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Books | Sports

June 29, 2009

The Downfall of Roger Clemens

New York Daily News sports investigative reporter Michael O'Keeffe tells Gelf how he and his colleagues concluded the baseball icon got entangled in his sport's juiced era.

Dan Adler

Roger Clemens's 24-year baseball career was full of milestones. On April 29, 1986, Clemens became the first pitcher in history to strike out 20 batters in a single game. On June 13, 2003, in defeating the St. Louis Cardinals, Clemens recorded his 4000th strikeout; he would ultimately reach 4,672, more than all but two other pitchers. And on July 2, 2007, he defeated the Minnesota Twins to collect his 350th win, becoming only the third pitcher of the live-ball era to do so.

Michael O'Keeffe. Photo courtesy of New York Daily News.
"The very qualities that made him a great pitcher turned him into the target of a perjury investigation."

Michael O'Keeffe. Photo courtesy of New York Daily News.

Those achievements made the Texas fireballer a legend in his own time, but a very different set of dates has defined him since. The 409-page Mitchell Report was released on December 13, 2007, with Clemens among the most high-profile players implicated on its pages as a steroids user. Clemens's virulent denial of those accusations led to his day before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on February 13, 2008, during which Clemens stated, under oath, "Let me be clear. I have never taken steroids or HGH." The House committee saw enough reason to question that statement to recommend the pitcher be investigated for perjury by the Justice Department.

The members of the committee are not alone in coming to the conclusion that "significant questions have been raised about Mr. Clemens's truthfulness." In writing American Icon: The Fall of Roger Clemens and the Rise of Steroids in America's Pastime, The New York Daily News Investigative Team of Teri Thompson, Nathaniel Vinton, Michael O'Keeffe, and Christian Red interviewed numerous sources, including Clemens's former personal trainer Brian McNamee's lawyers, and reviewed a plethora of relevant material, including congressional depositions, medical records, court documents, and more. The I-Team ultimately concludes that Clemens lied when he testified before Congress that he has never used performance-enhancing drugs.

American Icon is the story of how a man made great on the mound by his ferocity and competitive fire has been beaten by those same traits in his quest to fight allegations of steroid abuse, and how a once-lock for Cooperstown may soon face charges from the federal government. And yet, despite the magnitude of this story, the book goes beyond Clemens to investigate the larger steroids culture, both its origins and the danger it poses to American sports. As the I-Team writes of the book's sundry cast of characters, "They are basically role players in a drama about cheating and lying and fame—all the elements that seem to have taken over and dominated what once was America's purest and finest sport."

Gelf Magazine recently spoke with I-Team member Michael O'Keeffe about American Icon, as well as Clemens's fate, the future of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball, and why investigative sports reporting should and will bear the tribulations of the recession. This interview was conducted in person, at the offices of the New York Daily News, and has been edited for length and clarity. (Gelf previously interviewed O'Keeffe and other members of the I-team about baseball-card collecting and performance-enhancing drugs in baseball.)

Gelf Magazine: Let's get right down to business. On a scale from 1-10, how likely is it that Roger Clemens took steroids and/or Human Growth Hormone, and lied to Congress when he said he did not?

Michael O'Keeffe: I'm not really comfortable saying numbers, but I'll tell you what we wrote in the book. We examined a lot of evidence. We examined thousands of pages of documents, the Mitchell Report, the Congressional depositions, the actual Congressional testimony, court records—all kinds of stuff. We talked to dozens of people close to Clemens, people close to [former Clemens trainer] Brian McNamee, baseball people, gym rats—scores and scores of people. And in the book, we say that our review of this evidence led us to the conclusion that Brian McNamee told the truth when he said he injected Roger Clemens with steroids, and that Clemens lied to Congress.

Gelf Magazine: Why write American Icon? What does it achieve that all the articles the I-Team wrote did not?

