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Retro-Rocket Is Fired Up

At 42, 7-Time Cy Young Winner Clemens Enters His 22nd Season

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 8, 2005; Page D09

HOUSTON -- There are still days when Roger Clemens wonders if he really has another year in him, days when the muscles groan and the bones creak, and when the obligation of being Roger Clemens in Houston seems itself to be a full-time job whether he throws another pitch or not. The easiest days, the days he lives for, are the ones when he pitches, when he has only one job, and it is a job he has done better than anyone else in recent history.

When Clemens, 42, strides to the top of the mound at Minute Maid Park on Friday for his first start of 2005 for the Houston Astros, it will launch the Rocket's 22nd season in the major leagues, and perhaps -- maybe, possibly, conceivably -- the last.

Roger Clemens
Roger Clemens
Houston's Roger Clemens on Friday will begin his 22nd season in the majors. (Tony Dejak - AP)

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"Starting Friday," Clemens said resignedly this week, "the club doesn't care how old I am. And these [teammates] don't care what I've been through. All they care about is that I win games."

Clemens has been doing that, of course, for 21 years, since he broke in as a 21-year-old phenom for the Boston Red Sox in 1984, and all the way through last season, when -- after coming out of retirement to join his hometown Astros -- he went 18-4 and won his unprecedented seventh Cy Young Award. Nobody of his generation has won games the way Roger Clemens has, 328 of them to date.

After indicating he was leaning toward retirement again, Clemens waited as late as he could, late January, to decide whether to pitch again this season. He asked his family what they thought. He called his mother, Bess, to ask her blessing. Everyone told him to go for it.

Then, he asked his body what it thought. His body said maybe. Two and a half months later, his body still has not changed its mind.

"Physically, I think I can get myself ready," Clemens said Wednesday, two days before his first start of 2005. "But mentally, can I do it again? It's draining when you want to get a ball somewhere at 94, 95 miles per hour on the outside corner and your body just doesn't want to do it. I could be in the bullpen [before Friday's start], and I might have a new pain in my side. And it's like, 'Okay, how am I going to get through this one?' "

In each other last two winters, Clemens had all but retired. At the end of the 2003 season, in fact, his farewell to the game as a member of the New York Yankees was a stirring moment, earning him a prolonged standing ovation from the crowd at Miami's Pro Player Stadium as he exited Game 4 of the World Series. He was "99.9 percent" certain he was finished.

He would not have changed his mind and come back, he insists, if it were not for his hometown team, the Astros. He took a cut-rate salary of $5 million last season and earned every cent by helping carry the Astros to within a game of the World Series, all the while boosting attendance at home and on the road by his mere presence.

"All last year, it was, 'I'm retired, I'm retired, I'm retired,' " said Astros shortstop Adam Everett. "And the next thing you know, he's back with us. So he's tough to read."

When Clemens decided to pitch again in 2005, the price went up: to $18 million, the biggest one-year contract in history. But as Clemens is the first to admit, his job description entails far more than jamming fastballs down the throats of opposing batters every fifth day.

"My job here these last two years runs deeper than just strapping it on and pitching," he said. "My commitment is to my city, the Astros' franchise and my teammates. And to be able to come back and share myself even more with my family was a big part of it. It runs deeper than just winning ballgames, even though that's the single most important thing."

Sometimes in Houston, Clemens seems less a baseball player than a mayor. He is a constant presence at his kids' baseball games. He does local commercials for a grocery store and a new car dealer. He gets trotted out for seemingly every major civic affair, including last July's All-Star Game and last year's Super Bowl. Last month, he missed a couple of days of spring training to fly back to Houston to serve as grand marshal of the rodeo. Lately, he has been making phone calls to his car dealership connections, setting up rentals on behalf of some of the Astros' coaches.

"I spread myself pretty thin," he said, "but I wouldn't trade it for the world."

On Tuesday, the Astros' Opening Day, Clemens almost spread himself too thin. His oldest of four sons, 18-year-old Koby, was pitching for his high school team at 4 p.m., while Clemens was required to be in uniform for the pregame introduction of players at Minute Maid Park at 5:40 p.m.

Clemens thought he could pull off both ends of the doubleheader, but with only a few minutes before the pregame ceremony was to begin, he found himself stuck in ballpark traffic still several blocks from where he needed to be. But this being Roger Clemens, a golf cart was quickly dispatched to bring him the rest of the way to the stadium. Someone else got to sit in traffic in the Hummer.

"He cut that one a little thinner than I think he intended," said Astros owner Drayton McLane. "I went in the clubhouse right before the game to say hello to the some of the players, and he hadn't made it. But Roger keeps a tight schedule. Some people need to relax and be laid back. But Roger is at his best when he has some huge, huge challenges in front of him."

As for next season, Clemens is not saying. One more retirement would tie him with Michael Jordan, but why stop there?

"I'm not going to announce anything," he said. "I'll just drop the ol' '99.9 percent' line, and leave myself a little out."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company