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Buzz, ticket sales reach new heights

HOUSTON -- How quickly the perception of the Houston Astros
has changed from playoff bumbler to World Series contender, all
because of one future Hall of Famer.

Six-time Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens signed a one-year,
$5 million contract with the Houston Astros on Monday that ended a
brief retirement and turned the spotlight on his hometown, still
looking for a pro baseball playoff victory.

Ticket sales and fan frenzy have taken off like, well, a rocket.

"This is undoubtedly the largest day of season ticket sales
I've ever experienced," Astros vice president of ticket sales and
services John Sorrentino said Tuesday.

Sales of the Rocket's No. 22 uniform were on sale on the team's
Web site hours after Clemens agreed to pitch "at least" one more
season after declaring himself 99 percent retired following last
season's World Series performance with the New York Yankees.

Not only are the fans excited, Clemens' new teammates are
elated.

"How can you not be excited?" Jeff Bagwell said. "You go to
the grocery store and everyone's asking about Roger. This is
something I thought really might happen. It's the culmination of
what you've striven for.

"As a player, things change throughout your career but for
everything that's happened the past eight or nine years this would
be everything I've worked for."

The Astros have teased their fans over the years with six visits
to the playoffs, all ending in defeat. The Astros, with a 6-18
playoff record, have been particularly inept in their last four
postseason appearances.

That could change with the famous additions of Clemens and Andy
Pettitte, a former New York Yankees teammate, who signed a
three-year $31.5 million contract with the Astros last month.

"It would be amazing (reaching World Series)," Pettitte said.
"That's our goal. I want to be a part of the first team to win a
playoff series and then you go from there. It's the same story. You
keep everybody healthy and we should have a strong chance."

Bagwell and Craig Biggio, the team's marquee players in those
years, have performed miserably in the playoffs. Bagwell, a career
.300 hitter, has hit .174 in the playoffs. Biggio has been a steady
.287 hitter with the Astros but he's only hit .130 in the playoffs.

Sorrentino was adding up more encouraging numbers since Monday's
announcement of Clemens' return. He didn't have specific figures on
tickets sold since Clemens became an Astro.

"I'm ecstatic, we've been looking for a day like this around
here for a long time," Sorrentino said. "Days like this are what
people in marketing dream about."

Sorrentino saw a big boost in the Astros' sales when owner
Drayton McLane signed Pettitte.

"I think that was a boost of confidence in Drayton,"
Sorrentino said. "They saw the commitment. Things died down but
now we've gone through a renewal. It's hard to describe the
excitement."

Sorrentino has been with the Astros 18 years and recalls the
opening of Minute Maid Park (then Enron Field) as the only other
event that had fans clamoring for tickets.

"Our call volume was tremendous then but the difference is that
now everyone calling is for season tickets," Sorrentino said. "We
haven't started individual game ticket sales yet."

It's the second time McLane has tried to boost the Astros by
bringing home a pair of Houstonians to pitch. McLane committed
four-year contracts to Doug Drabek ($19.3 million) and Greg
Swindell ($16.4 million) in 1993 with disappointing results.

The signing of Clemens, however, ranked high on general manager
Gerry Hunsicker's list of historic Astros moments joining the
city's receiving an NL franchise in 1962, the opening of the
Astrodome and the signing of Nolan Ryan.

"Other than that, there has been no other event that has had
the impact or magnitude to this franchise than the signing of Roger
Clemens," Hunsicker said.