The Rocket took a rocket off his ankle Saturday night on a one-hop smash by National League batting leader Sean Casey. The box score says somebody finally roughed up Roger Clemens, six runs in five innings, even though his record is still 7-0. But what both dugouts deeply enjoyed was watching Clemens pitch for three innings through pain that would have sent most pitchers who were 21, not 41, back to the clubhouse for X-rays, a shower and commiseration about those nasty hitters.

Casey's bullet didn't actually hit Clemens so much as he sought out the ball. Clemens deliberately flicked out his right leg, cocked his ankle so the ball would deflect off the back of it and go up in the air, like a hockey goalie making a save and redirecting the puck. The ricochet almost came back down to Clemens, but not quite. Infield hit, bases loaded.

"Roger was going to kick save it to himself for a ['Baseball Tonight'] Web gem," Casey, shaking his head, said Sunday.

The sellout crowd held its breath. Every Red and Astro leaned on the top railing of the dugout, trying to look cool, but all eyes fixed on Maybe The Greatest Pitcher Ever. Had Clemens broken his ankle? Would his comeback to his hometown Houston Astros turn into a May trip to the disabled list? Would the old man buckle to his knees? Would he rub the ankle? Would he stay in the game?

He acted as if a cicada had bounced off his ankle. Fall, rub, limp or even look at it? No way. Clemens trudged back up the mound, even though he'd lost all feeling in his ankle and foot.

"They call it a 'stinger' in football when you go numb," Manager Jimy Williams said. "He's such a competitor you know he's not coming out unless the bone is sticking out."

Said Clemens: "Jimy came out and gave me time to get the feeling back. I was fortunate. It hit right on the bone."

Maybe only he thinks ball-on-bone is lucky. That way there's more pain but less swelling. If you're tough enough, you can keep pitching.

"I was glad he didn't rub it. I loved it," Casey said with a grin Sunday. "You're not supposed to rub. You're supposed to 'wear it.' If you foul a ball off your foot, you can rub that, 'cause you did it to yourself. You can show some sympathy for yourself."

But to foes you show nothing, give no satisfaction. You just live up to Clemens's lifelong vow to himself: "Never waver."

After a warmup pitch to make sure his foot wouldn't fall off, he faced Ken Griffey Jr. And fanned the man with 490 homers.

How did Clemens look to Griffey, who had not faced him in five years?

"The same," Griffey said. "What a shame."

Clemens faced 15 more hitters, his fastball reaching 94 mph. But he wasn't himself. He kicked the rubber and shook his foot to regain feeling when he thought nobody was watching.

"I've been hit many times, all over my body. You do everything you can to stop a ball. You don't have time to think," said Clemens. "I've been lucky. I've had deep bone bruises from reaching for balls [barehanded] but no broken bones."

Could the ankle be broken?

"Naaahh, I'm walking too good," said Clemens, who did miss a workout Sunday because of swelling.

"Just watch. Roger won't get that ankle X-rayed as long as it doesn't hurt too much for him to pitch," said the Reds' Austin Kearns. "It might be broken. Ain't no reason to find out what you don't want to know."

Put that on the Clemens family crest, right beneath six Cy Young Awards embossed on a field of ice packs.

Clemens, of course, was disgusted with his performance and allowed no excuses. "I let our team down. Our guys battled too hard to tie the game for me to give 'em two runs right back. You've got to throw a zero up then," he said.

This weekend, the Reds reveled in an experience many National League teams and fans will enjoy all year, thanks to Clemens's stunning "un-retirement." Exactly a year ago Clemens was in the midst of an extended 300th-win, 4,000th-strikeout, last-World Series farewell tour. At the moment, it's still jarring to see him in a new league and uniform.

Yet who knows how long he could be back now that he's playing in his home town? As Casey says, "With that 'split,' he could pitch until he's 50."

