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In the broken heart of Texas

About a week before Christmas, Roger Clemens was chasing a bird around his house. The Clemens family has two cockatiels - Romeo and Sweetie - and one of them (no one is sure which) had escaped the cage. With his wife watching, the Rocket reached out to try and corral the animal when it bit him on the hand.
His right hand.

"He jumped back, pulled his arm up in the air and waved it around," Debbie Clemens says. "He was mad because it was his pitching hand. Right then, I looked at him and said, 'You don't really want to retire, do you?' It was obvious. Why else would he care if the bird bit his right hand or his left hand?"

A few weeks later, on a post-New Year's flight from Hawaii back to the mainland, Clemens went up to Randy Hendricks - one of his agents, who was also on the flight - and told him, "If there's a deal to be made, go ahead and make it."

McLane, who had been badgering Hendricks about Clemens throughout the Pettitte negotiations ("He would end every conversation we had with 'Now what about Roger?'" Hendricks says with a laugh), agreed to a unique, one-year, $5 million contract that would allow Clemens to spend extra time with his family by skipping road trips on which he wasn't pitching. McLane checked with his clubhouse leaders - longtime Astros Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio - before approving the arrangement, and was told to bring the Rocket home.

Still, some Astros were reportedly displeased with the setup and Torre - like several other managers surveyed - said he wouldn't have been comfortable with one of his players having a different set of rules.

Most grumblings have been quiet, though, since the situation seems to have worked well. A week ago Roger and Debbie took their two oldest sons, Koby and Kory on a triple date - the boys brought their new girlfriends - to a Linkin Park concert.

Since Clemens warms up to "Faint", the Rocket went on stage, introduced the song and fired the crowd up a bit. Then the whole group met the band afterwards and Clemens commiserated with frontman Chester Bennington over how tough it is to wind down after a big performance. "You see, that's what I'm talking about when it's so hard for me to fall asleep after I pitch," Clemens told his sons, who laughed at him.
Later, he giggles himself and says, "I think they know they've got some pretty cool parents. But we did get the girls home before their curfews, I want you to know."

Curfew or not, both Clemens and his wife admit it's hard to imagine George Steinbrenner being too happy with one of his pitchers rocking out to "Somewhere I Belong" the night before a game. And yet with the Astros, it's all part of the deal - a night after the concert, Clemens pitched seven innings and recorded his 13th win.

Unfortunately, his team hasn't kept up. A slew of injuries and rampant underachieving offset the splashy trade for Carlos Beltran in June, leaving the Astros miles behind the Cardinals in the NL Central and futilely clinging to the hope of a September run at the wild card.

Clemens is disappointed, but not unhappy. He laughs at reports that the Astros put him on waivers with the intention of trading him, flatly denying that he ever asked Hunsicker to try and move him. Hunsicker called such reports - several of which had the Red Sox claiming Clemens and the two teams in discussions - "a farce" and says he puts his entire roster on waivers as a rule following the non-waiver trading deadline, simply to gauge the market. Several sources say Clemens was claimed by a National League team anyway (who had priority over the Red Sox), but was pulled back by the Astros along with most of their other players.

Clemens was not upset about the stories, a departure from what would have been expected earlier in his career. At various points this season he has been challenged by distractions - comments from Gary Sheffield implying that Clemens used performance-enhancing drugs, pitching to nemesis Mike Piazza in the All-Star Game and a bizarre incident in which he was ejected from his son's Little League game, to name a few - but the Rocket has refused to "fire off," as he calls it, on any of them.

"I take my time and think things through more now," he says. He wanted badly to upbraid Sheffield, but was then got word from several Yankees - he won't say who - that Sheffield's comments were not as harsh as they sounded in the newspaper. He stayed quiet and the story subsided.

As for Piazza, Clemens shies away from talking about his history with the Mets catcher, though Debbie says Piazza came up to Clemens before the All-Star Game and told him, "I know you didn't throw that bat at me" during Game 2 of the 2000 World Series.

"The point is, it almost doesn't matter what Piazza said - Roger isn't chasing after the suggestions of who he is anymore," Debbie says. "He's realized he can't do anything about the way he's portrayed; people want to see him as the way he was earlier in his career, he can't do anything about that. So he's just going to be comfortable with who he is right now."

And who he is, quite simply, is a man on the verge of another retirement. Debbie says she'll push Clemens to pitch again next year - McLane was giddy at the news - because of Pettitte. "His season is already over," she says. "They never truly got a chance to do what was planned."



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