Yanks cheer Rocket's liftoff

Baseball: Roger Clemens' short-lived retirement and 7-0 start with the Astros neither surprises nor bothers his ex-teammates in the Bronx.

May 13, 2004|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK - Two weeks ago, when the New York Yankees were struggling to get to .500, the amazing early-season performance of former teammate Roger Clemens must have been a painful two-edged topic in the clubhouse that Ruth built.

Who would have blamed the Yankees for being a little put off by Clemens' decision to postpone retirement and join his hometown Houston Astros? They did, after all, give him an emotional sendoff - and a new Hummer - after he spent a year convincing everyone that 2003 would be the last season of his impressive career.

The Yankees' rotation was not the same without him, and there he was in Houston, winning game after game and leading the Astros to the top of the National League Central.

Except that no one really took offense. Clemens wanted to go home to his family, and the Astros offered him the opportunity to have the best of two worlds. The Yankees - even in the midst of their early slump - knew that he had left everything he owed them on the mound at Yankee Stadium.

Now, with the Yankees surging back near the top of the American League East, Clemens and his 7-0 start is anything but a sore subject.

"Everything we asked of him, he lived up to," said Yankees general manager Brian Cashman. "We're just proud of the fact that we can say he was a Yankee. We're not surprised he is having success. He's one in a million."

Clemens truly believed that he was wrapping up his legendary career when he pitched his last game for the Yankees in last year's World Series. It was obvious from all the glassy eyes at his last Yankee press conference that he was not planning to pop up in another uniform.

That changed when close friend and fellow Houston-area resident Andy Pettitte signed with the Astros during the winter, then talked Clemens into holding off on retirement for at least one year.

Yankees owner George Steinbrenner grumbled a little at first, but Clemens was never going to stay for another season in New York. His time at home was so important that he insisted on a clause in his Astros contract that allows him to miss road stops in cities where he's not scheduled to pitch.

No one can argue with the results. Clemens has won each of his first seven starts and turned in one of his most overpowering performances on Tuesday night, when he gave up just three hits over seven innings and struck out 11 to drop his ERA to 1.99.

"I can't say I'm surprised," said Yankees manager Joe Torre. "The first couple of years here, he fought some injuries. Once he got over that stuff and understood what he needed to do to get comfortable, he was great. I guess the fact that he is in Houston, he got comfortable a little quicker."

There are some other possible explanations, of course. Clemens is going through a new league for the first time, so he figures to have some advantage over hitters who have never faced him. It's also a little easier to pitch in the National League, because there is a pitcher instead of a designated hitter in the opposing lineup.

"I knew he was going to be really successful in the National League because he gets a chance to face less hitters," said first baseman Jason Giambi. "He's unbelievable. Considering his work ethic and how he goes about preparing for the game, it's not surprising that he's been doing what he's been doing.

"It's not amazing what he's doing. He's amazing in himself."

Right-hander Mike Mussina has been paying close attention to Clemens from afar, watching his starts on television whenever possible.

"Yes, I watch him; yes, I'm rooting for him; yes, I'm amazed," Mussina said. "I'm not surprised he's doing well, but anybody starting 7-0 is going to be noticed, whether you're 41, 31 or 21. ... He looks as good and as sharp as I've ever seen him throw."

If Clemens' former teammates understood his desire to play closer to home, they didn't pass up the opportunity to get in his face ... or, more accurately, his ear.

"We all gave him a call when he signed with Houston," Giambi said jokingly. "We wanted our money back for the Hummer."

Fabulous 40s

Some notable performances by those in their 40s:

Name, sport/profession Highlights

George Blanda, football Late-game heroics for Raiders as QB and kicker, threw for 23 TDs after turning 40

JoAnne Carner, golf 23 LPGA titles in 40s

Cher, entertainment icon At 42, cavorted barely clothed on aircraft carrier for music video

Gordie Howe, hockey 8 20-goal seasons in NHL and WHA after turning 40; teamed with sons

Martina Navratilova, tennis Eight doubles titles in 2002 and 2003; turned 40 in '96

Jack Nicklaus, golf 3 majors in 40s, including Masters at 46

Nolan Ryan, baseball 300 strikeouts at 42; no-hitters at 43 and 44

Cheryl Tiegs, modeling Appeared in SI swimsuit edition at 41

Ted Williams, baseball .328 in season he turned 40; .316, 29 homers his last year, when he turned 43

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