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For the love of the game

HOUSTON -- It has to rain soon. You can feel the humidity as it settles like a blanket over the empty baseball field at Westfield High School, home of the Mustangs. The only light peeking through the gray clouds lends the brick visitor's dugout a dappled skin. The field is just miles from the George R. Brown Convention Center, where Roger Clemens held a press conference on Monday to refute his former personal trainer's claims that he used steroids and human growth hormone. Just a few miles away, but a million miles away.

When Congress began expressing its interest in steroids in baseball a few years ago, legislators explicitly stated that the fate of America's children, our young baseball men and women who emulate their larger- (and more-muscular)-than-life heroes, hung in the balance. Impressionable young players such as those on the Mustangs, Congress insisted, are at risk. Talking to the Mustangs themselves, though, you'd never guess it, even here, in Houston, the unwitting new center of the steroids controversy.

"I hope it turns out to be false," Jake St. Laurent, a junior pitcher and third baseman at Westfield, says of the Clemens steroid allegations. St. Laurent is wearing a Red Sox cap before Tuesday morning's off-season workout. He says he started pitching because Clemens "was my idol." He guesses that the current imbroglio might dull some peoples' passion for the game of baseball.

"Some things that came up, you can't deny," he says solemnly. So has his passion waned? "No. No sir. Not at all."

How about Brent Hartman, the senior catcher? "I hope [Clemens] didn't do it," he says. "But it doesn't affect the way I feel about baseball."

Matt Farmer, a catcher and corner infielder, says that Clemens' name comes up in school. "I've talked about [Clemens' interview on 60 Minutes] in calculus class with the teacher," he says. "It's kind of become a classroom discussion type thing." Farmer says he hasn't chosen a side between Clemens and accuser Brian McNamee, but "I wouldn't be surprised [if Clemens used performance enhancing drugs], given the amount of people that do it." But any hint of his cynicism stops at the foul line. "Maybe it means [professional baseball players] should get a little less respect," Farmer says. "Maybe. But it doesn't change my behavior. I just try to go out there and work hard."

What about their coach? He's been around too long not to be more jaded, right? Coach Mario Barrett is the vice president of membership for the Texas High School Baseball Coaches Association, the group that has continually been asked whether it will still permit Clemens to speak at its annual convention in Waco next week. (The answer is yes). Even without the black, 2004 Houston All-Star Game polo shirt, and the baseball diamond clock on the wall, you might guess that Barrett is a baseball man. Something about the thick ballplayer forearms gives him away. Get him talking about his trip to Wrigley Field, and it's a sure thing.

Barrett went to College Station two weeks ago for a meeting where the association discussed the convention, including whether Clemens should be allowed to speak. Much has been made of the topic in the press.

"Honestly," says Barrett, "the discussion on that was about six or seven minutes." The association issued a quick "no comment" and has since stood behind Clemens, who has spoken at the convention before. Barrett fondly remembers when Clemens, during his rehab, came to the Texas high school all-star game to watch his son, Koby. "[Clemens] threw bullpen in front of about 80 kids," Barrett says. "He was in the dugout, he gave tips to a kid who was icing his arm. For [the kids] it was the greatest thing since sliced bread."

Barrett is following the Clemens controversy, but, like his players, it hasn't changed how he feels, for the most apart, about Clemens' accomplishments, and certainly not about baseball, major league or otherwise. "I started playing with a broom stick when I was eight or nine, with a ball made of paper with tape wrapped around it" says Barrett, who has coached in Texas for 30 years. "Those balls do unravel after a while," he adds with a thoughtful smile.

"None of this really changes anything," Barrett continues. "I still wear my hat the same way, wear my hair short, have no facial hair. If the ball's thrown inside, I'll get hit, because that's what you do. I teach pitchers to throw inside, because that's what you do."

Maybe it's obvious, or trite, but amid the barrage of steroid headlines and broadcasts it's not so bad to take a minute to listen to someone like Barrett and remember that around Houston, as on most of the diamonds in this country, baseball will go on as usual.

"They just like to play," Barrett says of his Mustangs. "One of them once told me, 'Coach, if anything ever happened to you, we'd get somebody else and play for him too.' "

"I hope he was kidding a little," says Barrett. "But they're in this for the game."

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