It was Dec. 14, 2003, and Joe Torre had planned to be on a bus, riding with friends and family on his way into New York City for his daughter's birthday party. Andrea loved the American Girl collection, so they were going to the American Girl Place on Fifth Avenue.

Then the snow came and cars were sliding on the road like roller skates. That's why Torre was aboard a Metro-North train instead, on his way from Harrison, N.Y., to Grand Central Station, when his cell phone rang.

"Skip, I'm sorry," Andy Pettitte was suddenly saying in his ear, and Torre frowned and smiled at the same time.

Pettitte was calling to tell his manager -- the only major league manager he had ever known -- that he was leaving the New York Yankees and returning home to Houston to sign with the Astros. He didn't want Torre to hear it from someone else or read about it in the papers. Later, Torre said it was one of the classiest things he had known a player to do.

"He didn't need to call me," Torre says. "But that's Andy."

Torre told Pettitte he appreciated the phone call and wished the pitcher luck. He'd known this would probably happen. The Yankees had been reluctant to give Pettitte a long-term deal because they were concerned about his elbow. A year earlier, the Yankees had debated even picking up Pettitte's option for the 2003 season, finally deciding to do so only hours before the deadline.

When it came time to negotiate a new deal, however, they were prepared to lose their lefty ace. According to several Yankee officials, the Bombers asked Pettitte to take a physical following the season so they could get an intensive exam of his elbow.

That never happened, and when Pettitte's agents told the Yankees they had an offer from the Houston Astros and suggested a proposal the Yanks could make -- three years, $52 million, "grossly overpaying," according to one official -- the Bombers backed out.

Pettitte signed with the Astros for three guaranteed years and $31.5 million.

"I'll be honest, at the beginning we thought we had no chance -- I mean, no chance," Astros general manager Gerry Hunsicker said. "For a lot of reasons -- money being one of them -- I thought we were way behind. But when we started hearing that things weren't going well, we jumped right in and tried to make something happen."

Hunsicker and owner Drayton McLane knew the risks. Pettitte's elbow had been bothering him for months, but he hadn't told anyone -- not even Yankees trainers, according to a Yankee official -- for fear of hurting his value on the free-agent market. The physical Pettitte took after signing with the Astros showed what everyone knew: the prospect of a serious elbow injury was real.

"We took a gamble," Hunsicker says. "We went into this with our eyes wide open and knew we could get hurt. Unfortunately, something happened."

The Rocket Refuels

About a week before Christmas, Roger Clemens was chasing a bird around his house. The Clemens family has two cockatiels -- Romeo and Sweetie -- and one of them (no one is sure which) had escaped the cage. With his wife watching, the Rocket reached out to try to corral the animal when it bit him on the hand.

His right hand.

"He jumped back, pulled his arm up in the air and waved it around," Debbie Clemens says. "He was mad because it was his pitching hand. Right then, I looked at him and said, 'You don't really want to retire, do you?' It was obvious. Why else would he care if the bird bit his right hand or his left hand?"

A few weeks later, on a post-New Year's flight from Hawaii back to the mainland, Clemens went up to Randy Hendricks -- one of his agents, who was also on the flight -- and told him, "If there's a deal to be made, go ahead and make it."

McLane, who had been badgering Hendricks about Clemens throughout the Pettitte negotiations ("He would end every conversation we had with 'Now what about Roger?' " Hendricks says with a laugh), agreed to a unique, one-year, $5 million contract that would allow Clemens to spend extra time with his family by skipping road trips on which he wasn't pitching. McLane checked with his clubhouse leaders -- longtime Astros Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio -- before approving the arrangement, and was told to bring the Rocket home.

Still, some Astros were reportedly displeased with the setup and Torre -- like several other managers surveyed -- said he wouldn't have been comfortable with one of his players having a different set of rules.

Most grumblings have been quiet, though, since the situation seems to have worked well. A week ago Roger and Debbie took their two oldest sons, Koby and Kory on a triple date -- the boys brought their new girlfriends -- to a Linkin Park concert.

Since Clemens warms up to "Faint," the Rocket went on stage, introduced the song and fired the crowd up a bit. Then the whole group met the band afterward and Clemens commiserated with front-man Chester Bennington over how tough it is to wind down after a big performance. "You see, that's what I'm talking about when it's so hard for me to fall asleep after I pitch," Clemens told his sons, who laughed at him.

Later, he giggles himself and says, "I think they know they've got some pretty cool parents. But we did get the girls home before their curfews, I want you to know."