Michael O'Keeffe: When you have that kind of a long form, you can tell the story in more detail. We had been telling this story in bits and pieces in our daily reporting, and that daily reporting is really the basis of this story. With a book—and this is a long book, 450 pages—you have the ability to go into details, tell a narrative, go off on tangents, and then come back to the main story, in a way that you can't in a newspaper or in website form. We wanted to tell the story of how arguably the greatest pitcher in history, certainly the greatest pitcher of his generation, went from a shoo-in for Cooperstown to the target of a federal perjury investigation.

Gelf Magazine: Why Roger Clemens? Is he the best lens for viewing the steroids scandals in their entirety, or is his just the most fascinating story?

Michael O'Keeffe: He's the greatest pitcher of his time. He's an iconic guy in that way. Also, he challenged the Mitchell Report, and I think that was what gave the story its drive. If he had not said anything, or if he had just issued a weak admission, or if he had just issued a weak denial—"This is not true, and that's all I'm going to say about it"—there wouldn't be a story. But he insisted on filing a lawsuit against Brian McNamee; he insisted on appearing before Congress; he insisted on going on 60 Minutes. He mounted a public campaign to challenge this. And that's what set these events in motion. He's a fascinating character in that the qualities that made him a great pitcher—his tenacity, his ferocity, his dedication to excellence and to victory—made him a great competitor on the baseball field, but when you took him out of that context and put him in the court of public opinion, the legal arena, and Capitol Hill, they didn't serve him. They worked against him. The very qualities that made him a great pitcher turned him into the target of a perjury investigation.

Gelf Magazine: In addition to his numerous denials in the face of credible witnesses, medical evidence, and his own contradictions, Clemens has now said he believes the DNA evidence will exonerate him. What do you make of this? Is it an indication he might be telling the truth, or that Roger Clemens is in his own world?

Michael O'Keeffe: He does appear to live in some kind of alternate reality. I don't know. I'm not in his head, so I can't really tell you what he really believes. But there are mountains of credible evidence that suggest to us that he lied when he denied using steroids before Congress.

Gelf Magazine: In the book, you write of Clemens's resolve to go before Congress, and how his defamation suit against Brian McNamee allowed his skeletons to come out of the closet. To what extent did Clemens bring this upon himself?

Michael O'Keeffe: This is all self-inflicted. The lawsuit was important for a number of reasons. When you file a lawsuit like that, you claim your reputation has been damaged. So the court gets to look at the sum of your reputation. Not the reputation that your public-relations expert wants to put out there, but what people really think of you. So the issue of his affairs became relevant, because he had always held himself out as a model husband and a model father.
The lawsuit was also relevant because these women whom he had been intimate with would become potential witnesses in a civil lawsuit, and also in a criminal case. We saw this in the Barry Bonds case, with Kimberly Bell, before that case got sidetracked. Kimberly Bell was going to be one of the witnesses for the prosecution. Both Brian McNamee's lawyers and prosecutors would want to ask these women if Clemens had ever done steroids, either by pill or by injection, in front of them, if he had ever talked about steroids, if they had noticed mood swings or any kind of physical symptoms—acne on his back, a lack of libido, a decline in libido, emotional testiness, snapping—classic 'roid-rage stuff.
By bringing that lawsuit forward, Clemens opened the door for the press and law enforcement and Congress to look at a lot of different parts of his life that would not have been open otherwise. The Daily News would not have done a lot of these stories were it not for the defamation suit.

Gelf Magazine: Do you think Clemens could have saved himself through discretion? Or would he always have been the big, high-profile target the government would pursue?

Michael O'Keeffe: Well he could have been quiet about it, and, as we report in the book, he had friends and advisors who counseled him to do just that. But he's the kind of guy where there's just no quit in him. It's an admirable trait in a lot of ways, but in this case, it didn't serve him as well in the legal arena as it did on the baseball diamond.

Gelf Magazine: Clemens is fighting two battles: one in the court of public opinion, and another in the court of law. He's clearly losing the first battle. To what extent is that affecting the second?

