AMID THE greenexpanse of outfield in an empty ballpark, as a train whistle fades in thedistance, a father and son play catch. The baseball--it, too,whistles--connects them, as it does every father, even those who don't haveseven Cy Young Awards and 4,502 strikeouts, and every son, even those who arenot minor leaguers. Last Friday in Applebee's Park, the home field of the ClassA Lexington (Ky.) Legends, Roger Clemens, the legendary 43-year-oldrighthander, and Koby Clemens, his 19-year-old son and a Legends third baseman,were connected by the literal give-and-take of this American ritual and,Rockwell be damned, some serious, let-'er-rip, in-your-face trash talking.
"Man, I'mstarting to taste breakfast again," Roger says. "You?"
"Nope, I'mfine," Koby says.
"Yeah, mustbe nice to be young."
"Yep. Notlike you. Mr. 3,000. You look like Bernie Mac, the old guy trying to make acomeback."
"Yeah, we'llsee whose tongue is hanging out."
"And thatgreen suit? What was up with that?"
Koby still can'tget over the green suit. One of those what-was-I-thinking choices, preserved bythe magic of videotape. The evening before, Roger and Koby had been stretchingtogether on the floor of the tiny clubhouse in Lexington--where, on Tuesday,Roger was scheduled to begin a three-start minor league tour in preparation forhis return to the Houston Astros--while ESPN showed a retrospective of theveteran's 22-year career.
"I want tosee this," said Koby. Then he echoed the announcer saying, "TheRocket's red glare!"
"Yeah, redglare. You'll find out about that in about 20 minutes, when you get in the[batting] cage."
One clip showedRoger pitching in 1986, the year Koby was born.
"That was thelast calm meal I had," said Roger. "Then you came along. You never satstill."
The narratormentioned how Dan Duquette, then the Red Sox general manager, let Roger leaveBoston as a free agent after the 1996 season because he thought Roger wasentering "the twilight of his career."
"Twilight?" Koby retorted. "Right. He has more Cy Youngs after thatthan before."
Duquette, on thetape, mentioned that Roger had a losing record that year.
"Yeah,"Roger said sarcastically, "it had nothing to do with Dan's fantasy leagueteam he put together, a softball team."
The green suit,fairly glowing, popped up in a clip of Roger accepting a Cy Young. Kobyhowled.
"What is upwith that? What are you wearing?"
A few minuteslater, the father rose, grabbed his equipment bag and said, "All right,kiddo. Let's go."
THERE WERE manyreasons why Clemens could not, for a third straight season, follow through onhis plans to retire. There is the money, of course: In return for making, atmost, 18 regular-season starts he will be paid about $12.3 million, theprorated portion of a $22,000,022 full-season deal (the latter figure a tributeto his uniform number as well as a testament to how badly the Astros, Red Sox,Texas Rangers and New York Yankees all wanted him). It's the highestfull-season salary in baseball this year and the most ever for a pitcher.
"That's allRandy Hendricks," Clemens says of one of his agents. "He loves thatstuff. I didn't even know about it. If people say it's about the money, yeah,right, as if that's what I need. I could be out playing on the 10 best golfcourses in the country right now. [Money] is not it."
Says oneexecutive of a team in the bidding, "Everybody was prepared to go to $22million, at least. It wasn't about the money." The Red Sox, for instance,wanted Clemens so badly they basically told him he could pitch whenever hewanted, floating plans for him to pitch a full year, a half year and just aboutanything in between, including one proposal in which he would pitch only onSundays, as some aging stars did a half century ago.
There was hismajor-league-leading 1.87 ERA last season, which convinced him he could stillperform at a high level as a power pitcher--though, as evidenced by hishamstring injury in the World Series, perhaps not for six or seven months.
There was theconvenience of pitching for his hometown team, with permission to sometimesleave the club in between starts to watch Koby play minor league ball or histhree younger sons compete in their sports. (The Yankees' team policy prohibitssuch a freedom.)
There was thecarrot of another postseason, though Houston, even with Clemens being anobvious upgrade over rookie Fernando Nieve beginning with his scheduled returnon June 22, was 27-30 at week's end, 8 1/2 games behind St. Louis and trailingseven teams in the wild-card race. (The Cardinals suddenly seemed much morevulnerable last Saturday, after first baseman Albert Pujols, who had been onpace for records of 74 home runs and 191 RBIs, suffered a strained rightoblique muscle while chasing down a pop-up. The injury is expected to keep himsidelined for three to six weeks.)
But maybe thebiggest reason why Clemens was pitching again could be found in that Legendsclubhouse, where the name tags on the lockers are strips of masking tape, wherethe bulletin board includes the South Atlantic League Hotel Behavior Policy,where soft drinks must be purchased from a vending machine and where ahandwritten sign reminds players NO HAIRCUTS OR DIRTY CLEATS IN BATHROOM. LastFriday, Clemens, soaked in sweat mid-workout, stood for one becalmed moment inthe tiny trainer's room to ponder that simple question: Why?
"I guess..." he said, pausing to think and wipe his face with a towel, "I guessit's in my blood. It's what I do.
"I was reallytorn. By day I'd push my body hard and feel good about it. And by night I'd laythere awake in bed and think, There's no way. That night when we did the deal,I couldn't sleep. Just thinking about going through all this again. So manypeople helped me to get to that point. My trainers, agents, family, teammates... well, now it's all on me."
As the fathersweated, so, too, did the son next to him. Koby was "the wild card" inhis decision to return, Roger says, and not just because they would beteammates for a week in Lexington. Koby dislocated his left pinky slidingheadfirst into first base in late April and went to the family's suburban homein Houston for his rehabilitation. Roger suddenly had a workout partner. Histraining intensified. His body--Roger always talks about his body in thatdetached way--responded.
Competition, tobe sure, fuels both father and son. Last Thursday in Lexington, for instance,Roger stood on the mound in the twilight--the real twilight this time, the sunlow enough to light his wide face under the brim of his Legends cap. Koby, atbat, stood in the shadows. Then Roger threw the baseball with such force thathis grunt echoed off the seats of the empty ballpark. The pitch, as he says,had "some hair on it" and broke Koby's bat, the second one to die sucha death. That was the end of batting practice.
"You know thefirst thing that I'm buying with the money?" Roger would say later. "Anice machine. It takes four hours after a game for my body to recover. I comehome and pack my body in ice a second time: back, knee, shoulder, legs. I don'tsit in a chair. I have to sit on the floor. The night I agreed to do thisagain? That's what I thought about."
Soon RogerClemens, who turns 44 in August, again will sit on the floor packed in ice, andhis body will remind him why he still pitches. For in that familiar fatigue andsoreness, there is comfort too.