Garner makes case for Clemens at trial
Ex-manager regales jury with stories
WASHINGTON - Phil Garner told one great Roger Clemens story after another.
Clemens working out in a flak jacket with 60 pounds of weights. Clemens yelling at himself. Clemens yelling at others. Clemens noticing that home plate was a little bit out of line.
Garner was sitting on a witness stand, but he sounded at times as if he were again a major league manager, spinning yarns in a casual pregame dugout chat. None of those stories involved Clemens using performance-enhancing drugs.
“Scrap Iron,’’ the nickname Garner earned as a player, gave “The Rocket’’ a boost Thursday as he testified for the defense in the perjury trial of the seven-time Cy Young Award winner.
Garner, the longtime infielder and Clemens’s manager for 2 1/2 years with the Houston Astros, became the latest in a string of witnesses to speak glowingly of Clemens’s leadership and work ethic.
The testimony is part of an effort to portray the former pitching star as an athlete who achieved great success late in his career through hard work, intelligence, and unrivaled intensity.
“Did Roger Clemens ever cut corners?’’ Clemens’s lawyer Rusty Hardin asked Garner.
“Cut corners?’’ Garner replied with a taken-aback look and a smile. “No.’’
Prosecutors say Clemens used steroids and human growth hormone to help prolong his career. That claim is supported firsthand by only one witness, Clemens’s former strength coach, Brian McNamee. Clemens is charged with lying when he told Congress in 2008 that he never used either substance.
To counter McNamee, the defense has called friends and associates of Clemens from high school, college and his years with the Red Sox, Blue Jays, and now the Astros.
Garner regaled the court with insider baseball tales that any fan would enjoy.
During Garner’s first spring training with the Astros in 2005, he recalled seeing Clemens at the ballpark at 7:30 a.m. working out in a heavy flak jacket, then going for a run before returning outside after lunch for some “PFP’’ (pitchers’ fielding practice). Garner thought it all “totally weird’’ because Clemens was supposed to pitch that day.
“Rocket, what in the world are you doing?’’ Garner asked.
“Skip, I’m trying to get my legs as tired as possible so it’s like it’s the ninth inning when I’m out there today,’’ Clemens replied, according to Garner.
Garner also spoke about an area at the end of the Astros dugout called “Rocket Hole,’’ where Clemens kept bananas and Gatorade to recover between innings. During one game, Garner said he turned and saw Clemens pacing and yelling at himself: “What is going on?! Are you going to pitch tonight or are you not going to pitch tonight?! Are you going to get anybody out tonight?’’
Garner also said Clemens threw a tantrum and berated Astros coach Doug Mansolino for not hitting practice grounders hard enough on a “steamy hot’’ afternoon in Cincinnati when everyone was tried from an overnight flight.
“Is that all you got?!’’ Garner yelled, imitating the Clemens outburst.
“It became a war’’ between Clemens and Mansolino, Garner said.
Clemens was in his 40s by the time he was playing for the Astros. Garner said Clemens’s fastball wasn’t as fast as it used to be, but the pitcher made up for it by pitching smarter. Clemens won his seventh Cy Young Award with Houston in 2004.
“He continued to have great success, but for different reasons,’’ Garner said. “He didn’t just overpower teams; he outsmarted teams . . . He wasn’t as domineering as he was earlier.’’
Prosecutors have yet to make much of a dent in cross-examining any defense witness. In fact, prosecutor Steven Durham, in a line of questioning apparently designed to show that Clemens would do anything to succeed, got another fascinating story volunteered by Garner about an incident from 2005 spring training.
“Roger walked up on the mound and said, ‘Home plate’s turned a little bit,’’’ Garner testified.
Garner was puzzled. So was the grounds crew. After all, the field had been laid out using a laser.
Nevertheless, the plate was checked again.
“Sure enough,’’ Garner said, “it was turned one-quarter inch off.’’