Michael O'Keeffe: Obviously they're two really different issues, and the standards are much different. I don't know. I don't work in the Justice Department, so I'm not privy to what they're thinking about, in terms of bringing a case, or whether they feel they have a case. It probably doesn't help. There is certainly a morale factor. If you're Roger Clemens, you're probably not feeling confident about this.

Gelf Magazine: The book depicts Clemens in a less-than-kind light—for example, when you describe his manner of nonchalantly making decisions that affect others' lives. Did you find it hard to judge him as a court will judge him—for whether or not he took steroids—without drifting over into what his defenders could claim was a smear?

Michael O'Keeffe: I don't think it drifted into contempt. He does try to control people's lives. He's a very self-centered guy. If you listen to the conversation he had with McNamee that was taped, it's all about him. Obviously we have a point of view in the book. The point of view is that we believe he lied when he told Congress he didn't use steroids.
We just tried to tell the story based on the facts and the sources that were available to us, and we had a lot available to us. The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform has a website that has got a lot of this information on it. We didn't really have to go and try to pick a fight with Roger Clemens. We didn't try to be judgmental. We were just trying to reflect what was on the record and what we were hearing from sources, both off and on the record. If you look at the book and you read Clemens's deposition, for example, we're pretty true to the spirit of how that event took place. He sounded confused at times; he was combative at times. You can compare that with Andy Pettitte's, which was much shorter, and just seemed to not have as many glitches.

Gelf Magazine: On the other side of that equation, the book often defends McNamee, describing his difficult position caught between his friendship with Clemens and pressure from federal prosecutors, and explaining his past of lying to authorities as a man trying to protect his friends. Why does he deserve that validation?

Michael O'Keeffe: McNamee was vetted first by the Department of Justice, and Jeff Novitzky, who's been the lead investigator for the federal side on the steroids issue in sports. Matt Parella and Jeff Nedrow—two very tough prosecutors, very experienced prosecutors out of the Northern District of California, the Federal Department of Justice—they have vetted him. Senator Mitchell, who was a former Senate majority leader, a judge, a prosecutor and a diplomat—he has vetted him; he has said, "I believe he's telling the truth." We had that before we even started the book; all of that was already in place.
McNamee had a very good reason to tell the truth. If he had lied about any of this stuff, he could have been charged, and he could have gone to jail. And in the book, we report on his evolution, which I think gives him some credibility. In the beginning, before the release of the Mitchell Report, he was trying to minimize the damage to these guys. He couldn't tell Andy Pettitte or Roger Clemens that he was talking to the Mitchell Report investigators, but he did try to minimize the damage. It was only after Clemens played that tape recording at that press conference, when they mentioned [McNamee's] son—when his son became an issue on a national stage—that McNamee really got angry about this.
There are a number of reasons why we believe McNamee. He's not a perfect witness, by any means. He lied to investigators before, about the sexual assault, the allegations in St. Petersburg, Fla. He had left the NYPD after three years under somewhat murky circumstances. But the facts that we looked at and the sources we talked to and the materials we reviewed indicate to us that he told the truth.
The sexual assault thing is interesting. There were these allegations that he had been involved when a woman received GHB—the date-rape drug—in St. Petersburg, and Brian had sex with her in a pool against her will. We found in reporting the book that there's another side to that, that really hasn't been discussed, that someone slipped her the date-rape drug in her drink. We don't know who that was, but Brian was trying to pull her out of a pool after she was collapsing. They were all skinny dipping. Why was she at the hotel in the first place? No one ever really addressed that. She was having an affair with a Yankees coach, who was married. Brian took the rap for that.

Gelf Magazine: Perhaps the most surprising part of the book, to me, was how partisan the congressional hearing was. Why do you think that happened?

