Clemens lone star in debut

A call to George Steinbrenner helped Roger Clemens begin the final chapter of his career as an Astro.

Updated: April 8, 2004, 11:52 AM ET
By Mark Kreidler | Special to ESPN.com

HOUSTON -- The first call Wednesday morning went to Billy Connors, the old pitching coach who had fallen on difficult times recently, and it was Connors who told Roger Clemens to make that second call. And so Clemens did, ringing up his old boss, The Boss, George Steinbrenner, in New York for a conversation that eventually became so emotional Clemens decided "I had to get off the phone, because my voice was breaking up."

Roger Clemens
Clemens fanned 12 in the ALDS in 12 innings.

And that's how Clemens started the first day of the rest of his life as a major-league pitcher.

You already know how he finished it.

The Clemens that people saw at Minute Maid Park in Houston was nothing if not utterly familiar. He was big and powerful and essentially in charge of things, up to and including a battle against Barry Bonds that could have wound up making some kind of history or other.

Bonds entered the game sitting on 659 career home runs, one shy of Willie Mays' spot in third place on the all-time list. Bonds exited the game in that same place, Clemens having intentionally walked him once and fanned him twice, both on close pitches, in the Astros' 10-1 romp over San Francisco.

And while this most assuredly is Bonds' larger moment, Wednesday was completely Clemens' night. He worked seven scoreless innings and struck out nine and singled to center in his first at-bat as a National Leaguer, and the Houston fans pretty much loved him from sunup to bedtime. In Clemens, they recognized a Texas boy who had finally come all the way back.

"It sure was nice to come home," Clemens said afterward. "Warming up and hearing the fans ... It was just real enjoyable."

Odd, then, that Clemens began that day with a call to the owner of the team he left behind in New York, the team which seemed to say farewell to Clemens last fall with the finality that athletic "retirement" is supposed to bring.

Clemens has spoken repeatedly of his surprising decision to postpone retirement for at least one more season in order to join friend, fellow Texan and former Yankee teammate Andy Pettitte on the Astros' roster. Less often remarked upon, or at least less often acknowledged, is the strong feeling Clemens says he retains for Steinbrenner.

"He's a special man, and I hold a special place in my heart for that man," Clemens said in the moments after recording the 311th victory of his big-league pitching career. And the pitcher apparently let Steinbrenner know how he felt during that phone conversation, which was the product of his earlier chat with Connors, which itself was the product of Clemens rooting around in some of his own papers and documents on the day of his first start for Houston and discovering some old letters from Steinbrenner.

The letter touched off the memories, the memories prompted the phone calls -- you know how sentiment goes. Clemens allowed that the conversation with Steinbrenner "got emotional," and eventually the pitcher had to hop off the phone before something vaguely sappy happened.

This is, of course, to distinguish what happened off the field from what occurred on it, where Clemens looked every bit as dominating as any 41-year-old power pitcher can be allowed to look. He was pitiless out there. And the at-bats against Bonds, which carried the possibility of instant history in every pitch, were, if not classic, then at least worthy of the attention.

Each of the called third strikes against Bonds were on classic Clemens pitches -- close enough to get the call, just away enough to avoid being driven by a power monger like the one in the San Francisco uniform.

Home plate umpire Mike DiMuro went with Clemens on both calls, which clearly didn't sit well with Bonds, who gave DiMuro a double-take and walked away muttering to himself. Afterward, though displaying no visible sign of anger or frustration, Bonds said, "Roger knows what happened out there. That's all that matters."

Actually, what happened was that a 300-plus winner got the calls over a 600-plus home run hitter. And as for any conspiracy theory, Clemens' catcher didn't want to hear about it.

"Come on. If it's not Barry Bonds, no one even questions those strikes," Brad Ausmus said. "He [DiMuro] didn't give us anything. We earned it."

"We" being, of course, Clemens, and "it" being the evening, the game, the heart of Texas -- and, right here in April, just not a hell of a lot else. Clemens gushed over Bonds afterward, saying at one point, "I don't think people realize, or maybe they do, what they're seeing in this guy."

Sure. But will he ever merit a phone call?

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

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