Knowledgeable baseball fans can argue all day whether it was the split-finger fastball — and not performance-enhancing drugs — that kept Roger Clemens on top of his game well into his 30s and beyond. His lawyers are trying to make that point at a trial where basic terms such as "Fenway Park" and "foul pole" require an explanation for a jury of nonfans.
Former journeyman catcher Charlie O'Brien was on the stand Wednesday for the defence at the Clemens perjury trial. He was fuzzy about lots of details, couldn't come up with a real name for the player known as "El Duque" and totally dissed the 1997 Toronto Blue Jays medical staff. But there was no doubt in his mind about two things: Clemens was not a cheater, and the weapon Clemens mastered at age 34 was the chief reason the 11-time All-Star was able to pitch for another decade.
"That pitch right there — the split-finger fastball," O'Brien said.
O'Brien caught Clemens' games for much of the 1997 Blue Jays season, a crucial time period as prosecutors attempt to prove that Clemens lied when he told Congress in 2008 that he never took
steroids and human growth hormone. After being discarded following 13 seasons with the Boston Red Sox — Boston's then-general manager, Dan Duquette, said at the time that Clemens was in the "twilight" of his career — a motivated Clemens arrived in Toronto and promptly won back-to-back Cy Young Awards in 1997-98.
But it was also in 1998 that Clemens met strength coach Brian McNamee, who says he injected the pitcher with steroids and HGH over the following three years and testified that he had the impression
the Clemens had used steroids previously. The government used its cross-examination of witnesses Wednesday to reinforce its claim that Clemens turned to performance-enhancing drugs to help his aging body recover more quickly during the physically demanding major league seasons.
Also on the stand was Darrin Fletcher, Clemens' catcher from the 1998 Blue Jays season. Fletcher testified that he didn't see Clemens at a pool party at teammate Jose Canseco's house in Florida in June
of that season, but Fletcher also said he left the party around 1:30 p.m. A government witness recalled seeing Clemens at the party later in the day. One of the lesser charges against Clemens is that he lied when he told Congress that he wasn't at the party at all.
"I don’t think he’d cheat"
In front of a jury consisting mostly of people who know little about baseball, Clemens lawyer Rusty Hardin went for a visual effect to explain how the split-finger revolutionized Clemens' game, striking a pose as a left-handed hitter in front of O'Brien, who pantomimed the grip of a baseball while seated in the witness chair.
"It just totally changed how he could approach each hitter," O'Brien said.
O'Brien was even a better witness for the defence during cross-examination, when he volunteered that Clemens would refuse to throw scuffed baseballs because Clemens considered it "cheating."
He said he once approached Clemens on the mound during a game with a scuffed ball and said, "This is a great ball to use." He said Clemens responded: "I don't need that."
"I don't think he'd cheat," O'Brien said.
"Would Roger Clemens do anything to cheat in baseball?" Hardin asked during the defence's following-up questioning. "No sir," O'Brien said.
O'Brien also said he would sometimes see multiple needles of vitamin B12 "lined up ready to go" in the Toronto clubhouse, supporting another statement made by Clemens that the government has sought to disprove.
As a sidelight, O'Brien said the Blue Jays' medical services at the time were "very poor" and that former Blue Jays head athletic trainer Tommy Craig was a nice guy but "might have been one of the worst trainers." O'Brien also had trouble recognizing Clemens in a Blue Jays team photo and couldn't explain to the jury the identity of the former New York Yankees pitcher known widely as El Duque. "What's his name, Roger?" O'Brien blurted out toward the defence table. Clemens didn't give the answer that baseball fans already know: Orlando Hernandez.
Fletcher was nearly as entertaining as he gave up some of Clemens' trade secrets as a pitcher. Clemens, for example, would purse his lips on the mound to ask for curveballs.
"You're not making a comeback any time are you, Roger?" Fletcher said. "I'm not giving anything away, am I?" Clemens laughed.
Fletcher caused laughter again when asked about the pool party. Fletcher indicated it would have left an impression if he had seen Clemens.
"I've always wanted to see Roger in a bathing suit," he said.
The day began with more testimony from Todd Howey, one of Clemens' high school teammates. Then came former Red Sox assistant general manager Steven August. Both spoke glowingly of Clemens' talent and work ethic, but the pace was again painfully slow – even for a trial now in its seventh week. Among the rudimentary baseball terms explained to the jury: fungo bat, platoon player, won-loss record and the 1994 players' strike.
Prosecutor Gil Guerrero, perhaps out of exasperation with all of the testimonials that Clemens was receiving, at one point told August: "You understand he's not on trial for how great he was in baseball."