Michael O'Keeffe: In 2005, they had another high-profile hearing, with Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, and that was not really a partisan issue. I think everybody was just delighted to take shots at Bud Selig and Don Fehr; it dragged on for 11 hours, or something like that. But this time around, things were really different. In the winter of 2005, the Republicans had just come off a very close election for the White House—President Bush did not beat John Kerry by a great margin. In 2008, the prospects for holding the White House did not look very good; as we saw, that did not work out very well for the Republicans. And in 2006, the midterm elections had gone overwhelmingly for the Democrats. I think the Republicans were looking for something to hang their hat on, in terms of being obstructionist. Clemens was a friend of the Bush family; how much that played into it, I don't know. I'm not a big conspiracy theorist, but I think people understood, "He was a friend of one of ours, so he's one of ours." Clemens isn't an overtly political guy; he has not gotten involved in politics the way Curt Schilling has, or Carlos Delgado has. But he represents some of the traits that Republicans like to identify themselves with. Although he was born in Ohio, he's got that Texas swagger. He's a fireballer. He comes across as a Gary Cooper figure, a lone guy out there, hurling bolts of lighting at his enemies. There's that never-give-up, never-quit trait in him. There's no appeasement there.

"We'll never know if there was a guy who might have had a major-league career, but he got stuck at Triple-A because someone on a depth chart in front of him was using steroids."
Gelf Magazine: Do you think the partisan nature of that hearing affected the overall shape of this story? Was the effect making the hearing feel more like a circus, or did it materially change the arc of the story?

Michael O'Keeffe: There was probably not much of an effect, but the Republican brand was being tarnished in 2008, and since Clemens was associated with that, that may have hurt him. It certainly contributed to the theater-of-the-absurd atmosphere. What I loved about this thing was, when I talked to Republican sources, or when other reporters on our team did, we heard that this was not a planned attack by Republicans, but that it was spontaneous. They were angry at the fact that the Democrats were coming after Clemens and, according to them, coddling McNamee.
My favorite part was Virginia Foxx, the congresswoman from North Carolina. She shows up with these four poster-sized photos of Clemens throughout his career, saying, "You didn't look any different in 2003 with the Yankees than you did in 1996 with the Boston Red Sox." If you're bringing a poster to a hearing, there's nothing spontaneous about that; it requires a little planning. The question was just dumb. It showed a clear lack of understanding about how performance-enhancing drugs work. Not everyone looks like Paul Bunyan. It depends on the drugs you use and how you use them.

Gelf Magazine: As you write in the book, upon receiving her guilty verdict for perjury for lying to the federal government about taking performance-enhancing drugs, cyclist Tammy Thomas decried the proceedings, claiming the prosecutors were out to destroy lives. Is she wrong? And regardless, why are the perjury proceedings necessary?

Michael O'Keeffe: Tammy Thomas was frustrated because she's now had two careers damaged as a result of her involvement with steroids. She lost her cycling career, and she was studying law when she was convicted. I understand why she got angry. She's put a lot of time and effort into pursuing both of these things, and now it appears she'll have a hard time with the second career. But what are prosecutors supposed to do if someone lies under oath? Maybe it's not the worst crime in the world—it's not genocide or terrorism—but you can't fault law enforcement for not looking the other way when someone commits a crime. And it's done on a public stage, whether it's a congressional hearing or a grand jury. Grand juries, of course, are supposed to be secret, but that information will eventually be used, whether it's leaked, which happens frequently, or if it's used as part of an ongoing criminal proceeding. I find it hard to fault a prosecutor for saying, "Someone committed a crime in front of our eyes, and we can't look the other way." They have to do their jobs. Matt Parella's job is to enforce laws, and to prosecute people who violate them. We would find it problematic if he didn't do that.

Gelf Magazine: Icon concludes with an explanation for steroids use in sports, the hypothesis that players take drugs because they need to perform at a high level to keep their jobs and make money. How much sympathy do you have for this dilemma?

Michael O'Keeffe: Not much. The unsung heroes are the guys who did it the right way. And we'll never know if there was a guy who might have had a major-league career, but he got stuck at Triple-A because someone on a depth chart in front of him was using steroids, who may not have extended his career or remained in the big leagues without using performance-enhancing drugs.

