ASTROS MANAGER Phil Garner likes to tell the story of when Roger Clemens showed up for his first spring training with Houston in 2004. The righthander walked on to one of the practice fields and immediately told the groundskeeper, "Home plate is off [center]."
The groundskeeper scoffed at him. "No, it's not," he said. "We just did it. We [aligned it with a] laser."
"You need to fix it," Clemens insisted.
The groundskeeper checked it again. Home plate was off to one side by a quarter of an inch.
Having turned 43 in August, pitching in his 22nd major league season and possessing a jeweler's eye for detail, Clemens knows the game as intimately as any player. His knowledge, for instance, of how his body works in concert with the baseball is so refined, Garner says, that he knows to a fraction of an inch how "a slight gust of wind" can change the path of a pitch.
But when Clemens took the mound on Sept. 14 at Minute Maid Park, the game never seemed so out of square, so hard to calculate. "I was lost a little bit," he said in an emotional postgame news conference.
Only about 17 hours earlier his mother, Bess Clemens-Booher, had died at age 75 after a long battle with emphysema. Clemens decided to make his scheduled start that night to honor both the determination of his late mother and his commitment to his teammates in the National League wild-card race. With Houston badly in need of a win after dropping two games to the Florida Marlins, Clemens recovered from a shaky first inning and threw shutout ball into the seventh, willing the Astros to what became a 10--2 win and the start of a five-game winning streak.
During the ninth inning, with only a few hours of sleep over three days at his mother's bedside, Clemens sat alone in a back room of the clubhouse and wept quietly. Bess had raised Roger by herself after his stepfather, Woody Booher, died when Clemens was nine. Whenever he had good news to share, Clemens says, Bess was always "my first phone call."
This season, with a 1.77 ERA at week's end, he could become only the 10th starting pitcher since 1973 to finish with an ERA under 2.00. Because of poor offensive support, however--the Astros were averaging 3.67 runs and had been shut out eight times in his outings--Clemens was 12--7 with three starts remaining. Never has a pitcher had so little to show for pitching so well: Clemens is likely to fashion the 53rd season in history with a sub-2.00 ERA and at least 175 strikeouts, but the first that didn't yield 15 wins.
Clemens often had talked about wanting his mother to be in attendance at his Hall of Fame induction. Not long before she died, Bess tried to inspire Koby Clemens, Roger's 18-year-old son and a first-year minor leaguer in the Astros system, telling him to "set the woods on fire." Later she closed her eyes and, invoking Field of Dreams, told her son that she saw Shoeless Joe Jackson.
"Are you in the fields, Momma?" Clemens asked.
"I think I am," she said. She died shortly thereafter.
Clemens says he has not decided if he will pitch again next season. "I keep playing this silly game," he said after beating the Marlins, "and I love it."
Then, acknowledging the void left by Bess's passing, he added, "I've lost a little bit of my fire." --T.V.