Clemens' legend only grows in Texas

Roger Clemens' extraordinary magnetism has transformed Houston into a baseball town. Jayson Stark explains.

Originally Published: October 14, 2005
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

HOUSTON -- It's a postseason baseball game. But it's more than that.

It's the fabled "pivotal" Game 3 of an all-even National League Championship Series. But it's more than that.

Yes, deep in the baseball heart of Texas, Saturday is a day different from almost all other days. It's different because of one man.

It's different because it's Clemens Day.

Roger Clemens
Brian Bahr/Getty ImagesA desire to pitch in the World Baseball Classic could be a big incentive for Roger Clemens to return next season.
A little after 3 p.m. Central, the great Roger Clemens will head for the mound at Minute Maid Park to face the St. Louis Cardinals. And that is an event that generations of Houstonians have learned to savor and celebrate.

Because this is more than just a man who has left his mark on his sport, 341 victories down the baseball freeway. This is a man who has changed a community, changed the mindset of literally millions of people, changed an entire franchise.

"Now," said a guy named Efrain Rosado on Friday, "this is a baseball town."

Rosado -- a 40-year-old native of Puerto Rico, now a transplanted Houstonian -- found himself drawn to the ticket window of Minute Maid Park as afternoon turned to evening Friday. He was drawn by the knowledge that the Astros were about to hand the baseball to Clemens in the most important game of the year.

Of the 20 games he attended this year, Rosado said, 12 were started by the Rocket. So how, Rosado told himself, could he not at least try to find a ticket to this game?

"They said they may have tickets in the morning at 8:30," he reported. "So I'll be here at 8:30."

There is a word for this phenomenon. It's known as magnetism.

And that is what the Rocket Man has brought to this franchise in his very own hometown -- a magnetism that only extraordinary human beings possess.

In his case, it is the power to draw otherwise normal human beings out of their homes, out of their cocoons, out of this football-dominated world they used to live in and lure them to a baseball park, feeling as though these nine innings could be the event of a lifetime.

Of the 17 games Clemens started in Houston this season, six of them sold out and four more were virtually sold out -- including games with Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Colorado. Clemens' starts averaged nearly 37,000 paying customers. When he didn't pitch, the Astros averaged 34,049 paying customers a game. What does all that tell you?

"People look at the calendar to see when he's going to pitch," Rosado said, "so they can buy tickets three or four weeks in advance. ... When he pitches, people get here earlier. Everyone has a Clemens shirt, a Clemens T-shirt, a Clemens jersey. Everything says 'Clemens' on it."

Two winters ago, when the realization hit the good citizens of Houston that Clemens was thinking of un-retiring to pitch in their town, for their team, these same people were actively romancing Clemens to sign. To pitch. To join them.

And then something amazing happened. It worked. He not only became an Astro, but he also took a massive pay cut -- to $5 million ($3.5 million of it deferred) -- to do it. And the love affair erupted. It hasn't abated yet.

"These people in greater Metropolitan Houston wanted him to play and recruited him, and it made a difference," said one of Clemens' agents, Randy Hendricks. "And people seemed to totally and completely understand that he was doing it for the city and the community. And they've never forgotten that. So they adopted him, and he adopted them. And it hasn't hurt that he's performed remarkably for two years."

In those two seasons, Clemens is 31-12, with a 2.43 ERA -- the lowest ERA of any starting pitcher in either league. In 37 starts at home, he is 19-7, with a 2.53 ERA -- the lowest home ERA of any pitcher in baseball.

So these people have witnessed a real-life script that couldn't possibly have turned out this good -- but did. And because it did, Clemens' legend has only grown. How was that possible, anyway?

With an assist from his pal, Andy Pettitte, Clemens has altered a world many people never thought could be altered. Now, baseball rules the city of Houston, the way it never has in its previous four decades of existence.

You've been to Yankee Stadium when it's got a certain buzz to it, right? Well, that's what Houston is like now. Roger has made Houston like an American League East ballpark.
Clemens' agent, Alan Hendricks

"You've been to Yankee Stadium when it's got a certain buzz to it, right?" said Clemens' other agent, Alan Hendricks. "Well, that's what Houston is like now. Roger has made Houston like an American League East ballpark."

