Monday, May 24, 2004

CINCINNATI — A group of Houston Astros players sit in the visitors’ clubhouse at Great American Ball Park watching, as ballplayers do, golf.

They are killing time before a Saturday night game against the Cincinnati Reds when Roger Clemens comes on the screen in a commercial, taking batting practice and swinging at and missing one pitch after another.

To say the least, Clemens’ Astros teammates are amused.

The commercial, for golf’s Champions Tour, is appropriate. In a way, this season is something of a champions tour for Clemens himself.

He retired from the New York Yankees after they lost the 2003 World Series, but the “retirement” didn’t last long.

In January, Clemens signed with the Astros — for a purpose: He had gone to New York to be part of a championship team. With that accomplished, he was going home to help his hometown team win a title.

Clemens spent the first 15 seasons of his career as the star of Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays teams that came up short. In New York, he served as a supporting player on Yankees teams that won the World Series in 1999 and 2000. He came to Houston as the savior of a team that has not played a World Series game in its 42-year existence.

“He’s been great throughout his whole career, but what is motivating him now is that he had a chance to get a taste of a World Series championship,” says former Yankees teammate Andy Pettitte, whose decision to sign with the Astros pushed Clemens to come out of retirement. “Now he wants to help this team do the same thing. That’s why he came out of retirement. He felt we had a good pitching staff, and it was an opportunity to get back to the World Series.”

With the arrival of Pettitte and Clemens and with young pitchers Roy Oswalt and Wade Miller already on board, the Astros indeed have a good pitching staff.

But no one expected the best of the bunch to be the 41-year-old Clemens, who is 7-0 — the best record in the majors — with a 2.51 ERA.

That ERA was 1.72 before Saturday night, when Clemens got roughed up for the first time this year. He allowed six earned runs on nine hits and four walks in five innings against the Reds. However, the Astros rallied to tie the score before losing 8-7, allowing Clemens’ record to remain perfect.

But even when he stinks up the joint, Clemens does so as only he can: He struck out eight batters in those five innings.

“Your stuff can’t be that bad if you strike out eight guys in five innings,” Astros manager Jimy Williams says.

After the game, Clemens said he let his teammates down.

“I’ve got to be a little better than that,” he said. “Our guys battled too hard. We fought back and tied it up, and I gave them two more right away to go ahead. That was disappointing. To see how hard the guys worked, you just feel you let them down.”

No one else in the Astros locker room feels that way.

Clemens has carried the Astros’ starting pitching and kept the team in a fight for first place in the National League Central. Houston fell a game back of the Reds after Cincinnati won its third straight over the Astros yesterday.

That wasn’t the way it was supposed to be. The burden of No.1 starter was supposed to fall on Pettitte, who left the Yankees and came home to Texas last winter, signing a three-year, $31million contract with the Astros.

But Pettitte missed three weeks in April because of a strained left elbow and only now is pitching himself back into shape. He has won four games since he was activated April29 and has a 4-1 record.

“For me it’s been tough because I went on the DL and had a lot of stuff go on in the first two months of the season,” says Pettitte, who also suffered the death of a close friend recently. “I still feel like I’m in kind of like a spring training mode after missing three weeks. But the team has been doing great, and Roger has been a big part of that. He’s done better than anyone could have imagined.”

Every time he steps on the mound, Clemens further cements his place among the game’s greatest pitchers.

Clemens ranks 15th all time with 317 victories, one shy of Phil Niekro. He holds the third-highest winning percentage of all time (.664) among pitchers with at least 300 victories, trailing only Lefty Grove and Christy Mathewson. He is second only to another legendary Texan, Nolan Ryan, in strikeouts with 4,169.

Clemens has won a record six Cy Young Awards — his first came with the Red Sox in 1986, and his most recent came with the Yankees in 2001 — and appears to be a strong contender this season for a seventh.

Even at 41, Clemens ranks among the best pitchers in baseball. Clemens is on an 11-game winning streak that dates to Sept.11, 2003, the longest active streak in the major leagues. He produced a 5-0 record with a 1.95 ERA in his first five starts, earning National League pitcher of the month honors for April.

He is putting up strong numbers at the box office as well.

Attendance at Minute Maid Park in Houston is up nearly 9,000 a game from last season, and two of the club’s three sellouts this year have occurred when Clemens pitched. The Reds drew 41,890 for Clemens’ start — their first sellout since Opening Day.

But numbers do not measure what Clemens hopes to accomplish at this stage of his career. He wants to do for great Astros players like Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio what the Yankees did for him: win a World Series before their time runs out.

“He is Roger Clemens, and his numbers speak for themselves,” says Biggio, who after 15 seasons has yet to play in a World Series game. “He has accomplished everything he could in this game. The man doesn’t have to do anything else. But he is here trying to help this team get to the World Series.”

Clemens knows every time he takes the mound he is carrying the hopes and dreams of Biggio, Bagwell and his other teammates, and he welcomes the challenge.

Clemens says it is a carryover from his days in New York, where he started to feel the same responsibility after he won two World Series.

“Last year, if you talk to Andy, too, there were times when we were both hurting and probably would have rather shut it down or been on the disabled list,” Clemens says. “But there were some guys on that team who had not had the experience of having a world championship ring. So you push yourself and work toward one common goal.

“You want those guys to experience that. I wouldn’t be doing what I am doing now if that wasn’t my main purpose.”

The Astros did all they could to lure Clemens out of retirement after they signed Pettitte, giving Clemens a 10-year personal services contract that pays him $5million this season. The club permits Clemens to travel with the team as he pleases, which allows him more time at his Houston home with his four sons.

Such special arrangements sometimes result in resentment among teammates, as was the case when the Baltimore Orioles allowed Cal Ripken to stay in a separate hotel for security reasons.

There are no such issues in the Houston clubhouse.

“We’re the ones that asked him to come here and play,” Biggio says. “Our biggest thing was for him to do whatever he has to do to make his 35 starts for us. That’s all we’re concerned about.”

One concern, Clemens’ health, was raised in Cincinnati on Saturday night when Clemens got hit hard on the right ankle by a ball hit back to the mound by Sean Casey in the third inning.

Williams went out to the mound to talk to Clemens, who stayed in the game two more innings.

“I just wanted to give him a breather,” Williams says. “He is such a competitor. He is not going to come out unless the bone is sticking out.”

There is no bone sticking out, but there are a bruise and a cut where the seams of the baseball dug into his foot.

“I’ll be ready for my next start,” he says.

He has to be. There are teammates relying on the Roger Clemens Champions Tour to make them champions, too.

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