Clemens no pocket Wizard

Unlike Michael Jordan, at least Roger Clemens "unretired" in a place where wins should be plentiful.

Updated: January 13, 2004, 12:24 PM ET
By Mark Kreidler | Special to ESPN.com

The great thing about Roger Clemens' unretirement plan is that it's so close to foolproof, and I say this strictly from the viewpoint of one who perceives how low the bar has been set on this kind of Sporting Return of the King thing.

By which I think we all can agree: Michael Jordan.

Clemens
Clemens

Jordan
Jordan

Michael, the icon with the unslakable competitive jones, put the stick way down there in his final drive down the retirement-reversal lane. All Clemens has to do to be relatively fondly remembered in this phase of his career is to be part of a more successful effort with the Houston Astros than Jordan was with the Washington Wizards.

That may not be quite the same as a filmmaker trying to surpass "Gigli" in critical acclaim, but you get the idea.

Jordan joined a mess of a franchise as a front-office executive without portfolio. Clemens is joining a Houston team that won 87 games last year and missed the playoffs by a victory or two, and he's doing so as an active player.

Jordan eventually went down to the court again, presumably to show the youngsters how the game of basketball was supposed to be played. Within weeks, he said this when asked if it were frustrating to see the half-hearted effort of some of the Wizards' players: "Are you nuts? It gives me the understanding that some of these guys may not be back here next year when I go upstairs."

That didn't turn out to be the Wizards' players' problem; as you'll recall. Many of them wound up lasting longer than Jordan after he tried to return to his post running the franchise for Abe Pollin.

Roger Clemens
AP PhotoRoger Clemens is 17th all-time with 310 career victories.

And maybe Roger learned something from Michael -- the second-unretirement Michael, not the first one. (Nobody counts Jordan's return to the Bulls, because almost nobody believed Jordan was retired the first time around). Maybe Clemens didn't simply choose the Astros because they were close to his hometown of Katy, Texas, but rather because they also don't stink. As 11th-hour changes of heart go, this one could have some strong legs.

Whereas Jordan went to the Wizards as an unproven commodity in terms of his front-office savvy, Clemens is basically going to get paid again for doing something he knows how to do at a Hall of Fame level. Oh, sure, he's older, and his work from the 2003 season -- 17-9 with a 3.91 ERA for a Yankees team that won 101 games -- was only Top 15 caliber, not otherworldly.

But consider the ways in which Clemens hedged this bet. He joins a pitching staff that already included Wade Miller and a presumably healthy Roy Oswalt, then went out and snagged Clemens' friend Andy Pettitte. Clemens waited until long after Pettitte was signed and delivered to even express a slight interest in reconsidering his retirement, and he has sort of happily allowed the conversation to appear as if it were entirely generated by Pettitte -- as if the left-hander were spending all his free time in the winter bugging Clemens to come aboard.

Clemens chose wisely, plain and simple. He's going to a good franchise in a winnable division, going to a team that had already improved itself and its playoff chances before he so much as received a semi-official cell-phone call. If the Astros go on to something dramatic like their first-ever World Series appearance, people will be lined up down the street to thank Clemens for pushing them to the top of the mountain, though one suspects Oswalt and Miller and Tim Redding and Richard Hidalgo and Jeff Kent and Jeff Bagwell and Lance Berkman might have something to do with it, too.

Michael Jordan may have envisioned a similar bronze-plating for himself in Washington, but he chose poorly. Scratch that: He chose with the poor-choosing intensity of a thousand suns. Jordan signed on to do stuff he hadn't ever done, with complete confidence that he could run a front-office as well as a frontcourt. He was largely wrong -- and his subsequent third incarnation as a player, while thankfully never veering close to an embarrassment, did absolutely nothing for either his legacy or his memory. In time, it'll almost be as if Washington never happened.

You'd hate to see the same kind of selective memory apply to Clemens; it's already hard enough recalling that he used Toronto as his pass-through point from Boston to New York (and was very good for the Blue Jays along the way). But, then, Clemens has an advantage going in here that Jordan didn't have in Washington: He's joining a team that only needs Clemens to make it better, not to make it good in the first place.

Jordan had it the other way around in Washington. Result: A nice, low bar. Step over easy, Rocket.

Mark Kreidler is a columnist with the Sacramento Bee and a regular contributor to ESPN.com

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