But if it's deafening and insane when anyone else pitches a meaningful game, it's an ear-drum eruption waiting to happen on Clemens Day.

"When Roger pitches, you expect that just about anything can happen," said Astros closer Brad Lidge. "Every milestone he passes, every record he breaks, there's an anticipation of that.

"When he strikes somebody out to end an inning, there's just an explosion of applause. Not that it's not loud when any of our pitchers gets a strikeout to end an inning. But when he does it, it's different. They play 'Rocket Man.' Everyone's screaming. It just feels so perfect."

It just feels so perfect. Is there any better way to describe this bond between a baseball player and his people? Everything about it seems as if it were just meant to be.

Clemens' teammates have come to accept the buzz around Clemens 24/7 as his warped version of normalcy. But they know it isn't normal for them. Just him.

"I think Lance Berkman said it best," said third baseman Morgan Ensberg. "He said, 'When you walk outside with Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte, it's like walking with Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.' Roger would be Santa Claus, of course. Andy's just the Easter Bunny. It's amazing. I don't know how they live.

"We go out to dinner with Andy quite a bit, and it's not so bad. ... But if you add Roger, it's unbelievable. It's like they're superheroes, and when they're together, their powers multiply. It's like being out with the Fantastic Four. Roger -- he belongs in the League of Justice. I actually think he's already secretly in it. There's Superman, and there's Spider-Man. And he's the Rocket," Ensberg said.

The rest of these Astros go about their business, do what they do, think about the things they always think about. But even for them, the days Clemens pitches can't ever quite be ordinary days.

"When you're playing in his games," said Jeff Bagwell, "it seems like you raise your intensity a little bit, because you don't want to make a mistake behind him."

Roger Clemens
Doug Benc/Getty ImagesEver since coming home to pitch, The Rocket's job has been about more than just pitching.
"Every time he pitches," said Lidge, "instead of going to the bullpen, our whole group huddles in the dugout just to watch him pitch. It's something our bullpen has done since he started here. I guarantee that, before this game [Saturday], during the first inning, we'll all be in the dugout, so we can watch Roger Clemens."

When last they saw him, he was stomping out of the bullpen in the 16th inning Sunday to make his first relief appearance in 21 years. And he stuck around, kept on firing, until the Astros finally won a postseason classic in 18 epic innings.

But while that goes down as an indelible Clemens memory, it wasn't an official Clemens Day, because no one could see it coming. Saturday, on the other hand, is both official and special.

It isn't just a huge game. It might also be his last game in front of these people.

He hasn't said -- and wouldn't say Friday -- whether he is going to raise his consecutive-year retirement streak to three in a row this winter. He wouldn't say because, by all accounts, he hasn't even begun to think about that yet.

But you never know. If he doesn't know, how can the rest of us? So it's always a good idea to savor these things, just in case.

"It's going to come to an end," Bagwell said. "We know that. We're not talking about a 23-year-old rookie. We're talking about a 43-year-old guy who has been there, done that. Eventually -- whether it's the next two weeks or the next two years -- this thing is going to end. So I'm just grateful I had the opportunity to play baseball with him. As a kid who grew up as a Boston Red Sox fan to where I am today, it's been an honor."

And the honor extends to those who have had the privilege of witnessing it, too, because if Clemens isn't the greatest pitcher who ever lived, he's at least the greatest right-hander of the live-ball era.

So his starts are lightning bolts on all sorts of levels -- from the buzz in the seats to the magic of the box-score line to the aura that goes along with having a walking history museum heading for the mound in real life.

And Saturday, the lightning bolts will flash one more time. Maybe one final time. So the Houston Astros will head for the park, knowing they have a critical ballgame to play, knowing they have to find a way to score off Cardinals starter Matt Morris, knowing their chance to go to the World Series is hanging there in the Texas sky.

That means they will have a lot on their minds besides the day's starting pitcher. So they can't devote the time the rest of us can to contemplating the meaning of having this particular pitcher start this particular game in this particular ballpark. But then those electrons will start flying, because they have to fly -- because this is Clemens Day.

"When you come in here, it's no different from anybody else," said Bagwell, "except when the game starts."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com