Curfew or not, both Clemens and his wife admit it's hard to imagine George Steinbrenner being too happy with one of his pitchers rocking out to "Somewhere I Belong" the night before a game. And yet with the Astros, it's all part of the deal -- a night after the concert, Clemens pitched seven innings and recorded his 13th win.

Unfortunately, the team has only recently started to catch up. A slew of injuries and rampant underachieving offset the splashy trade for Carlos Beltran in June until a recent run has them belatedly joining the NL wild-card race.

Clemens was disappointed, but not unhappy. He laughs at reports that the Astros put him on waivers with the intention of trading him, flatly denying that he ever asked Hunsicker to try to move him. Hunsicker called such reports -- several of which had the Red Sox claiming Clemens and the two teams in discussions -- "a farce" and says he puts his entire roster on waivers as a rule following the non-waiver trading deadline, simply to gauge the market. Several sources say Clemens was claimed by a National League team anyway (who had priority over the Red Sox), but was pulled back by the Astros along with most of their other players.

Clemens was not upset about the stories, a departure from what would have been expected earlier in his career. At various points this season he has been challenged by distractions -- comments from Gary Sheffield implying that Clemens used performance-enhancing drugs, pitching to nemesis Mike Piazza in the All-Star Game and a bizarre incident in which he was ejected from his son's Little League game, to name a few -- but the Rocket has refused to "fire off," as he calls it, on any of them.

"I take my time and think things through more now," he says. He wanted badly to upbraid Sheffield, but then got word from several Yankees -- he won't say who -- that Sheffield's comments were not as harsh as they sounded in the newspaper. He stayed quiet and the story subsided.

As for Piazza, Clemens shies away from talking about his history with the Mets catcher, though Debbie says Piazza came up to Clemens before the All-Star Game and told him, "I know you didn't throw that bat at me" during Game 2 of the 2000 World Series.

"The point is, it almost doesn't matter what Piazza said -- Roger isn't chasing after the suggestions of who he is anymore," Debbie says. "He's realized he can't do anything about the way he's portrayed; people want to see him as the way he was earlier in his career, he can't do anything about that. So he's just going to be comfortable with who he is right now."

And who he is, quite simply, is a man on the verge of another retirement. Debbie says she'll push Clemens to pitch again next year -- McLane was giddy at the news -- because of Pettitte. "His season is already over," she says. "They never truly got a chance to do what was planned."

Pettitte 'Sorry' About Elbow

Tom Pettitte traveled with his son to Birmingham late last month, wanting to be there for the flexor tendon surgery. They chatted about everything and, at some point, Andy Pettitte mentioned that he had never before been under general anesthesia. He was a little nervous about being put to sleep and wanted his dad to tell him it would be okay.

"Everyone gets scared," Tom Pettitte says.

Andy Pettitte's season had started to crumble in his very first game, when he felt a twinge in his elbow after a checked swing. He was on the disabled list twice, missed eight starts with arm problems and was in such pain during his final outing -- Aug. 12 against the Mets -- that Clemens stopped watching from the dugout because Pettitte's pained facial expressions were making him sick to his stomach.

Pettitte, a man of serious faith and responsibility, was crushed. He "felt the weight of the entire city on him" for failing to stay healthy, his father says. Tom Pettitte did not try to dissuade his son's sentiment, knowing it was a waste of time. "He feels so badly," Tom says, "because he doesn't know what he can do to make it right."

He did the only thing he could do. A few hours before the Astros publicly announced his season-ending procedure, Pettitte picked up the phone and dialed McLane's home number in Temple, Texas. McLane's wife, Elizabeth, answered and told Pettitte that McLane was at the Major League Baseball owners' meetings in Philadelphia.

Pettitte couldn't wait.

"He starts saying 'I'm sorry' to my wife," McLane says, shaking his head. "He doesn't even know her, hardly at all. And he was apologizing to her, telling her how sorry he was that he got hurt and couldn't pitch anymore this year. Finally she gave him my number in Philadelphia."

Pettitte then called McLane. The two men talked briefly, with Pettitte apologizing and promising things would be better next year. McLane remembers smiling and thinking, "How did this all happen?" as he hung up the telephone.

Andy Pettitte, who called Joe Torre to tell him he was leaving the Yankees, had the class to apologize to Astros owner Drayton McLane after getting hurt this season.Debbie Clemens believes husband Roger, left, will play another year in Houston with good friend Andy Pettitte. "They never truly got a chance to do what was planned," she said.