Once, when players flaunted their lies with smiles and the baseball hierarchy counted its money while feigning ignorance, the federal government looked like the only entity that could be trusted, the only body that was powerful enough to address the use of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball when neither the players nor owners could or would.
Once, when he was a prodigy so talented that the big league baseball world cared about him even on his way up when he was playing Double-A ball, William Roger Clemens carried a name that was an instant asset. His ascendance seemed predetermined from wunderkind to phenomenon to legend, the heir to Cy Young in Boston, the recharged savior in Toronto, a World Series champion and throwback exemplar of the value of hard work in New York.
Clemens was so big that when it was his turn to face his role in the steroids era -- according to the Mitchell report, his career, like so many others, was fueled by performance enhancers -- he responded not with the admissions and contrition that, for his peers, brought on only a temporary state of bad publicity. Instead, he challenged the federal government to take him down.
The government took him up on the challenge, resulting in a famous congressional hearing drama two-and-a-half years ago that deconstructed the monument that was Clemens and left him facing a federal perjury charge. It summarily transformed Clemens into another symbol of dishonesty.
On Thursday, though, the government and Clemens left a Washington, D.C., courthouse not as hero and villain or as aggressor and victim but as equal losers in a game that has gone on long enough.
This anticipated denouement of baseball's steroids era -- the high-profile trials of Clemens and Barry Bonds, the two central symbols of a game gone wrong -- instead accomplished only this: It added the government as another casualty in a calamitous two decades.
It has been nearly eight years since IRS agents raided the then-unknown BALCO laboratory and 10 since Bonds made denials of a widespread drug problem laughable by hitting 73 home runs. That same year, Sammy Sosa hit 64 home runs, making him the only man in baseball history to hit 60 home runs in a season three times -- and in none of those years did he lead the league.
It has been six years since Rafael Palmeiro pointed his finger at Congress, since Curt Schilling (sitting next to Palmeiro) called Jose Canseco a "liar." Only now does Schilling say no baseball team has won "cleanly" in the past 20 years.
And it has been 15 years since then-Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette said Clemens was in the "twilight" of his career, precipitating the relationship between Brian McNamee and Clemens that ultimately led to the trial that ended in disaster this week with federal prosecutors blundering their way out of what once were solid professional reputations.
Six years and four U.S. attorneys general -- from John Ashcroft in 2005 through Alberto Gonzalez and Michael Mukasey to Eric Holder now -- after the federal government used its moral authority to announce the first indictments of the steroids era, the government's pursuit of the greatest hitter and pitcher of their time has produced nothing but one weak guilty verdict on one Bonds charge, a mistrial on the other three and Thursday's amateurish big finish with Clemens.
It is over. The points have been made, and everyone has lost. Lying to the federal government is no small crime; the government was just in pursuing both Bonds and the dim and arrogant Clemens -- who, it should be noted, forced this action. But at this stage of fatigue and financial waste, there is very little to be gained by attempting to retry Clemens. Or Bonds, for that matter.
Going forward, prosecutors face the law of diminishing returns. The public might be tired, the country might be broke and the leaders of the game might want desperately to move on; but with every high-profile steroid case the government brought into a courtroom or tried to litigate, the worse it looked.
The government will have to be satisfied with its one significant victory: By targeting the biggest names in the sport, it at least forced baseball to admit its recklessness and negligence. In the process, it pressured the game to attempt to reform its drug culture. But anything else the government hoped to accomplish has been undercut by prodigious failures: the unsuccessful perjury investigation of Rafael Palmeiro that never brought an indictment, the Bonds trial, and now Thursday's massive collapse at the finish line.
When the curtain rose and it was time for the most powerful legal system in the world to operate, the Justice Department embarrassed itself. The takeaway this week: It cannot be trusted, either.
The game lost its credibility in the steroids era. So did its players, the dirty for cheating, the clean for taking the money instead of standing up for the reputations they now realize are so important. No matter the protestations to the contrary, steroids history will follow Bud Selig and even Derek Jeter, just as it will stay with the way we'll remember Clemens and Bonds. Fairness has nothing to do with it.
Clemens walked out of the courtroom on Thursday, but he didn't walk away from himself. He achieved nothing even close to the vindication that set him down this path after the publication of the Mitchell report in December 2008. He is a discredited, tainted commodity, as are his 20-strikeout games, his resurgence in Toronto (once considered a testimony to the will of a man who had something to prove), his 20-win season as a 38-year-old pitcher and his final Cy Young award, a record seventh, that came when he was 41.
Clemens' relationship with a teenage country singer undermined his family-values façade. And his reputation as a mentoring veteran in New York disappeared when his prized pupil, Andy Pettitte, was prepared to testify against him. His hard work and accountability ethos evaporated during the embarrassing congressional appearance at which he took no responsibility, instead blaming Pettitte for "misremembering" and even his dead mother for his murky use of vitamin B-12 injections.
On Thursday, Clemens signed autographs outside the courtroom, but he is not whole and will never be. He's just another rich guy who seems to have gotten off on a technicality.
The consequences of the error by the prosecutors -- the equivalent of handing in the wrong lineup card -- go far beyond Clemens, far beyond ridicule. Lance Armstrong, clearly in the government's crosshairs as the next steroids case to go to trial, must be laughing right now at the thought that these prosecutors who couldn't last a week in court against Clemens would have a chance against him.
The government and its lawyers lost credibility with the public for wasting taxpayers' money and for their sloppy work when it counted the most. And they lost credibility especially with the people who had come forward to testify. Pettitte trusted the government. So did IRS investigator Jeff Nowitzky, who compiled the evidence against ballplayers who used their celebrity to deceive the public and themselves. So did Brian McNamee and, in the Bonds trial, Steve and Kathy Hoskins. They trusted the government and its vaunted 95 percent success rate in federal prosecutions to justify their courage and the risks they took in lining up against powerful entities and former friends.
With an Armstrong trial on the horizon (he is expected to be indicted soon), who today would want to be a witness for the prosecution? Who would put his trust in the hands of federal prosecutors who blew a case by showing a video of clearly inadmissible evidence, an error Judge Reggie Walton said a first-year law student would not make?
According to eyewitnesses in the courtroom, Judge Walton was so enraged that he suggested that the prosecutors, by making such an obvious and unprofessional mistake, might have deliberately sabotaged their own case, that they had no confidence in trying Clemens, that they were looking for a way out instead of taking the honorable approach of dropping the charges or making a deal.
Deliberate or not, here is how it should have worked: Prosecutors should have immediately sanitized the videotape of Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) of all references to or by Laura Pettitte.
"It was," said an attorney who has worked federal cases in Walton's court, "just a colossal [screw]-up. A total screw-up. The judge was 100 percent correct in declaring a mistrial."
The government had better hope it was a dumb mistake produced because prosecutors were overworked and understaffed, four lawyers working a case that produced 45 witnesses against a Clemens team of 10 lawyers and pockets nearly as deep as the government's.
For now, at least, Clemens has escaped prison, but his good name has not survived the choices he made, the lies he might have told.
For the government's sake, it had better hope the blunder was an honest but serious error, because incompetence is easier to fix than corruption. But if the prosecutors were too prideful and too willing to waste public money because they lacked the courage to drop a case they knew was wrong from the start, the government will emerge as far less heroic -- and far more dangerous to the public -- than any athlete it has pursued.
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com. He can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/hbryant42