Who would have ever guessed that Roger Clemens, a giant of a man who stares at hitters with steely eyes and often scares them with a ferocious growl on the mound, had been a mama's boy all along?
Clemens is different now, that's for sure, and this may be his most impressive incarnation yet. Once a man who dominated the opposition with his 97 mph fastball, Clemens is more of a pitcher these days -- relying instead on his control. Now he's dealing with another transformation in his career, which is continuing to pitch without his mother.
Clemens aches for his mother Bess, who on Sept. 14 died at age 75 from complications related to emphysema. And now this giant of a man is not so large anymore -- often crumbling at the mere thought of his mother, as he did during a 10-minute media session on Friday, one day before his start in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series against the St. Louis Cardinals. It may be the last part of his evolution, from heralded phenom to a 43-year-old marvel to a man in mourning.
"You know things have changed for me over the last couple of weeks," Clemens said.
He paused several moments and appeared to be on the verge of tears.
"There's a big part of my heart that's missing now with my mother gone, that's just the way it is. I knew I pitched for her but I didn't realize how much that I did. But make no mistake about it, some of my will is gone but not all of it.
"You just look at things different. Like I said, every time I hear the anthem, I think about her, I think about seeing her face for the last time and that's where I'm trying to draw my strength from and I owe that to my teammates."
There was something unique when Clemens arrived in Houston last season, only months after declaring he had thrown the final pitches of his career in the 2003 World Series. He had a wrinkled face and graying stubble on his chin, but there was excitement for Clemens when he decided to play for his hometown team. He was older, for sure, but he was one of Houston's own who had pitched for the University of Texas and spoke with the drawl of a cowboy from the dirtiest, dustiest town in this spacious state.
"He's the face of baseball in the city of Houston," Astros catcher Brad Ausmus said. "I've seen players in other cities that were very popular, but I've never seen anybody have such a large and rapid impact on a team as Roger Clemens did when he came to the Houston Astros."
Fans filled Minute Maid Park for his starts and finally Texas could root not only for Clemens, but also for the team for which he pitched.
"He's been loved in this city for a long time," teammate Jeff Bagwell said. "Not everybody loved the Yankees, but they loved Roger Clemens. He's this city's son. This just adds to the legend."
Something quite extraordinary happened when Clemens joined the Astros. He pitched better than he had in recent years and won his seventh Cy Young Award. This season, without much run support, Clemens was 13-8 with a 1.87 ERA, which led the NL.
"The man is a gift from the gods," Bagwell said. "Guys shouldn't be able to pitch like he's doing at his age. Rocket is amazing. To pitch at the level he's pitched at age 43 -- that to me is the most amazing thing. To get a Cy Young at 42, and an ERA title at age 43 -- that's mind-boggling stuff."
"How can you not be surprised when a guy is 43 years old and had a sub-two ERA?" Ausmus said. "The guy isn't surprising, but amazing."
In yet another momentous appearance in his career, Clemens pitched three scoreless innings in relief -- his first appearance out of the bullpen since 1984 -- in Sunday's 7-6, 18-inning win over the Atlanta Braves in Game 4 of the Division Series. After the game, Clemens almost wept during his interview and clearly was swept away during the team's raucous celebration in the clubhouse. Never had Clemens seemed so human.
"The man never ceases to amaze me and I don't say that jokingly," Astros Manager Phil Garner said. "I say it in all earnest. The look that you saw in his face after he came in after both the second and third innings he pitched was total resolve."
Clemens's son Koby now carries that phenom label and perhaps that means the future Hall of Famer is finally facing the end of his career. The Astros drafted Koby, 18, in June and he began his professional career only a few months later. Clemens had hoped to play with him, but he realizes it likely won't happen.
"His childhood basically came to a quick end, which I explained to him," Clemens said. "If [he had gone] to college, [he'd] still be able to have a little fun. . . . Not that he's not going to have fun now, but you've got to grow up extremely quick."
Perhaps the same thing can now be said of Clemens.