Nate Vinton ’01 on Roger Clemens

Former Major League Baseball star Roger Clemens was indicted Thursday on perjury charges related to his 2008 Congressional testimony about his use of performance enhancing drugs. In the wake of that announcement, we caught up with investigative reporter and co-author Nate Vinton ’01 for his views on the indictment and what’s next for the pitcher known as “Rocket.”

In 2007, Nate Vinton ’01 became part of an investigative sports team at The New York Daily News writing about performance-enhancing drugs in Major League Baseball. That team, including Teri Thompson, Michael O’Keeffe, and Christian Red, won a number of awards for their coverage of the Mitchell Report (authored by Senator George J. Mitchell ’54) and its fallout. In the headline-making book, American Icon: The Fall of Roger Clemens and the Rise of Steroids in America’s Pastime (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009), they pieced together the “sprawling story of steroid-use [in baseball] into a sleek narrative that reads like an investigative thriller, peopled by a Dickensian cast of characters.” (From a New York Times review.)

BDS: Are you surprised that Clemens has been indicted?

Vinton: I’m not the least bit surprised that the grand jury indicted him. The evidence of steroid use was overwhelming, and Congress had specifically asked the Justice Department to look into the possibility that Clemens lied when he denied doping, so the prosecutors had to take it seriously. The FBI gathered loads of witness statements and testimony, including DNA swabs, so it was clear they were holding some strong cards. It is a pretty good opportunity for the government to enforce a law that probably gets broken pretty often. The grand jury was still calling in new witnesses earlier this summer, so my colleagues and I knew they still had him in their sights.

BDS: Why now? Two years have passed since he testified and most thought that the government was going to let this go. Do you anticipate that there is any new evidence?

Vinton: Grand jury terms last a year or more, and I think the prosecutors—assistant U.S. Attorneys Dan Butler and Stephen Durham—didn’t want to mess things up by hurrying. They just took it slow and did everything by the book, knowing that Clemens would probably give them a well-financed fight and plenty of scrutiny. I’m sure they gathered a lot of interesting new evidence that they won’t share until after a “not guilty” plea, if that’s what happens, which is likely. By our count, the FBI spoke to more than two dozen people, and that’s just the people we knew about. Grand juries are secretive. I spent a lot of days this past year standing outside the grand jury hearing rooms watching for witnesses to come and go.

BDS: Clemens didn’t need to testify. He requested to testify. What does his willingness to do so way about him?

Vinton: If you mean testify before the grand jury, no, Clemens didn’t need to testify, because he was the target. But in February of 2008 he insisted on testifying to Congress. Even in the hours before the congressional hearing, the congressmen were offering him an easy way out, but Clemens insisted on going under oath, on live TV, to clear his name and deny the drug allegations. I think his willingness shows that he is immensely proud and thought he could treat the situation like another tough baseball game—just power through it. He refuses to quit, on the mound and in the hearing room. That’s a big part of our book. He’s very human.

BDS: Do you think he expected this?

Vinton: Our sources have told us that yes, he’s expected this outcome for awhile now.

BDS: What might be the implications of this for anyone else involved? McNamee? Pettitte? Canseco?

Vinton: All of them could be witnesses in the case, but that’s just the beginning. I think there’s a chance former Sen. George Mitchell ’54 could get called in too. Clemens’s attorneys have been trying to claim that Mitchell’s access to a federal witness was inappropriate, but judges have disagreed.

BDS: This is opening up an old wound. What does this do to Major League Baseball, and what does it say about the game?

Vinton: I think baseball is definitely trying harder to clean itself up than it was 10 years ago. But I think it’s still dirty with steroids and human growth hormone. The tests are just too imperfect. I think there’s a direct correlation between the amount of cheating and the money at stake.

BDS: If he’s convicted, how likely is it that Clemens would actually serve time in jail for this?

Vinton: Hard to say. Likely, I think. A cyclist named Tammy Thomas was convicted of perjury before the BALCO grand jury, and she only got probation, but Clemens was in front of Congress and on television and, the prosecutors believe, he lied over and over again for hours. If he pleads not guilty, and loses the case, there’s a pretty good chance he’ll go for away for a little while like Martha Stewart did. And the government definitely thinks they can win this case.

BDS: What about his Hall of Fame chances if he’s convicted?

Vinton: I don’t vote on that, but I think ultimately there will be players who have confessed to steroid use who later get voted in. Clemens might be different because voters might think that he embarrassed the game.

BDS: Why is the government involved? Isn’t this just a matter for the sport?

Vinton: A lot of people ask me that. The fact is, sports are a multibillion-dollar industry that have proven unable to police themselves, and that’s a perfectly appropriate time for the government to step in and provide regulation and oversight. In baseball’s case, they had hearings and pressured the sport to sponsor the Mitchell Report. It was Clemens’s choice to challenge the Mitchell Report under oath.

More:

ESPN Spotlight on Nathaniel Vinton ’01 and the Fall of Roger Clemens (Bowdoin Campus News)

Bowdoin Magazine interview with George J. Mitchell ’54 on his MLB investigation (March 2008)

Comments

  1. Mike Coster says:

    Good Article
    Jail time—Absolutely !!!

  2. I am hardly a Roger Clemens fan any more (though after Bowdoin, I attended the University of Texas and spent many an afternoon at Disch-Falk Field watching Clemens and his fellow Longhorns – two of whom became his future Red Sox teammates – lead the Longhorns to a College World Series championship in 1983). And he seems like a thoroughly despicable character who, in many ways, deserves what he gets.

    Nevertheless, I am disturbed by my fellow alum’s belief that when a private industry fails to satisfy politicians’ or society’s view of what is acceptable behavior, “that’s a perfectly appropriate time for the government to step in and provide regulation and oversight.”

    No, it’s not! Whether the business is a restaurant that allows patrons to engage in the legal activity of smoking cigarettes or the NCAA that doesn’t institute a playoff system in the Bowl Championship Subdivision (formerly Div. 1-A football), that business has the right to run itself as it sees fit. Period. Let individuals (not society) vote with their dollars (not use the force of government) to decide whether that business’s practices are tolerable and appropriate. If baseball does chooses to ignore performance-enhancing drug usage or basketball decides not to enforce rules against having referees accept bribes or other gifts to influence the outcome of games, then the owners’ product suffers lost sales as consumers spend their income on other goods and services.

    Once these performance-enhancing drugs became illegal (another issue entirely), then state or federal law enforcement officials had every right to conduct investigations against individuals and prosecute them to the full extent of the law. That’s far different, though, from having politicians muscle business owners individual or an industry collectively into taking actions consistent with politicians’ interests under the threat of punitive action.

    And the real irony here is that Clemens will end up in the slammer for lying to Congress, but his (and our) elected representatives face no legal action when they lie to us.

  3. Bill, I appreciate your response here, and I think you might enjoy our book, which explores the question of the government’s role in this scandal more thoroughly than I could do in a short Web site interview. I agree that a free market will inevitably help govern baseball and other sports; I’d even go one step further to say that all those consumers need to know the truth about the products being pushed on them with clever and expensive marketing, and that justifies a lot of the aggressive journalism we’ve committed here. But I do have to respectfully quibble with you on one factual matter as you say the debate will shift “once these performance-enhancing drugs became illegal.” Steroids and human growth hormone are controlled substances. Their abuse is already illegal under the Anabolic Steroid Act of 2004 and several other statutes. Indeed, you will see in our book that these laws are dutifully noted in the some of the search warrant application affidavits that helped special agent Jeff Novitzky drop the net of the criminal justice system over Roger Clemens.

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