Rocket well-positioned on National League runway

October 20, 2004|By Laura Vecsey

NEW YORK - Oct. 31 is the night Game 7 of the World Series is scheduled to be played. Halloween. Spooks and spirits. Tricks and treats.

The news out of Houston last night made you flash forward to that moment. It seemed suddenly urgent here in the House That Ruth Built, where the Yankees and Red Sox were set to square off for Game 6 of the American League Championship Series:

Roger Clemens, former Red Sox, former Yankee, will not pitch Game 6 today for the Houston Rockets, we mean Astros.

If the St. Louis Cardinals win and tie the National League Championship Series, Clemens will start Game 7. If the Rockets, we mean Astros, win Game 6 and clinch the pennant, Clemens will be the World Series Game 1 starter - for the Astros.

Like an apparition in the mist, or like an old, beefy ghost emerging from a Texas cornfield, Roger Clemens lurks.

"He has those capabilities [to lead a team to the World Series]," Yankees pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre said.

"I thought he was done playing when he retired. He was retiring for other reasons, but he wasn't done in terms of what he could do. He was still one of the best in the game," Stottlemyre said.

The question at this October date is which one of the American League contenders would rather have the potential pleasure of seeing their old friend show up to greet them in the Fall Classic?

See, as the Yankees and Red Sox were dancing their twisted, exquisite, long and cursed dance, Clemens and the "Rockets" were erasing the Cardinals' 2-0 lead in that "other" championship series.

The turnaround commenced in Game 3, when Clemens had seven strikeouts in seven innings and then sat back as Jeff Kent hit a 3-run homer in Game 5 to push the Astros to within one win of their first World Series appearance ever.

Be careful what you wish for, Red Sox Nation, who want a World Series at any cost - even if it is up against the No. 22 whose rise to greatness took place in their presence.

Though he is a long time gone from Fenway, there's always a part of Clemens that belongs to Boston. Thirteen seasons and three Cy Youngs as a Red Sox are not easily erased, even if Clemens says he'll refuse to go into the Hall of Fame in a Boston cap.

Yankees, too, must beware. It took Clemens three of his five years in New York to get comfortable after he came from Boston by way of Toronto, especially when Derek Jeter was cool to the head-hunter from those rival AL East cities.

Funny how Clemens finally became a Yankee the postseason day he drilled Alex Rodriguez. That was in Game 4 of the 2000 ALCS. But after the 2003 World Series against the Marlins, when Clemens said he was retiring from baseball, his last game as a Yankee, it's only that much more bizarre that suddenly the Rocket looms as a potential World Series opponent.

In these days of ace pitchers as itinerant workers, we should have lost track a long time ago which uniforms used to house the chests of Clemens, Curt Schilling, Kevin Brown, Mike Mussina and, soon, Pedro Martinez.

Are they pitchers, or are they carpetbagging, road warriors willing to trade deep, franchise, civic and regional ties and loyalties for more cabbage and new deep franchise, civic and regional loyalties?

A little bit of both, it turns out.

Last night, Schilling was on the mound for the Red Sox. So hungry was he to beat the Yankees, Schilling has postponed surgery on his shredded ankle tendon sheath and instead braced his achy ankle in a specially designed cleat.

Not that too much time and technological effort have gone into this shoe, but if the cleat didn't work, the Red Sox should send it to NASA to be part of the space shuttle program.

It's of little consequence that Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein basically refused to leave Schilling's Arizona home, inviting himself to Thanksgiving dinner, before Schilling emerged and, in a driveway news conference, told the world of his conversion to Red Sox Nation.

To prove his seriousness, Schilling has a $2 million bonus if the Red Sox make it to the Series, which for all practical purposes, meant that the Red Sox would have to get past the Yankees first.

We all know why Red Sox faithful continue to fixate on the 86-year World Series drought, but why would Schilling take on this burden?

Apparently, it wasn't enough that Schilling has already won a World Series ring by beating the Yankees. That was in 2002, when Schilling teamed with Randy Johnson, formerly of the Montreal Expos, Seattle Mariners and Houston Astros, to form a one-two knockout punch for the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Money can't buy you love, but it did buy two amazingly fit and serious aces for Jerry Colangelo. But no sooner had the diamonds been set in platinum, Arizona had to start dumping salary. Their house-of-cards finances fell on financially hard times, so Schilling agreed to a trade to Boston.

Helping the Red Sox beat the Yankees was still high on Schilling's list - at least until he's a free agent again and George Steinbrenner comes calling.

But that's a different story for a different day.

Or maybe not, considering that Brown (by way of Los Angeles) and Mussina (offered $88 million by the Yankees to leave AL East rival Baltimore) are now wearing pinstripes.

Ace pitchers come. Ace pitchers go. They trade allegiances and alliances so they can show up again to taunt and tease and spook, like a beefy, beady-eyed apparition.

Oh my.

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