HOUSTON - Roger Clemens had been such a huge presence at this week's All-Star festivities, you half-expected the roof to open at Minute Maid Park last night so a helicopter could deliver him to the mound for the first pitch.
By the time the first inning ended, however, Clemens must have wished he could dig himself a hole and disappear.
Pitching in his hometown, for his home team, in his home ballpark, The Rocket gave up six first-inning runs and the National League never recovered.
With home runs from Manny Ramirez, Alfonso Soriano and David Ortiz, the American League rolled to a 9-4 victory before a crowd of 41,886 that had come for a coronation and witnessed a flogging.
All-Star Games aren't supposed to be this cruel.
"Roger's an emotional person, and I'm sure he was run ragged all week," said Joe Torre, the American League manager who had Clemens on his side with the New York Yankees for five seasons. "He certainly wanted to shine for everybody, and I don't think the fact he gives up six runs diminishes anything about Roger Clemens."
Clemens, who turns 42 next month, spent the week shaking hands and kissing babies, serving as the face of the event. After coaxing him out of retirement last fall, the Houston Astros happily made it his show.
With 320 career victories (including 10 this year), and 4,220 career strikeouts, he became the first pitcher to appear in nine All-Star Games.
But maybe this time there were too many distractions.
Late Monday night, for example, Clemens wasn't getting his usual rest. He was at the All-Star Gala in downtown Houston, screaming to the fans on stage with country singer Clay Walker.
And then there was the whole soap opera with Mike Piazza. Clemens has always been a tough guy on the mound, but here, his past sins caught up to him. After beaning Piazza in July 2000 and tossing a broken bat barrel at his head in that year's World Series, Clemens suddenly needed Piazza last night.
They became strange battery mates. Fans voted Piazza in as the NL's starting catcher, even though he has spent most of the year at first base with the New York Mets.
Before the game, Clemens and Piazza went through the ritual meeting between a starting pitcher and his catcher, examining a sheet with the AL scouting reports.
But once on the field, they clearly weren't on the same page.
The inning started with Ichiro Suzuki and Ivan Rodriguez hitting balls over Sammy Sosa's head in right field for a double and triple, respectively.
With one out, Clemens got ahead in the count to Ramirez 0-2. He looked in for the sign from Piazza and shook him off several times. He stepped off the mound to regroup, looked in, and shook off Piazza again.
"We were a little indecisive there," Piazza said. "I went through every pitch."
Finally, Clemens made his choice - a fastball, inside - and Ramirez pulled it into the short left-field porch that so many pitchers have bemoaned since this ballpark opened four years ago.
Had the scoring ended there, Clemens might not have felt as terrible. But he struck out Alex Rodriguez, and then Houston teammate Jeff Kent booted a ground ball at second base, allowing Jason Giambi to reach on the error.
Derek Jeter followed with a single that bounced over the head of first baseman Albert Pujols, making Clemens the first pitcher in All-Star history to let the other team hit for the cycle in one inning.
Then Soriano stepped in and smashed Clemens' next pitch over that same left-field wall, an estimated 343 feet, giving the AL a six-run lead. Soriano, Clemens' former teammate with the Yankees, was named the game's Most Valuable Player.
As Soriano rounded the bases, a look of disbelief covered Clemens' face. With the retractable roof closed, the ballpark turned as quiet as a church.
Mercifully, the pitcher's spot came next, and AL starter Mark Mulder took a called third strike to end the inning on Clemens' 35th and final pitch.
It was the first time in All-Star history a team had scored six first-inning runs. Clemens had never experienced anything quite like it. In his first eight All-Star appearances, he had posted a tidy 2.45 ERA.
Both of his previous All-Star starts had been showcases for his immense talent.
In 1986, the year he won the AL's MVP and Cy Young awards for the Boston Red Sox, he tossed three hitless innings at the old Houston Astrodome.
In 2001, the year he claimed his sixth Cy Young Award with the Yankees, he tossed two hitless innings at Seattle in Cal Ripken's final All-Star Game.
This time, after the NL rallied for three runs in the fourth, trimming the lead to 7-4, Clemens came out for an on-field ceremony, as Bud Selig presented him with the Commissioner's Historic Achievement Award.
Ripken was given the same award in 2001, and Clemens is only the eighth recipient.
Still in uniform, surrounded by his wife and four sons, Clemens continued playing the part of his hometown's baseball ambassador. In a TV interview, he said, "I put the guys in a hole, but we got our crowd back into it [with the three runs in the fourth]."
But the little momentum the NL generated disappeared in the sixth, when Ortiz smashed a two-run homer, stretching the lead to five.
Clemens skipped the postgame news conference and left the ballpark. Presumably, he still had places to go, people to see.