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Special Case? Roger That

Times Staff Writer

Roger Clemens might have turned one morning to find the boys in the videotapes had, in real life, grown to become strong, independent young men.

The work that consumed him for more than two decades had indeed kicked up a path, but too often his sons had been left to it without him.

He’d lost his own father in grade school, and he’d become the best a lot of people had ever seen. He’d had his mother, Bess, and they’d made do, and still do.

He’d married a dynamic woman like her, and Deb often did Bess’ work with the four boys. That too would do, particularly when winter became spring, and Roger -- Dad -- would leave, returning only when fall had become winter again.

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“I’m not the best father,” he said last week, but in a way that said he’s gaining on it. The boys, it seems, are going to need a wider path.

It is the season, Clemens pitching himself into more Cy Young votes, pitching past more Hall of Famers, pitching his franchise into contention and again seriously considering going home for good.

He turned 43 three weeks ago and has his own professional baseball player, Koby, for a son, a development that could find them together on the same field next spring, transiently sharing the uniform of the Houston Astros.

He has another boy, Kory, playing his last season of high school football in Houston, a couple other Ks around the house, a plucky wife, and an uncommon devotion to them all.

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Only in the last two years has that made him a semi-regular around the house, the result of one of the unique arrangements in the history of professional sports; Clemens an Astro when he can be, the Astros grateful to have him when they can.

“It’s the only way I would have done this, the only way it would have worked,” he said.

Private jet on standby, Clemens has balanced Koby’s rookie-ball schedule in Greenville, Tenn., Kory’s at linebacker, the family’s outside Houston and the Astros’ all over the National and American leagues.

In a contract with Astro management that led to the postponement of his golden years (the gold landing, improbably, on the tips of his spiked hair), Clemens misses some games and chunks of trips, a few innings here and there.

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And yet every fifth day he can be found on a pitchers’ mound, peering over the top of his glove, as he will again today at Dodger Stadium.

The arrangement itself is not nearly as extraordinary as the results it has produced. A happy, whole, dutifully conscientious Clemens won his seventh Cy Young Award last season and has pitched even better in this one.

Among the numbers: In 26 starts, Clemens leads baseball in earned-run average (1.56) and opponents’ average (.187). His road ERA, in 12 starts, is 0.56. His overall ERA has been less than 2.00 every month and the eight earned runs he has allowed in August are the most in any month. Considering the Astros have been shut out in seven of his starts, his record, 11-6, is astounding.

“He’s better than I thought he was,” Astro Manager Phil Garner said. “I’m a [former] player, and I appreciate talent. But, better than that, I appreciate talent that is properly used and properly prepared. Guys like Roger, they’re genetically superior. We may all be equal under the law, but we’re not all created equal.”

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When the other 24 Astros go off on trips, Astro employees at their office windows often find Clemens throwing in the bullpen, chugging around the warning track, or fielding grounders. The regimen has made him a legend in weight rooms across baseball, and it does not ease when the team turns its back. If anything, he believes there is a responsibility to make it all work.

So far, the deal has filled the Astros’ ballpark every fifth day, along with Clemens’ mantel, and further lined Clemens’ career, which presumably will end in a city that adores him, for an organization that allowed him to set the itinerary.

It works because Clemens makes it so. It works because the Astros needed him, and the other 24 see that. It works because Houston is not Boston or New York, so no one awaits the charter’s landing at every stop, and few record his every movement. He is actually in the clubhouse more often than is the perception, and when he’s not he’s in the bleachers, watching his own boys, waving to sons who already have played too often to a house of one, their mother.

He called “distorted” and “grossly overstated” reports that he skips all road games in which he does not pitch. This week, Clemens arrived in San Diego on Monday night and pitched Tuesday night. He was with the team through the week. After today’s start, he’ll go to Tennessee to see Koby while the Astros return to Texas to play the Cincinnati Reds. His next start is Friday night against the St. Louis Cardinals, so Saturday he’ll sit with Kory and replay the football game from the night before.

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“I may be away,” he said, “but I’m not far away. I’ll be there for a big hit or there for a big tackle, then I have to get back here.”

Still, it is fairly common for the other 24 to be going in one direction, and Clemens in another. He has talked of spending pregame at the ballpark, the game itself at a high school football field, and the postgame shaking hands with his teammates. He has rushed off to a high school baseball game, arrived to see Kory lash a double and raise a fist to salute his father, grinning from behind a chain-link fence, then returned to the parking lot before the cheers have died out.

“It’s my biggest balancing act ever,” he said.

It’s the hardest thing he has ever done. It’s the best thing he has ever done. The boys are happy. His teammates are happy.

