Really, no pressure

Posted: Monday, June 02, 2003

It's a nice round number, one that Roger Clemens is learning doesn't always come easy.

It has heft, style, substance, polish and a first-class ring to it. It calls to mind sacrifice and a journey that allows precious few missteps.

So don't get too attached to the idea of 300 wins.

Because once Clemens seals the deal and relax, he will, despite Sunday's no-decision in the Yankees' 10-9 win over the Tigers in 17 innings you won't see it again for at least another season.

And for who knows how long after that.

The Rocket failed for a second straight start in his attempt to join a club that has admitted just 20 members in the 130-something years pro baseball has been played. If there is any consolation, it's that he'll try again next Saturday at Wrigley Field against the Cubs' Kerry Wood, a 25-year-old flame-throwing Texan who's often been compared to Clemens.

And with typical bravado, the older Texan said, ''I'll be looking forward to it.''

A preview of what's in store for Chicago was evident everywhere you looked at the start of this one at Comerica Park.

Fans filled every inch of standing room along both outfield concourses and a crowd gathered atop the deck of a parking garage out beyond the left-center field wall. In a wonderful coincidence, Ernie Harwell, the legendary Tigers broadcaster, came out of retirement for one game and lent his voice to the occasion. Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson filled in for The Boss as the Yankees' ranking dignitary, holding court in the clubhouse before the game.

Clemens' oldest son, 16-year-old Koby, was the batboy; unfortunately, the Yankees didn't bring the heavy lumber in until it was too late to do his dad much good.

''I was nervous,'' Derek Jeter acknowledged afterward. ''Everybody was pulling so hard for him to get it and get it over with. I think we started pressing.''

That included Clemens, who cruised into the fifth inning with a 7-1 lead and command of all his pitches. But after he retired Shane Halter on a routine groundout, the entire Yankee machine started throwing off parts like a seized engine bloc.

Clemens surrendered four straight hits, Juan Rivera made an error in left, Clemens uncorked a wild pitch that flew all the way to the wall behind home, then both Jeter and Alfonso Soriano made uncharacteristic bobbles.

When the inning ended, mercifully, it was 7-6 and Clemens was already thinking about the showers.

''When the ball starts getting thrown around like that, there's not too much you can do,'' he said.

But despite footing the bill for a 60-strong party of family and friends as he moves from town to town chasing of No. 300, Clemens insisted the pursuit was not causing a disruption.

''No relief or commotion,'' he said. ''You just plan on it. It becomes a part of the process.''

After all, Clemens didn't get into the game with a number in mind, and even though he will retire at the end of the season, he hasn't settled on any final numbers, either.

That helps explain how all those wins, the record six Cy Young awards, the MVPs and championship rings came to be stretched end to end across all those years in the first place: one at a time.

And so, instead of worrying about Clemens, worry about who will try and follow him.

It has been 13 years since Nolan Ryan reached that plateau and you can count on your thumb the number of guys on the horizon who are sure to follow Clemens. That would be Atlanta's Greg Maddux, who is only 23 wins shy of the 300-mark.

After that, though, it gets dicey.

Some of the great names that never got there: Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Bob Feller, Whitey Ford, Carl Hubbell, Jim Palmer and Ferguson Jenkins.

Some of the great names that probably won't:

Tom Glavine, who was Maddux's sidekick in Atlanta for years, needs only 53. But like Maddux, the new New York Met is already 37.

Randy Johnson has averaged 20 wins the last four seasons for the Diamondbacks, but he's only a year younger than The Rocket, 60 wins behind Clemens' pace, and could wind up losing half this season because of knee surgery.

Mike Mussina is 111 wins short and on the same pace as his Yankees teammate, but he would need to stay that course the next half-dozen seasons to finish the task.

And if that sounds daunting, imagine what awaits the best pitchers of the generation behind Mussina.

Oakland's brilliant trio of young starters, Mark Mulder, Barry Zito and Tim Hudson, could all average 15 wins a season through their 40th birthdays and still fall short of 300.

And then there's the guys behind them.

Jeremy Bonderman, who started Sunday for the Tigers, was a year old when Clemens made his major league debut in 1984. Until he made the Tigers roster this spring, Bonderman hadn't pitched at any level above Class A.

''Just being out here for 20 years,'' he said, ''is a huge accomplishment.''

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at

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