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Former baseball star Roger Clemens becomes emotional as he talks to reporters outside Federal District Court in Washington June 18, 2012. A jury on Monday acquitted Clemens of all six criminal charges against him in a trial to decide whether he lied to Congress about using performance-enhancing drugs. (Kevin Lamarque/REUTERS)
Former baseball star Roger Clemens becomes emotional as he talks to reporters outside Federal District Court in Washington June 18, 2012. A jury on Monday acquitted Clemens of all six criminal charges against him in a trial to decide whether he lied to Congress about using performance-enhancing drugs. (Kevin Lamarque/REUTERS)

Jeff Blair

Roger Clemens escapes relatively unscathed Add to ...

And so Roger Clemens walked on all six charges Monday, which means all the feds have for their pursuit of two of the most reviled players in Major League Baseball history is one successful obstruction of justice charge against Barry Bonds.

It was not a banner day for the United States Department of Justice – although observers began to see the growing likelihood of the outcome as first pitcher Andy Pettitte, and then the wife of Brian McNamee, the star witness for the prosecution, dealt the case significant setbacks on the stand.

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The truth is they had no choice but to pursue Clemens when both Democrats and Republicans said they felt he’d lied under oath to a U.S. Congressional subcommittee in 2008, about whether he had used performance-enhancing drugs.

(The 49-year-old seven-time Cy Young Award winner and 11-time all-star had been charged with two counts of perjury, three counts of making false statements and one count of obstructing Congress.)

Legally, this was only tangentially about the steroid witch-hunt finally getting a pound of flesh, just as the roots of the pursuit of Bonds were a tax investigation into BALCO (Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative), but for many people the Clemens trial was also the last, lingering vestige of baseball’s steroid scandal.

Yet the truth is, baseball moved beyond the steroid stain even before Clemens was found innocent by a jury of his peers.

There was no pound of flesh. Just like Bonds, Clemens will not be viewed as a sympathetic figure by those who didn’t already view him as such.

But the majors has a drug-testing program that has grown in scope, and while like every testing program it has very real issues – logistics and transparency, to begin with – there is statistical evidence in terms of the game’s power numbers to suggest change has been affected. More to the point, steroid testing morphed into testing for amphetamines, which, as a clubhouse staple, predated steroids by decades.

Considering how baseball was cherry-picked by Congress – remember those threats about revoking the game’s antitrust exemption? – the guess here is commissioner Bud Selig and those around the game viewed Monday’s result more with a touch of wistfulness than any other emotion.

A lot of us believed the Congressional hearings were a waste of time but the fact is both Selig and then-players’ union chief Donald Fehr seemed to realize they stood on common ground, and in some ways it contributed to the spirit of co-operation between owners and players that has seen labour peace settle over the game.

Congress performed a great service for the game of baseball, then. Whether it did so for society is not as clear.

Only the Pollyannas out there believe sports is totally free of culture enhancement – as long as athletes are paid millions of dollars, they’ll have access to technology and science and the means to mask them – and to many, performance enhancement is not just a victimless crime in professional sports, it is many ways an economic imperative.

Athletes get paid for production and get paid to play, and isn’t it incumbent on them to take whatever means are necessary to be on the field, court or ice?

So now the steroid stormtroopers will shift their focus to another sport (cycling) and another athlete (Lance Armstrong).

It will be interesting to see whether there is any public appetite to see Armstrong get his comeuppance. Because if the pursuit of Clemens and baseball home-run king Bonds has shown anything, it’s this is an issue mostly for the chattering classes.

Clemens and Bonds escaped relatively unscathed from the U.S. judicial system (in addition to the one count of obstruction, the seven-year investigation into the latter resulted in a hung jury on the question of whether Bonds lied to a grand jury when he denied knowingly taking performance-enhancing drugs) and now await judgment from Hall of Fame voters.

Nobody knows where that path leads, but after Monday’s verdict, Clemens is just like any other of his contemporaries.

The 354-game winner will be held to the same level of skepticism, as the game continues to grapple with and make sense of its history. No less, but no more.

And for Clemens, that’s what this was all about.

 

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