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Rocket's last glare

Posted: Thursday, October 23, 2003

A 94 mph fastball for a strikeout. The New York Yankees' Roger Clemens ended his final start in the World Series in trademark fashion, the stadium sparkling with flashbulbs as thousands of fans photographed his last pitch.

It was 10:43 p.m. Wednesday, one more goosebump moment in a storied career.

Clemens caught Florida's Luis Castillo looking to close out the seventh inning, then pumped his fist, slapped his glove and was greeted by teammates as he got to the dugout. The crowd of 65,934 knowing he would be taken out for reliever Jeff Nelson rose to give the Rocket a long, warm ovation.

Clemens acknowledged the crowd with a curtain call, doffing his cap to the fans and to several Marlins who had tipped their caps to him.

It was a memorable performance: six shutout innings after a shaky first, and five strikeouts that gave him 48 for his career, tied for 10th in World Series history with Christy Mathewson. Clemens threw 109 pitches, 76 for strikes.

Two innings later, the Yankees made sure he didn't take the loss, scoring two runs with two outs in the ninth to tie the game 3-3.

An hour and 45 minutes after Clemens left, Florida came back to win 4-3 on Alex Gonzalez's homer in the 12th inning.

One of the most romantic visions of sports is the sunset fantasy, a champion going out like a champion, aglow in victory, the cheers of the crowd resonating as background music.

Fade-out to the closing scene: the hero playing catch with his son in the back yard, smiles of contentment on their faces.

Clemens took the mound against the Marlins with that very dream in mind. An ovation mixed with scattered boos greeted the announcement of his name and he looked fearsome as ever when he came out to pitch, jaw blackened by several days' growth.

But looks and reputation can carry a pitcher only so far.

In a two-out, first-inning rally, the Marlins racked Clemens for three runs on five straight hits, including a two-run homer by Miguel Cabrera after Clemens buzzed him with a high, inside pitch. Clemens threw 42 pitches before he got the third out.

The Yankees helped him with a run in the second inning, and Clemens settled down to dispatch the Marlins on eight pitches in the bottom of the inning.

Clemens tried to help himself by looping a broken-bat single his first World Series hit to lead off the fifth inning, but the Yankees couldn't capitalize on it. Yet the way Clemens pitched or hit mattered less than the fact he was starting in a World Series one last time.

The fantasy happens more often in Hollywood than it does in real life, where athletes tend to linger past their prime, muscles and joints aching, the stadium silent as their cleats clatter through the tunnel on their way out.

The game is seductive, making them think they're forever young. They need the cheers, the juice, the money, so they stay longer than they should. Or fate hands them a raw deal and they never get the chance to play on the grand stage.

It's tough to know when to quit. The time is different for every athlete, and the best time is when they know deep down that the passion is gone for training and traveling and sacrificing their families for their teammates. Clemens came to that point this season.

Only one Hall of Fame pitcher finished his career in the World Series Sandy Koufax in 1966. Koufax was just 30 when he decided he no longer wanted to pitch with an arthritic left elbow. That final game in Dodger Stadium wasn't pretty he left after six innings, trailing 4-0 in Game 2 of Baltimore's sweep to the title yet he still could take pride in winning a pennant and departing after a Series.

For the 41-year-old Clemens, a six-time Cy Young award winner who surely will join Koufax in Cooperstown on a first-ballot vote when he's eligible in 2009, his last start was an occasion to celebrate with more than 50 family members, friends and former teammates in the stands.

Surprisingly sentimental for a man who prides himself on toughness and is feared by batters as an intimidator, Clemens plans to save his cap, his jersey and a handful of dirt from the mound, just as he did from the game earlier this season when he gained his 300th victory and 4,000th strikeout.

The Rocket jogged onto the field that night in Yankee Stadium as Elton John's ''Rocket Man'' blasted from the public-address system. The giddy scene ended with his four sons, all K's, like his strikeouts Koby, Kory, Kacy and Kody scooping up dirt from the mound and putting it in bags as keepsakes. Clemens savored all the special moments this season, pitching with a kind of calm heat once he had passed the big milestones on the way to 310 wins and 4,099 strikeouts and into the fiery playoffs against his first team, the Boston Red Sox.

Clemens has had several ''last starts'' this season the last regular season game, the last one against Boston, the last one in Yankee Stadium but this truly is the end. He could relieve in Game 7 if the Series goes that far, but he insists he will not be enticed to return next season, either for the Yankees or the Rangers in his home state of Texas.

''I'm dead serious on what I'm doing,'' Clemens said, though he wouldn't rule out a return to baseball for the Olympics.

''At the point that next summer rolls around, I don't know how my body's going to feel. I don't know if I'm going to feel that I want to get up off that couch and do the arm exercises, the running, the lifting that I need to do to be a power pitcher.''

That rigorous regimen throughout the year is what enabled Clemens to pitch as well he has since 1996, when Boston let him go with the notion that he had already peaked. All he did since then was win Cy Young awards at Toronto in 1997 and '98, and another one with the Yankees in 2001 while going 20-3. This year he went 17-9 with a 3.91 ERA and 190 strikeouts. No one doubts that he could keep going.

Happy Hollywood endings don't often happen in real life. This time one did.

Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at swilstein@ap.org



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