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Ross Newhan / ON BASEBALL

Final Chance for Rocket to Flare

October 22, 2003|Ross Newhan

MIAMI — This will be it. The final start of the Rocket's soaring career.

Game 4 of the World Series tonight. An unexpected reprieve and encore for Roger Clemens, but so much more.

The New York Yankees outlasted Josh Beckett and the rain -- another heavenly endorsement of the need for a retractable roof stadium here -- as they defeated the Florida Marlins, 6-1, in Game 2 Tuesday.

The Yankees lead the best of seven series, 2-1, and Clemens has the chance now to take it to 3-1, effectively delivering another championship in his final aria.

How does he separate the moment, knowing now that by next October he will be celebrating the anniversary of his retirement, from the mandate that comes with every Series start?

"I think it comes down to being a creature of habit," Clemens said. "I mean, I won't change anything I do, pregame or anything like that, and I don't really think that once I get to the stadium, once I get on the mound, it will even enter my mind in regard to it being my last start.

"I think the people that have watched the years go by, the people closest to me, will be sitting on that and caught up in it more than I will be. Once I hit the mound, I'm not going to have to look any farther than the other dugout to know what I'm up against and what I have to do."

More than 50 friends and relatives will join a capacity crowd of more than 65,000 as Clemens winds up his Hall of Fame career.

It's a bonus that seemed improbable when the 41-year-old winner of 310 regular-season games left Game 7 of the American League championship series against the Boston Red Sox losing, 4-0, in the fourth inning.

Then, of course, the Yankees rallied for a 6-5 victory in 11 innings, advancing to the World Series and providing Clemens with a chance to go out with a more positive performance.

History accompanies Clemens every time he takes the mound, and he said, "I'm very blessed that I've been able to pass and put my name alongside so many other great pitchers, great players, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to go out there again on the grandest stage with an opportunity to pitch another meaningful game.

"I have a lot of faith in my team, but I wasn't really sure I'd get this chance when I walked off [in Game 7]. The ovation [one of the loudest in recent Octobers at Yankee Stadium] was tremendous, but I felt that I had let the team, the fans and myself down.

"It wasn't the type of feeling with which I wanted my career to end.

"Now, it would be nice to cap it all off with another [World Series] ring because that's what has continued to drive me and because there are guys in our clubhouse who don't have one."

His appearance in Game 4 is definitely one for the ages. Only two pitchers were older when they started a World Series game: Jack Quinn, 45, of the 1929 Philadelphia A's and Grover Cleveland Alexander, who had two months on Clemens when he pitched for the 1928 St. Louis Cardinals.

In addition, the only two pitchers to win a World Series game after turning 40 were Dolf Luque, 43, of the 1933 New York Giants and John Franco, 40, of the 2000 New York Mets. Both registered their victories in relief and were not in their 19th year as a power pitcher, as the workaholic Clemens is.

There have not been many 41-year-olds still averaging eight strikeouts per nine innings, as Clemens did this year. Nor have many 41-year-olds won 17 games with a 3.91 earned-run average, delivering 211 2/3 regular season innings.

Clemens will make his seventh World Series start with a 3-0 record and 1.56 ERA, and his departure when it is over will mark the departure of baseball's active leader in wins, starts, innings, strikeouts (4,099) and shutouts.

His resume in the Yankee media guide spans several pages, but the statistic he is proudest of is his .660 win percentage, a figure surpassed among 300 game winners only by Mathewson and Lefty Grove.

For Yankee Manager Joe Torre, however, there is more by which Clemens' value and success should be measured than his intimidating heat and celebrated work ethic.

Torre cited Clemens' willingness to share his knowledge and that he personifies Roy Campanella's belief that you have to have a lot of little boy in you to play baseball.

"He still is a little boy in a lot of ways," Torre said. "That's the only way he can keep that enthusiasm, that willingness to put his body through the physical regimen that he follows.

"Roger still has that enthusiasm and he's been a lot of fun to be around, and a lot of that part of it we didn't know about when he was with other teams."

The Yankees, of course, don't need added motivation in the World Series. Pride, and working for George Steinbrenner, are motivation enough.

Asked, however, whether the Yankees would push harder in Clemens' last start, Derek Jeter laughed and said:

"Every time he pitches it seems to be his last start. I'm looking forward to getting his last start out of the way....

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