- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 15, 2005

HOUSTON — The question has been asked over and over since Roger Clemens struck out Atlanta’s Jeff Francoeur to end the top of the 18th inning in Game 4 of the National League Division Series on Sunday.

Just how long could the Rocket, making his first relief appearance in 21 seasons, have stayed on the mound?

“If he needed to pitch 10 innings that day, he probably would have done it,” Houston Astros manager Phil Garner said yesterday. “The man never ceases to amaze me. And I don’t say that jokingly. I say it in all earnest. I don’t think it was a matter of how long it was going to take. … It was his game, and he was going to do whatever he could to win.”

It’s hard to believe the 43-year-old Clemens, someone who already has been touted as perhaps the greatest pitcher in baseball history, actually could add to his legacy at this stage of his career.

But with those three scoreless innings of relief in the Astros’ NLDS-clinching victory a week ago, Clemens somehow managed to elevate his status to even greater heights.

Which is almost incomprehensible considering the status he already has attained in his hometown of Houston.

“He is a rock star,” teammate Jeff Bagwell said.

And when the lead singer of the Astros’ band takes the stage tonight for Game 3 of the NL Championship Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, all eyes again will be on him.

That’s the way it is every time Clemens pitches these days, even more so when the fans at Minute Maid Park realize this could be the last time their hero appears in a major league game.

As has been the case for three seasons now, Clemens’ future is uncertain. When he made his last start for the New York Yankees in the 2003 World Series, everyone thought that was the end. When he came out of retirement and signed with the Astros in 2004, everyone thought that was the final chapter.

Then he returned this season and led the majors with an astounding 1.87 ERA.

Clemens admits that thoughts of finality crossed his mind during that 2003 World Series start.

“Those final pitches were the hardest for me at that point because I didn’t obviously know what was in front of me. And, for that matter, I still don’t.”

It’s hard to imagine Clemens wouldn’t come back in 2006, given the way he still dominates hitters like no else in baseball. But as he pointed out yesterday, “things have changed for me over the last couple of weeks.”

He’s referring to the events of Sept. 14, when his mother, Bess Clemens-Booher died in Georgetown, Texas, with her son at her side. Later that right, Clemens pitched 61/3 innings to defeat the Florida Marlins in the middle of a pennant race.

Clemens spoke eloquently about his mother, his inspiration, that night and again yesterday, revealing a rare emotional side to a ballplayer universally known for his nastiness.

“There’s a big part of my heart that’s missing now with my mother gone,” he said. “That’s just the way it is. I knew I pitched for her, but I didn’t realize how much I did.”

For that brief moment, the mighty Roger Clemens almost seemed as if he would break down in tears and announce he’s retiring at season’s end.

But in less time than it takes for one of his 95-mph fastballs to make it from mound to plate, Clemens brought himself back and hinted he still wants to come back for another season at age 44.

“Some of my will is gone but not all of it,” he said, later adding that “I could give you more than probably 10 reasons [to retire], but look at the game that I had a chance to perform in [the 18-inning win]. Just those memories are enough, worth it for me to make the decision to get up off my couch and do this.”

For what it’s worth, Clemens’ Astros teammates understand what it takes for him to pitch every fifth day.

“I know what he feels like,” Bagwell said. “I see him in the tub. I see him walking around limping. What’s amazing is that he’s able to do what he does at his age. Like Nolan Ryan, he’s a gift of God.”

One whose legacy never seems to stop growing.

“Our kids will be reading about the Rocket for a number of years to come,” Garner said. “People will write stories about it, books. They’ll write essays in high school. … You know, the beautiful thing about our game is there are some people coming along who do better than they have in the past, but I’m certain that we all are enjoying what the Rocket is doing now.”


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