'It was storybook like'

HOUSTON -- The question hung over them, a blimpish issue that was hard to ignore. But for more than a week in early January, Andy Pettitte tried to enjoy his shared family vacation with Roger Clemens in Hawaii, and resisted the urge to ask Clemens if he was going to pitch again.

They played golf, jogged in the sunshine, hauled their kids around Maui, and for more than a week, they did not talk about retirement or a comeback. The issue was much too personal, Pettitte thought, for him to confront his friend about; if Clemens was going to sign with the Houston Astros, he would first have to settle the matter with his own family.

But they went to dinner on their next to last night in Hawaii, and Clemens and Pettitte spoke frankly about the question. After two hours of conversation, Clemens was all but sure he would pitch again. "Somebody's going to have to nudge me pretty hard off this fence, the way I'm leaning," Clemens told his wife.

A few weeks later, Clemens and Pettitte worked out here, at Minute Maid Park, Clemens throwing first in the middle of the diamond, pumping fastballs, mentioning afterward how he liked the slope of the mound. Pettitte followed, with Clemens standing in as the hitter. Outside the stadium, a line a block long formed at the ticket windows; tickets for Opening Day had gone on sale.

Roy Oswalt, another of the Astros starters, walked onto the field and met Clemens and Pettitte for the first time as teammates. "How ya doing?" Pettitte drawled, reaching out. Clemens walked over and did the same, Oswalt shaking the hands of 459 career victories and six championship rings. This is the only place that either Pettitte or Clemens would be, if they weren't going to be with the Yankees -- in their hometown, playing together, and with new teammates whose reputation for camaraderie is similar to the Yankees' dynasty of years past.

Clemens has maintained close friendships with former teammates through decades, Spike Owen and Mike Capel and others, after the Yankees lost the World Series to Florida, Clemens mentally circled out dates on the calendar when he would visit Pettitte in New York in 2004. Clemens would go North, see his friend pitch, play golf, maybe make some TV appearances for the Yankees.

But in early December, Pettitte summoned him into a back room at his house and told Clemens he had committed to the Astros; Clemens was surprised. "Well, I've got six season tickets here I've sat in," Clemens said grinning. "I'll be out there every fifth day to see you, Brother."

When Pettitte attended high school, Clemens was his idol, his poster filling a wall in Pettitte's room, and after Clemens joined the Yankees in 1999, teammates jokingly noted that it was easy to find Andy -- just look for Clemens, and Pettitte was sure to be a couple of steps behind him. Pettitte, who always responded to strong direction, began working out with Clemens, improved his conditioning dramatically, changed his body, and revitalized a career that had sagged in 1998 and the first four months of '99.

But some of the Yankees thought that Pettitte was just as important to Clemens, for his assimilation into the team. Clemens had always been the outsider to the Yankees, a despised enemy, and his first year was sometimes difficult; he struggled, and manager Joe Torre and pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre wondered if Clemens was trying too hard to fit in with a team that had just won a record 125 games. Pettitte befriended Clemens immediately and, teammates thought, lent a degree of comfort, their friendship forged over hours of running, lifting and standing side by side in the dugout. "As important as Roger has been to Andy," former Yankees pitcher Mike Stanton said last spring, "Andy was just as important to Roger."

Clemens would develop enormous respect for Pettitte as a pitcher, and as a competitor. Last May, Pettitte's elbow was aching, and he and Clemens talked about Pettitte's options. In the summer before he became a free agent, the smartest move might have been to shut it down for the rest of the year. "But if he did that," Clemens said, "our playoff plans would have been over. And I'm telling you, at least seven out of 10 guys, in the same situation, where they're going to get paid, they would have shut it down."

"He said, 'You know what -- I'm going to push this thing. If it goes, it goes.' That's all I needed to know about him."

Within hours after Pettitte signed with Houston, Clemens was on a local radio show, musing about a comeback, and Pettitte listened on his car radio and then phoned and asked: Are you serious? "Lefty," Clemens responded, "everything's changed."

The makeup of the Astros was an important factor, for both. Pettitte called new teammates after signing, phoning Brad Ausmus and Wade Miller and others, to introduce himself. Clemens had no interest in joining a fractured clubhouse, with new teammates who had no expectation for winning. But he was familiar with Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell and others, and while playing golf with Bagwell in December, Clemens quizzed Bagwell.

Clemens' oldest son, Koby, is nearing the end of his high school career and Clemens intends on being at every game possible in the spring. How would the other Astros feel, Clemens asked Bagwell, if Clemens isn't around on those days? Bagwell assured him that wouldn't be a problem.

Clemens and Pettitte spoke about all this over dinner in Maui, after days of ignoring the question. "We went over the lineup, went over the staff," Clemens recalled. "There are some real gritty guys on this team, some real competitors. I had been excited about even watching these guys next year" in retirement.

"When we sat down and talked about it," said Clemens, "there was just too much good to come out of it to not do it. It was storybook-like."

Clemens and Pettitte have much to offer, information that can be specifically applied by their new teammates. Miller intends to ask Clemens about throwing the split-fingered fastball -- a pitch that Miller says he executes only intermittently, one out of every five tries. Jeriome Robertson, a left-hander who generally pitches away from right-hander batters, can pick the brain of Pettitte, a left-hander who pitches inside effectively with a nasty cut fastball.

And Ausmus said he believes that Tim Redding, the talented 26-year-old right-hander already anointed as the No. 5 starter by Houston manager Jimy Williams, may have the most to gain from being around the two veteran pitchers. "When difficult situations come up, you'll see two guys whose concentration levels go up," said Ausmus. "You'll see they don't get frustrated, they don't give up, they don't let those pressure pitches bother them. You see in Andy, and in Roger, how their concentration level goes up three notches when they're in a big game."

Walking through the Houston clubhouse, Bagwell raised his bat and gestured in the direction of Redding's locker. "Each of you might as well put a jersey in his locker," Bagwell said aloud to Clemens and Pettitte. "Get it over with, right now."

Clemens noticed Bagwell's bat, painted all black. "Let me see that pole," Clemens barked, walking over.

Clemens hefted the bat and said he liked its feel, and Bagwell retrieved another from his personal stock and laid it in front of Clemens' locker -- a few lockers to the right of Miller's locker, a few to the left of Redding. And adjacent to that of Andy Pettitte.

Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.