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“There’s no other situation this would be OK,” Jeff Bagwell said. “A normal guy, that wasn’t going to play. It fit for our situation at the time. It’s not something I would advocate. But Roger Clemens is a gift from the baseball gods. Anything he does is a gift.... Craig [Biggio] and I have never had a ring. Our best opportunity to get one was to have Roger around. He tends to his obligations, his kids. And it’s not like the man comes in here and pitches five innings and gives up six every day.”

That Clemens pitches for the Astros, is pitching at all, speaks to his relationship with Andy Pettitte, who left the New York Yankees for Houston after the 2003 season. Pettitte talked him out of retirement and into a hometown jersey, and maybe they’d pitch in another World Series together, as they did in New York. Just for a year, Pettitte told him, just to see what happens, and wouldn’t you know they came within a game of doing it.

Along the way, Clemens’ duty to Pettitte expanded to include Bagwell and Biggio, and the rest of the organization, and he couldn’t leave them when Carlos Beltran had, and winter was spring, and off he went again. Two months in, Lance Berkman had missed five weeks because of off-season surgery, Bagwell’s shoulder was useless, and the Astros were 15-30.

If he’d been perfectly honest then, Clemens said, “I’d probably have picked a date in September when I’d wave goodbye again.”

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Yet, here they are, just off the lead in the wild-card race, Clemens, Pettitte and Roy Oswalt dragging the offense through the heart of summer, Bagwell close to returning from surgery, and more than a month left to catch the Philadelphia Phillies. And, in a short series, would there be three more daunting pitchers than Clemens, Pettitte and Oswalt?

In a spare moment between starts, Pettitte considered the situation he helped create, Clemens’ schedule, the ruckus it might have brought in a place such as the Bronx.

“It wouldn’t work anywhere else, probably,” he said. “What can you say? If he was doing bad it’d probably be a problem. Instead, he comes in and deals every time he pitches.

“I wouldn’t do that. But, I guess at age 43 I might have a different perspective. That’s just me. I would feel like I would need to be around. Again, at 40-something, maybe not.”

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The Astros hardly think about it. Nobody watches the door. The pitching coach, Jim Hickey, almost never talks to Clemens when Clemens is away. When he returns, they hand him the ball, and fastballs pour over the outside corner, and the remarkable becomes routine.

“There are other situations of 24 and 1 in Major League Baseball that hasn’t worked or wouldn’t work,” Hickey said. “Everybody knows what’s going on when he’s gone. He’s absolutely preparing for that next W. And then the performance. The performance is just elite.”

Many of the Astros have come to the same conclusion, that there is more to Clemens than the obvious. There are dozens of pitchers with harder fastballs. There are fresher arms.

And, yet, in terms of earned runs allowed, there have been only three seasons better than Clemens’ in the last 85 years -- Bob Gibson had a 1.12 ERA in 1968, Dwight Gooden a 1.53 ERA in 1985 and Greg Maddux a 1.56 ERA in 1994.

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“I don’t think there’s any one specific way that he does it,” Hickey said. “But he has an ability to never ever feel like he’s the one who’s in trouble.”

Clemens does have a talent for locating the low, outside corner of the strike zone, Hickey granted, and still has a taste for “cleaning up” hitters inside. His precise mechanics keep his body on a line behind the ball and, as a result, Hickey said, “The ball rides through the strike zone, almost glides through it.

“He doesn’t just blow guys away, he locks them up. I also think he reaps the benefit of his reputation that he’s a guy who pitches inside, but he probably pitches inside less than most right now.”

Unlike many in his generation, Clemens appears destined to leave the game with more wins out there. He’ll pitch today for his 340th victory, and perhaps to further his cause for an eighth Cy Young Award. He’s not sure about next year, or says he isn’t, but admits a life led between baseball and family is complicated and exhausting. His back has been sore lately, going, as it is, on 4,900 innings, regular and postseasons combined.

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It has thrilled him, he said, to have his body of work “reach out and touch some historic people,” those wins and strikeouts and consistency moving Pettitte to observe, “I think he’s the greatest pitcher ever to play the game.”

It’s a funny thing, though, having more wins than any living pitcher, being a great pitcher, and wanting to be an average dad.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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Aces full

Pitchers with three or more Cy Young Awards:

SEVEN

* Roger Clemens, Boston, 1986-87, 1991; Toronto 1997-98; N.Y. Yankees 2001; Houston, 2004.

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FIVE

* Randy Johnson, Seattle 1995; Arizona 1999-2002.

FOUR

* Steve Carlton, Philadelphia, 1972, 1977, 1980, 1982.

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* Greg Maddux, Chicago Cubs, 1992; Atlanta, 1993-95.

THREE

* Sandy Koufax, Dodgers, 1963, 1965-66.

* Tom Seaver, N.Y. Mets, 1969, 1973, 1975.

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* Jim Palmer, Baltimore, 1973, 1975-76.

* Pedro Martinez, Montreal, 1997; Boston 1999-2000.

Sources: Baseball-reference.com; Baseball-almanac.com


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