John Donovan
Monday May 7th, 2007

If you've ever listened to Roger Clemens, or if you've listened to him lately, you know that winning the World Series always has been his goal. It's why he plays. It's why he's still playing. The man, clearly, has a thing for rings.

Yeah, sure, the competition is wonderful, and the guys in the clubhouse, and the money is always nice. His paychecks, if you haven't noticed, aren't getting any smaller these days. And the other benefits are pretty great, too. Clemens has been able to spend more quality time with his family the last three years -- since he first gave up that retirement folderol -- because the Astros wrote up a special set of rules that allowed him to skip out on some road trips. It's good work, if you can get it. Clemens can get it anytime he wants.

But getting to the World Series again and winning it, if you've paid attention, has been Clemens' oft-stated No. 1 out-pitch of a goal for a long, long time. That makes his decision Sunday afternoon to return to the Yankees for the pro-rated portion of $28 million bucks -- a Bronx bombshell of an announcement made at Yankee Stadium during the seventh inning stretch -- stranger than strange. Face it: If you're going to pick a team to win the World Series right now, the Yankees aren't going to be it. Clemens or no Clemens.

I mean, the Yankees? If Clemens wanted to win another World Series, wouldn't the Red Sox have been the smarter choice? The Sox have a better bullpen. They have a better rotation. They're younger and healthier and they're better looking and they're probably smarter and they have -- not an insignificant point, this one -- a 5 ½-game head start.

Really, the Yankees? Heck, a week ago, the Yankees were ready to fire their manager. A week ago, this team was being buried alive. Just last Friday, in fact, they blew a 5-0 lead, gave up eight runs in one inning and lost 15-11. To the Mariners. Nobody should lose like that. Not to the Mariners.

This is Clemens' choice? The man either has a lot of misguided faith in that team or an unhealthy belief in his own ability to change the course of baseball events.

In some ways, even Clemens' struggling hometown Astros might have been a better pick than the wayward Yankees. Scoring runs, as everybody in the greater Houston metropolitan area well knows, often takes way too much effort for the Astros, and they're already 7 ½ games behind in the standings. But the Astros are 7 ½ games behind the Brewers in the National League Central. That isn't exactly Kilimanjaro they're climbing.

Instead of the Astros or Red Sox, though, the only other teams that he considered, the Rocket is going back to New York, where the soon-to-be 45-year-old righty is figuring that a rotation of himself, Mike Mussina, Chien-Ming Wang, Andy Pettitte and whoever will be better than Boston's Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Tim Wakefield and whoever. He's banking that New York's bullpen of Brian Bruney, Luis Vizcaino, Kyle Farnsworth, Scott Proctor and Mariano Rivera will hold its own against Boston counterparts Mike Timlin, Brendan Donnelly, J. C. Romero, Hideki Okajima and Jonathan Papelbon.

This, for those of you who have been paying attention, is one honking huge gamble that Clemens is playing in his old age. Me, I'm not in on that bet right now. And I'm probably not taking it anytime this summer, either.

I'd like to give Clemens at least a little bit of credit for not automatically signing up with the favored and front-running Red Sox, for whom he played from 1984-96. Clemens probably would have been able to talk the Sox into some of those same easy-travel concessions that he evidently pulled out of the Yankees, too, though nothing beats that easy 15-minute drive to work that he had in Houston. His chances of winning the Series sure would have improved.

The fact is, though, that Clemens' ties to the Yankees -- he played with them from 1999-2003 -- proved to be just too strong for anyone else in this sweepstakes. Clemens was a teammate of many of the current Yankees, including Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Pettitte and Rivera. He won World Series titles with them in '99 and 2000, and he got to the Series with them in '01 and '03. He and Pettitte are the tightest of friends. He and manager Joe Torre are close.

The ties that once again have bound Clemens to New York run even deeper than that. They include general manager Brian Cashman (who brokered this deal, which averages about $4.5 million a month) and go all the way up to owner George Steinbrenner (he wanted Clemens, and finally signed off on the deal). Their push to get Clemens back onboard as quickly as possible -- some three weeks before he said he'd make up his mind -- cinched this deal. This signing also probably saved Torre's job for the rest of the year.

"I still have people that I don't want to let down. Cash, Mr. Steinbrenner ... I don't want to let the people down," Clemens told reporters in New York. "It's my nature. It's the way I've been brought up."

In the end, it's this simple: Clemens wants to win another World Series, and he wants to play for the Yanks. It may not work out. A lot of people think it won't.

But, to Clemens' way of thinking, it fits like a ring.

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