EITHER THE GUY is really innocent or he's one helluva liar.

Roger Clemens has vehemently and unequivocally declared that he has never been injected with or used any performance-enhancing substances.

But the above lead sentence is not intended to describe the great righthander's protestations of innocence.

Nope, that line dates to what many of us said and wrote in 1989, after Pete Rose was banned for betting on major league baseball. No man ever proclaimed his innocence with more vigor. He had more denials than career hits.

We said: Either the guy is really innocent or he's one helluva liar . . .

Rose was nailed by the Dowd Report. Most of the evidence it contained - betting slips, taped phone conversations, sworn testimony, reams of affidavits - was provided by former Rose associates copping pleas. They were glorified gofers, bodybuilders and steroid pushers, petty drug peddlers, race track denizens and bit players in the cast of hustlers and sycophants Pete surrounded himself with when he morphed from Hall of Fame-bound player to lonely manager desperate to replace the adrenaline rush of his playing days with the high he got from gambling.

Clemens was the biggest of the current and former players identified as steroid and human-growth hormone users in the Mitchell Report. Like the Dowd Report, the teeth was the testimony of small men trying to cut down on the jail time they faced for distributing the juice to big men wishing to get bigger. One was a Mets clubhouse employee named Kirk Radomski, who sang like an "American Idol" contestant performing for Simon Cowell. The other was a strength coach and ballfan, Brian McNamee, who surfaced in the Yankees' clubhouse as the personal trainer for Clemens and Andy Pettitte.

Clemens' denials have a familiar ring. He sounds just like Pete. Close your eyes and listen to the sincerity, the passion, the outrage. It could be Rose denying and decrying.

So either Clemens really is innocent of McNamee's allegations or he's one helluva liar.

Pete Rose stuck to his "How can you prove a negative?" guns for an astounding 14 years. It was the Great Wall of China of stonewalls, and on Nov. 25, 2002, he met with commissioner Bud Selig and finally admitted he bet on baseball. Pete wanted Bud to hear the news before his confession was published.

The Rose and Clemens denials kept flashing at me yesterday from my 2008 Hall of Fame ballot. Pete has been ineligible for 17 years. If Clemens does not pitch this season, he would be eligible for the 2013 ballot.

Everybody wants to know how the Baseball Writers Association of America electorate will deal with Clemens, Barry Bonds and the other Steroid Generation players who will shortly begin to dominate the ballots. I have refused to discuss how I might vote for known steroid cheaters in those coming elections, because this is a scandal in progress. The sands will do a lot of shifting, I suspect, and there are sure to be more shocks to come. I don't think Congress will let Selig and the "supportive" owners mealy-mouth the pastime out of this dark corner. Welcome to watchful waiting.

But the Hall of Fame ballot in hand could be a historic one. Not because it is distinguished by first-ballot locks - there is none in this class. But this one could be among the last to have a majority of certifiably untainted players. The seven names I checked had been languishing on the ballot for a combined 70 elections. They had been carried forward an average of 10 years. Five are pitchers. Three were warhorse starters who represent the kind of inning-eating, durable and dogged toilers so rapidly being diminished in importance by pitch counts and the reliance on quality starts as the new standard of excellence and an endgame turned over to three bullpen specialists - hold man, setup man and closer.

I visualized aging Dodger Tommy John and his surgically repaired left elbow - the tendon graft now bears his name and is as common as a tonsillectomy - totally dominating the Phillies in Game 4 of the 1977 LCS. That was a night when Steve Carlton slipped, slid and failed on a rain-swept mound that John handled as if he were in Dodger Stadium on a hot Sunday afternoon. Suddenly, Tommy John and his 288 wins during a long, injury-interrupted career looked Cooperstownish. He won't get in; this is his 14th year on the ballot, but he has both my vote and appreciation for what he meant to a dying era of pitching and pitcher.

I led my ballot with Goose Gossage, the powerhouse Yankees closer who near-missed (71.2 percent) last year.

Lee Arthur Smith won the Rolaids Relief award in each league during a 478-save career that is No. 2 all-time. He had 10 seasons with 30-plus saves including three with 40-plus.

I jumped on the late-starting Bert Blyleven bandwagon last year and again voted for the Flinging Dutchman and the underrated 287-250 record he compiled for a lot of bad teams.

Besides going 254-186, righthander Jack Morris won 20-plus three times, made 14 Opening Day starts and pitched one of the great World Series Game 7s of all time, the 10-inning, 1-0 victory over the Braves in 1991.

Andre Dawson was a Most Valuable Player, Rookie of the Year, eight-time All-Star and eight-time Gold Glover, and led the National League in homers in 1987 with the Cubs. He played most of his career in a dingy mausoleum, Montreal's Olympic Stadium.

I have voted a number of times for Red Sox icon Jim Rice, who polled 63.5 percent past year, but is down to his final 2 years of eligibility. Rice is the only player ever to collect 30-plus homers and 200-plus hits three times.

The seven players on my ballot offer you only one guarantee: They achieved the numbers with bodies improved and maintained by natural means.

After their generation will come the nuclear winter of the post-Mitchell Report. *