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Legendary Pitcher Clemens Faces Opening Day of Perjury Trial

July 6, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Jury selection began Wednesday in the federal perjury trial of former pitching star Roger Clemens. The record-setting major leaguer was charged with lying to Congress about the use of steroids and human growth hormones. Ray Suarez discusses the charges and what to expect in the trial with Sports Illustrated's David Epstein.

GWEN IFILL: Jury selection began today in the federal perjury trial of Roger Clemens, the former record-setting Major League pitcher.

Ray Suarez has that story.

RAY SUAREZ: He was once bound for the Baseball Hall of Fame, but, today, Roger Clemens entered a federal courthouse in Washington, accused of lying to Congress. In sworn testimony at a House hearing in 2008, the former pitching great was unequivocal on the subject of steroid use.

ROGER CLEMENS, former Major League Baseball player: Let me be clear. I have never taken steroids or HGH.

RAY SUAREZ: But a former trainer, Brian McNamee, claimed he repeatedly injected Clemens with steroids and human growth hormone. And, last year, the retired star was indicted on multiple counts.

It was a spectacular fall for the man known as ‘The Rocket’ for his sizzling fastball, who won a record seven Cy Young awards, as the American League’s top pitcher. He played 13 seasons with the Boston Red Sox and won two World Series with the New York Yankees.

Now Clemens is now fighting to stay out of jail. The counts carry possible sentences of up to 30 years.

More now on the coming trial and the Clemens story from David Epstein, who’s covering it for Sports Illustrated.

Well, there are six counts in all, David. What does the government say Roger Clemens did?

DAVID EPSTEIN, “Sports Illustrated”: Well, the counts are obstruction of Congress, perjury, and making false statements, but they all amount, basically, to him not telling the truth before Congress in a hearing that was televised nationally, but also — actually, there are 15 false statements he’s alleged to have made.

And the majority of those are actually in the depositions that he gave to committee members in Congress before that hearing that was televised.

RAY SUAREZ: So, this is all about statements; it’s not anything about whether he actually used drugs or is charged in drug-related crimes?

DAVID EPSTEIN: That’s correct. And we have seen some of his former teammates and other players who even have admitted that they used drugs have kind of moved on from it to some degree. So this is completely about false statements before Congress.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, we saw Roger Clemens in that famous 2008 hearing. Was he compelled to testify? Did he have to appear that day?

DAVID EPSTEIN: He didn’t. Base on reporting that I did both before or after that hearing, there were several members of the committee who kind of said that they had gotten what they wanted out of this, which was to kind of shine a light into this culture in baseball and have Major League Baseball try to do something about it, basically.

And some of them, I think, even kind of suggested to him that they had gotten what they wanted. Maybe you don’t want to do this. You know, we’re fine. There’s no need. But he was adamant that he really wanted to take on public allegations in a very public way. And that’s what he did.

RAY SUAREZ: Roger Clemens’ defense is in part going to concentrate on tearing down the testimony of Brian McNamee, his former trainer.

Has McNamee testified successfully in past prosecutions? Has he been a credible witness in other trials?

DAVID EPSTEIN: Well, McNamee — and this is going to come up in this trial — one issue that he had is, he was at one point a suspect in kind of a sexual assault case in Florida. And law enforcement there had some problems with some of the statements he made, although he was never charged and the case was completely dismissed.

And that may end up being kind of a centerpiece of Clemens’ defense team’s argument.

RAY SUAREZ: Are there other ballplayers, former teammates of Roger Clemens, people who’ve even admitted using drugs themselves, on the witness list, as far as you know right now?

DAVID EPSTEIN: There are on the potential witness list, so a number of former players, several of whom have admitted to receiving drugs from Mr. McNamee himself.

But one in particular who stands out is his former teammate Andy Pettitte, not only because he’s another high-profile athlete and great pitcher, but also because they were kind of two peas in a pod for a while. They were best friends. It was almost an “older brother in Roger Clemens, younger brother in Andy Pettitte” relationship — but also because Pettitte admitted to having received human growth hormone from Brian McNamee, but is the only former player who has said — who — in a deposition to Congress — that Clemens had a conversation with him about his own use.

That — he’s unique in that way.

RAY SUAREZ: And Pettitte himself doesn’t have what you might call the Brian McNamee problem, does he?

DAVID EPSTEIN: That’s correct. So, to his point, I mean, his credibility has been viewed as unimpeachable.

In just the minutes after the congressional hearing, when I was talking to members of Congress before they left the room in 2008, you could tell they were really swayed by Andy Pettitte, almost to the point I think one of the members of Congress used the phrase “Goody Two-Shoes” almost in describing him.

And, at that point, in hearing what they had to say about Pettitte’s deposition, it seemed likely they were going to refer the case for investigation and prosecution.

RAY SUAREZ: Other ballplayers during those hearings told members of Congress that they had never touched the stuff, that they never used drugs of any kind.

Rafael Palmeiro ended up failing a drug test. Sammy Sosa retired not that long after — well, was made to retire because no one would hire him. How come Roger Clemens is the one being charged and the one being tried in this way?

DAVID EPSTEIN: Well, first, Miguel Tejada, who also ended up pleading guilty to making false statements to congressional investigators regarding — actually, when he was being asked questions about Palmeiro — I think he just received a year of probation, I think, was all he got.

But Clemens — the past hearings were all about the drug culture in baseball and whether there was a problem in this sort of thing. The Clemens hearing was all about Roger Clemens directly refuting what the Mitchell report said and casting doubt on this report that Congress viewed to be a very important thing.

So, this hearing was really about Roger Clemens and about Roger Clemens taking on this report. So, I think — and with the amount of publicity it received, I think some members of Congress felt they were in a position where there was so much exposure, that if they felt they had been lied to, it would be a problem for them to let that go publicly.

RAY SUAREZ: You mentioned the Mitchell report, former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, led a commission. And there was a lot of damning evidence in that report.

Now, that was called for by Major League Baseball, though. Can that be entered as evidence into Roger Clemens’ trial?

DAVID EPSTEIN: So, we don’t know for sure what will be in evidence and what won’t be. His — that will — that will — the judge has said he’s kind of going to come to that as it comes.

But some of it will be. Sen. Mitchell himself was listed on the potential list of witnesses today, so — as were several of the lawyers at DLA Piper who were involved in putting that report together, so, yes.

RAY SUAREZ: This is a very high-profile courthouse. And in Judge Reggie Walton, you have got a very experienced jurist.

Has he set out some ground rules as things got under way today about who’s going to talk and under what circumstances, the behavior of the lawyers, that kind of thing?

DAVID EPSTEIN: He’s — he’s still been debating some of the most important points himself. So, he’s — like you said, he manages a pretty strict courtroom.

At the moment, he’s been debating whether or not he’s going to let former baseball players testify strictly about their own involvement with Brian McNamee and drugs, not as it relates to Roger Clemens. So, he’s been going back and forth on that. And that’s been kind of an interesting thing to see.

RAY SUAREZ: That would be a key victory for the defense, to exclude that testimony from open court, wouldn’t it?

DAVID EPSTEIN: That would be. I mean, Judge Walton himself said — he said that he had played football and received — in college — and received cortisone shots from a trainer, and that he didn’t feel that he should be held accountable if that trainer had given performance-enhancing drugs to some other athlete.

So — but then, today, this morning, he almost switched course a little bit and said, maybe I will allow that testimony, if the defense strategy goes a certain way, basically.

RAY SUAREZ: David Epstein of “Sports Illustrated,” thanks for joining us.

DAVID EPSTEIN: Thanks for having me.