Clemens perfected that split-finger fastball in his thirties, just as Warren Spahn mastered the screwball in his thirties and won 23 games at 43. "His split is not nasty," said the Reds' Kearns, "it's filthy. He's as advertised."

Perhaps only Clemens could get away with a comeback after a retirement that lasted a comic 74 days. In New York, the back-page headline may say, "What an Ass-tro," but in every other city true believers cherish any Clemens sighting.

Clemens pretends the hostility of some Yankees fans doesn't motivate him. Yet, the last time he heard such barbs was when the Red Sox let him go to Toronto as a free agent, then said he was "in the twilight of his career." The next spring in '97, Clemens began 11-0 for the Blue Jays. He also began his Yankees career 5-0. Now, he's the first 40-year-old to start a season 7-0.

Clemens, as a testimony to conditioning and competitiveness, is back on magazine covers and has raised Houston's hopes for October success. But another aspect of his legacy should not be overlooked. Watching Clemens battle age, the universal enemy, is moving. However, Clemens has matured as a public person and ambassador for the game. It's fun that Clemens is almost as good a pitcher in his forties as he was in his twenties, but perhaps it's more important that he's now a vastly more appealing person.

For many years, Clemens was a powder keg with legs, a scowl with a right arm attached and an Olympian rich jock with an insult on his lips. To this day, Clemens doesn't quite acknowledge that this fellow actually inhabited his jersey. But much of the rest of the world met Darth Roger pretty regularly.

Now Clemens is so different, he has to create a disguise. His spiked tinted crew cut should have a warning: "Old man just tryin' to scare those young hitters." If you ignore his stubble on game day and look into his finally at peace eyes, you see a man who has kept his fire while reworking the arrogant-insecure macho-man persona that dogged him for years.

In sports, first impressions die hard. But die they do. Second impressions, reinforcing the first, are tougher to erase. Just four years ago, Clemens beaned Mike Piazza of the Mets. Then, in the World Series, he threw the barrel of a shattered bat at Piazza from 10 yards away. That image of Roger the Impaler seemed to freeze his final portrait.

But Clemens's last few seasons have allowed him to let down some of his defenses. From autographs to promotions and charities to gracious attempts at endless interviews, Clemens makes a consistent, dedicated effort. Picking up the mantle that was worn by Nolan Ryan, then Cal Ripken, is no small task for a man who once said, "If I start thinking too much, I go run three miles."

Now, four days out of every five, Clemens is someone you'd like to know on every level, from neighbor to teammate. When a close friend of Andy Pettitte's died last week, Clemens attended the funeral. As soon as he rejoined the Astros, he checked off an interminable list of obligations with a member of the Astros' staff. "Okay, I can do that. . . . Yep, I'll be there. . . . Oh, that's fine, I don't mind doing it for them," said Clemens, simultaneously checking his Blackberry.

How do you harness an ambition that borders on fury with a sense of responsibility to the endless mundane duties of being The Public Face of your sport? And add to that family responsibilities to a wife and four children? Once, few thought Roger Clemens, obsessively orderly though he is, could be unselfish enough to attempt the task, much less master it. But he has.

This year, you'll hear that Clemens is "better than ever." At pitching, that's just not true. He's still exceptional and off to a wonderful start. But he has nights, like Saturday, when hitters actually beat him up. He's not going to have a 1.93 ERA as he did in 1990. He won't go 24-4 or 20-3, as he did 15 years apart. He won't have 291 or 292 strikeouts, as he did a decade apart. In fact, over his last two starts, he has allowed 11 hits in 12 innings, giving up six runs and walking five. Of course, he also has 18 strikeouts. But in all the hours when his feet are not on a pitcher's mound, it's no exaggeration to say Roger Clemens is better than he's ever been.

It was a long wait, but more than worth it.

"I've been lucky," Roger Clemens said. "I've had deep bone bruises from reaching for balls [barehanded] but no broken bones."Roger Clemens retired after last season but joined the Astros this year and has a 7-0 record.