily Beast, a group of baseball stat geeks from Wharton claim that the Clemens study is biased because it relies too heavily on comparing Clemens’s performance to star players. They also claim that even when compared to that select group, Clemens' career path still appears outside the norm, thereby raising suspicion.
Driving to work the other day, I heard Gerry Callahan, the WEEI morning talk show host, say the following, in so many words: We know Clemens did steroids, because no one has that kind of improvement in performance late in his baseball career. It just doesn't happen."
Sorry Gerry, but that's not quite true.
For example, there once was a slugger that averaged about 33 home runs over the course of his career when suddenly, at age 35, he starting banging them out at an even higher rate. His total for ages 35 to 39 was the best five year total of his career. At age 38, he hit a career high 47 home runs in just 139 games – had he played a full season he might have hit 60. No one ever explained exactly how it all came to be. One theory - that he played in a small home ballpark
- did not really explain it, because he played in the same stadium at ages 31 to 34 and did not hit nearly as many homers. The issue was never resolved.
The player's name was Hank Aaron, the much-revered home run king.
There is no suggestion that Hammering Hank used drugs in the latter part of his career. Consequently, his extraordinary increase in power in his late 30s is never questioned. But the arc of his career does show that sometimes, great players can do even greater things as their playing days draw to a close.
So, what do I think?
Honestly, I am not sure. If I had to bet my vast fortune, I would say Clemens probably ingested some things designed to improve his performance at various times in his career. Heck, every pro athlete has to have been tempted, and there is no question many succumbed to the temptation.
But do I know that Roger Clemens did PEDs? No.
One thing I will say for Clemens is that unlike Mark McGwire, who appeared before Congress at the same hearing as Clemens and said, in essence, "I really don't want to talk about the past," or Sammy Sosa, who appeared but then conveniently forgot how to speak the English language, or Rafael Palmeiro, who also denied using PEDs but then later tested positive, Clemens boldly and assertively denied his guilt before Congress, maintained his denial in the face of evidence presented in the media, and took the case all the way to a jury.
You gotta give the guy credit for that.