Gelf Magazine: So, ultimately, that logic for using steroids falls apart because it's selfish?

Michael O'Keeffe: Yes, I think that's a good way to put it. Andy Pettitte said, for example, that he wasn't trying to cheat; he was trying to recover from an injury. The Houston Astros had paid him a lot of money. He didn't want to disappoint the team or the fans, and he wanted to live up to the contract that he signed. That's a noble thing, on one level, but on another level, you're taking an advantage away from someone else. Injuries are a part of sports; every team has to deal with that at some point or another. And why should you get the benefit of a banned substance if another guy is doing it naturally? The playing field is still not level.

Gelf Magazine: So what is the solution? How would you resolve the problem, that players have so much incentive—that their calculus will remain, "If I take this, I'll make money, and if I don't, I won't"?

Michael O'Keeffe: You'll never get rid of performance-enhancing drugs in sports. There are too many incentives for people to try to go that route. What you can do, and what I think Major League Baseball has started to do effectively, is create a culture that discourages use, and that informs people that if you use these drugs, there will be consequences. You'll be penalized; you'll be suspended; you'll lose salary; you'll be chastised; you'll have a black mark on your record for the rest of your career. The fact that Major League Baseball suspended Manny Ramirez was important. They noticed there were high levels of testosterone in his urine, talked to him about that, and he provided medical records that indicated he was using a female fertility drug. They had to put some effort into that investigation; they didn't just look the other way. And then they suspended the most popular player on one of the most iconic teams in sports in the biggest market on the West Coast, one of the biggest markets in the country. That says a lot, that baseball is committed to this.
I think another aspect of this is, you need to hit guys over the head with an idea of the health issues here. When you're 25 years old, you think you're going to live forever, and you don't always think about the consequences of your actions, long term. A&E did a show on Jose Canseco that was really well done. It was invaluable in showing that this is a guy who, in 2005, when he wrote his book Juiced, advocated steroids for longer, more fulfilling, sexier, more healthy, and more productive lives. And the guy who was in this program in 2008 is a guy who's depressed, who's broke, who's got no sex drive and can't connect with his girlfriend. He's a mess. I think if baseball emphasizes some of those issues, it will make an impression. I think they're on the right path. The policy isn't perfect, but it's much better than it was.

Gelf Magazine: Ultimately, what do you think will happen to Roger Clemens?

Michael O'Keeffe: The big issue for him is the perjury investigation. We reported in mid-May that the FBI is continuing to talk to witnesses. We've heard the thing is moving forward. One thing I've learned in covering these cases is, the federal government moves at its own pace. These things sometimes take a long time. But I think Clemens is going to have to make some decisions. If he's indicted, what does he do? Does he try to get a plea deal? If he does try to pursue a plea deal, it's guaranteed he's going to have to acknowledge he used performance-enhancing drugs, and he's going to have to make a public statement about that. His other option, if he is indicted—and that's still a big "if" at this point—is he may choose to go to court, to go to trial with this, and try to beat it that way. That can be very difficult. When the Justice Department goes to trial, it has something like a 90% winning percentage. Those are not good odds. So he's got some really big decisions he's going to have to make about this.

"When you accuse someone of using performance-enhancing drugs, you need proof of that. And really, the press has only been able to sink its teeth into these issues since the criminal-justice system started to get involved."
Gelf Magazine: Nearly the same time American Icon was released, Clemens broke a more than year-long silence on Mike and Mike in the Morning, speaking out against the book as "completely false." What was your reaction to provoking Clemens's ire?

