Bob Ford: Roger Clemens' acquittal signals end of baseball's steroids era

Posted: June 21, 2012

Baseball's fabulous era of flagrant steroids abuse, which was accompanied during its heyday with loud cracks of the bat and perhaps a little extra pop in the catcher's mitt, came to a much quieter end Monday in a federal courtroom in Washington.

As demonstrated by Freddy Galvis, who was busted for having a trace amount of a banned steroid metabolite in his system, there is still cheating going on, but the Wild West days are over. Whether Galvis is red-handed guilty or the unwitting victim of a juiced supplement doesn't matter. If it's in your body, it's your responsibility, and baseball finally is paying attention.

The final score of the previous era is hard to exactly determine, but steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs were pretty much undefeated in approximately 20 years of influencing the game. The baseball players who used them suffered few consequences and often enjoyed major financial rewards. The stewards of the sport had to endure some embarrassment, but fortunately that's a difficult group to embarrass.

In exchange for having its most revered records sullied or destroyed, baseball's hierarchy also saw the game's popularity recover from the 1994 players' strike during the bloated home run chase of 1998. Knowing that group, it probably would have accepted the swap.

The last bit of litigation - the last lingering thread to tie - from the bad old days of no testing ended Monday when a jury of eight women and four men determined that the Justice Department had not sufficiently proved Roger Clemens used steroids and human growth hormone during his career and, therefore, also had not proved that Clemens perjured himself when he testified to a congressional committee that he was always clean.

There's a big difference between being not guilty and being innocent, although the distinction didn't usually matter to the baseball players of the previous era who were chased by federal prosecutors for the last dozen years. For the most part, the government would have been unable to convict a St. Bernard of slobbering.

The Clemens verdict, which ended a nearly five-year prosecution that cost the government millions of dollars, was among the least of the failings. Barry Bonds walked away from the BALCO mess with nothing more than the equivalent of a parking ticket, and he's still likely to beat that on appeal.

The problem for prosecutors was that their best witnesses to the alleged doping were such a collection of lowlifes that juries didn't trust them, and good defense attorneys were able to poke through their motives and misdeeds until the prosecution cases collapsed from exhaustion.

In the case of the Clemens prosecution, the star witness was Brian McNamee, who worked for a long time as the pitcher's strength and conditioning coach. He was being chased by the Feds for possession and distribution of steroids and growth hormone and, the way the defense told it, offered up his former client to get them off his back.

Eventually, after changing his story a few times, McNamee decided that he had injected Clemens 16 to 21 times during three separate seasons, and he produced a Miller Lite can and some needles as evidence. McNamee had kept them in a FedEx box for six years and, yes, there were some traces of Clemens' DNA, but, also yes, that was as good as the government's case got.

We did learn that McNamee injected Debbie Clemens, Roger's wife, with human growth hormone. No one denied that one, although when she was injected and - you should pardon the term - where she was injected were subjects of disagreement. In any event, it was apparently a wild old time in the Clemens' household, although Roger said he took nothing stronger than the painkiller lidocaine and vitamin B12, and the eight women and four men chose to believe him instead of McNamee.

Case closed, era closed. Sure was fun while it lasted.

"I think it's great for the game because we can stop talking about it now," Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter said, and that view, while simplistic, is probably how most people feel. There is steroids fatigue - not to be confused with steroids rage - and the public's taste for pursuing the fading shadows of the cheaters has diminished, particularly since the government doofuses can't recognize when they don't have a case.

Clemens, Bonds, and Sammy Sosa will be first-timers on the Hall of Fame ballots that are issued in December for possible 2013 induction. Voters previously have turned up their noses at Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro, and seem intent on continuing to do so. Will Clemens and Bonds, both of whom would have been first-ballot certainties in the absence of the steroid era, fare better? Maybe, but not necessarily.

The fact is that people believe there was a lot of cheating, and although they don't really care, they still blame the cheaters for putting the game through hell. It's true that most of the cheating took place before baseball had an effective performance-enhancing drug policy in place, but using steroids and growth hormone without a valid reason - and a legal prescription - was still against the law. And if the players really thought they weren't doing anything wrong, why did they have to work secretly with such lowlifes to do it?

No, it was cheating and it was awful, and perhaps some reputations have been unfairly maligned as the wheat was separated from the chaff. That could be the case with Clemens. Who knows? It's worth remembering that Palmeiro also was convincing when he wagged his finger at Congress and proclaimed his innocence just five months before testing positive.

To this day, we don't really know, for the most part, who was clean and who was dirty back then. We know it was an undeniable era in baseball. We know it will be referenced as long as the statistics of the game are studied (which, being baseball, will be a good while).

As of Monday, we knew one more thing. The old steroids era was over.

Freddy Galvis merely reminded us that the reason the old era existed - looking for that edge - will never be over.


Contact Bob Ford at bford@phillynews.com, read his blog at philly.com/postpatterns, and follow @bobfordsports on Twitter.

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