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Published: Sunday, 1/18/2004

Clemens won t hurt his legacy

Old ballplayers don t fade away, they jump to another team.

Roger Clemens, the 41-year-old pitcher late of the New York Yankees who was supposed to retire so he could spend more time with his family, became the latest example of a respected elder statesman in jockdom changing his mind.

Clemens left the impression he was finished with baseball. He is not.

He signed a one-year, $5 million contract with the Houston Astros, forging an unexpected reunion with former Yankees teammate and good friend Andy Pettitte after insisting for more than a year that 2003 would be his final season.

New York general manager Brian Cashman believed Clemens retirement pledge and didn t try to re-sign him.

What the heck was Clemens talking about?

Clemens, who apparently talks out of both sides of his mouth as well as he throws strikes to both sides of the plate, remains a kid at heart.

Love of family or advanced age won t prevent him from fulfilling his baseball fix when there s money to be made, games to be won, and records to be broken.

Clemens is 310-160 in 20 seasons, ranking him 17th on the career win list. He ranks third all-time with 4,099 strikeouts, needing 38 more to eclipse Steve Carlton for second place.

There s a popular theory that an athlete s professional life ends when the cheering stops.

Be it Michael Jordan or Clemens, all you have to do is follow history.

What s missing in retirement for the great ones is the thrill of competition, the kinship with teammates and the adoration of fans.

Clemens, who has often said he wants a Yankees emblem on his Hall of Fame cap, is only doing what comes naturally. He s the latest in a long line of talented senior athletes who, upon passing the gun lap, refuse to cross the finish line.

Clemens reached the finish line and turned around. His “retirement” lasted 78 days.

You look at his numbers and wonder why he considered hanging it up in the first place.

He was 17-9 with a 3.91 ERA in 2003. He can still fire a fastball through a car wash without getting the ball wet and always gives a professional effort on the mound.

Clemens, he has explained many times in the last few days, didn t plan on coming back when he left the Yankees.

Despite his public denials, despite the standing ovation he received after his performance in Game 4 of the World Series in what was supposed to have been his farewell game, deep down inside, Clemens knew.

He hasn t gotten baseball out of his system. Far from it.

Too many of the great ones returned when they should have stayed retired. Jordan often appeared out of his superstar element during his final comeback.

Clemens, in his mind, never really left baseball.

The mere thought of retirement forced him to rethink the promise he made to his family, that 2003 would be his final season.

Clemens doesn t do anything as well as he plays baseball. A million rounds of golf couldn t loosen the grip that baseball has on him.

Baseball defines him. It s that way for most athletes, but especially the great ones.

Clemens still has it. He won t smear his legacy by not knowing when to say when.



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