Michael O'Keeffe: It wasn't unexpected. We approached Clemens for interviews; we approached his lawyer, Rusty Hardin; and we approached his public-relations consultant, Patrick Dorton. They had turned down or ignored our requests. But we were also talking to people who were close to Clemens, and we were talking at times to Hardin and Dorton about our stories. So they knew some of the things that were going to be in this book; they had a pretty good sense of what was going to happen. So when he went on ESPN radio, it wasn't unexpected.
We could look at it dispassionately. I guess we were a little surprised that he broke his silence after so long, but it fits with what we know about this guy: that he'll never give up, he'll never say uncle, he just can't sit still. He can't not react to things like that. I remember we were having a conversation, and I said to one of the other reporters on the team, "I can't believe he's going to talk about this tomorrow." And he said, "Why does that surprise you? We just wrote a 450-page book that said this is exactly what this guy does—he cannot let any challenge go unmet."

Gelf Magazine: Do you think you'll face legal action?

Michael O'Keeffe: I hope not. I don't think so. We feel the book is really well researched, documented, and backed up, and if there is a legal challenge, it wouldn't go very far.

Gelf Magazine: A blogger, John Perricone, recently blasted the Daily News, among other institutions and journalists, calling articlesabout steroids sanctimonious and posturing. How do you respond to such critics?

Michael O'Keeffe: I think there was probably a period in the 1990s when the press was not as aggressive on these issues as it should have been. But these are difficult stories to write. When you accuse someone of using performance-enhancing drugs, you need proof of that. And really, the press has only been able to sink its teeth into these issues since the criminal-justice system started to get involved. We had been writing about problems with a variety of dietary supplements and illegal performance-enhancing drugs long before BALCO. But it's really hard; you can't just accuse someone of cheating, of breaking the law, without proof. And proof is hard to get. The proof became easier to ferret out and information became more available once the justice system started to look into these cases.

Gelf Magazine: Does working as investigative journalists, exposing vaunted athletes and facing criticism for doing so, make it hard to be a sports fan?

Michael O'Keeffe: No. My primary interest is to be a reporter. It's covering an industry, like you would cover the auto industry if you worked for Car and Driver, or Hollywood if you worked for Variety. There are people whom you like and people whom you don't like; it's like anything else. I think all four of us are pretty dispassionate about it. I think we can appreciate great athletes and great plays and great games and great teams. Being a fan has nothing to do with it. We're professionals.

Gelf Magazine: As the economy sours and print journalism struggles, are you worried that investigative journalism will get cut? Or do you think there will always be a place for the kind of work you do?

Michael O'Keeffe: I think it's a legitimate thing to be worried about. But the people at the Daily News recognize that you need to invest in your product. You can no longer give people just stats and scores and game results, because they get that on their phones five seconds after a game is over. They don't need newspapers to tell them that. So I think it was a really short-sighted move by newspapers and other media to cut reporting staffs, to get rid of editors and photographers, when they were trying to deal with the problems everyone is facing. I appreciate the fact that the Daily News— Martin Dunn's the editor here, he's a great editor; Leon Carter is our sports editor, he's another great journalist— appreciates that what we do brings value to the paper, and they support us. And I think that's smart. When the economic bad times start to recede in a year or two, we'll be in a good position to capitalize. When things get better, we'll be way ahead of the game, because we've already got this commitment: people who are trained, who have sources, who know what a story is and what's not, and how to get a story. If you decide in 2011 that the economy is doing a little better now, so let's try to do these kinds of stories, you're starting from scratch. Even if you have great reporters, it still takes a year or so to learn a beat and to get familiar with it, so you're behind the eight ball. So the fact that the Daily News is supporting this is really great. It's great for us, but it's also good for the health of the paper.

Related in Gelf

Before the Mitchell Report, Dean Barnett wished for a Boston homecoming for Clemens.

Another Clemens book also just hit the market: The Rocket That Fell to Earth: Roger Clemens and the Rage for Baseball Immortality, by Sports Illustrated writer Jeff Pearlman. You can read Gelf's interview with Pearlman here.

Dan Adler

Dan Adler is a freelance writer.

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Article by Dan Adler

Dan Adler is a freelance writer.

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