Only fitting to have Rocket start Game 1

Only fitting Rocket starting Game 1

CHICAGO -- When Roger Clemens is discussed these days, the appropriate tone is somewhere between reverence and awe. But it is preferable if you can work in both.

The Rocket has always been big. Now, he has become larger than that. He is one of those rare people who needs no introduction.

"He's Roger Clemens, what else can you say?" said White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko.

Konerko did go on to say a few other things about Clemens, among them: "I mean, he came in as a power pitcher like 20 years ago, and he's still a power pitcher. That's pretty unbelievable."

Clemens will be the Game 1 starter for the Houston Astros as they open the 2005 World Series against Jose Contreras and the Chicago White Sox in U.S. Cellular Field on Saturday night. This is a perfect marriage and an ideal beginning: baseball's premier event, contemporary baseball's most storied pitcher.

"I think Roger, right now, he's a better pitcher," said Sox manager Ozzie Guillen. "Before, he was dominating. Now, he's still dominating. I think for me, he's one of the greatest pitchers in the game. We've got to face the best. To be the best, you've got to win against the best."

If the opposition has complete respect for Clemens, his teammates view him with both complete respect and gratitude. Out of a brief retirement, Clemens came home to Houston for the last two seasons. The Astros could not have reached this lofty level without him. But as much as that, there is the example he sets.

"It really is amazing," closer Brad Lidge said. "The guy has meant so much for our team, and so much for a lot of us young players watching his example and his leadership. What he's meant for us the last couple of years and he's gotten better, it's just amazing to watch. I consider myself extremely lucky to have pitched a couple of years with Roger Clemens."

Amazing seems to be the operative word for Clemens, who just recorded a statistical season that would be considered astounding from a pitcher in his prime. For a 43-year-old, it is even a larger wonder. Clemens has been considered a Hall of Famer in waiting for a long time. Now he is also seen as an ongoing pitching miracle.

Except, of course, it doesn't strike Clemens that way at all. This is who he has been. This is who he still is. The Game 1 assignment is huge, and he knows it. But he also knows that it is his on long-held merit. The aches and the pains that come with being 43 years old and pitching for a living? They can't matter now.

"I'm getting the ball to go out and get something done, to get this thing started, to get it started in a positive way for my ballclub, and I plan on doing it," Clemens said Friday. "That's the bottom line. I don't care how my body feels this time of year. If you need more aspirin, if you need more heat, if you need more ice, this is the time you get it, and you don't ask questions.

"When the skipper [Phil Garner] told me I had the ball in Game 1, it comes with a lot of responsibility, which I've had in the past, but it does not diminish the fact at all that I know that so many people are counting on me. I enjoy that, I expect it, but it's the career I've led. So here we go again. I'm just thankful to have the opportunity to be here."

What excites Clemens more than usual is the idea of being here on behalf of his hometown team. That hasn't happened before. And this World Series brings a fitting honor to some longstanding and richly deserving Astros who hadn't been fortunate enough to get here previously, particularly Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio. Even for someone who has enjoyed as much success and as much prominence as Clemens has, these are fresh, new aspects.

"I can tell you everybody is excited at home," Clemens said. "It really gets you amped up again, as a player. I'm in that mode where it's working for me. I'm excited about it. I ponder to myself, this could be my last couple of starts, or your last one.

"I want to make sure that I put all of my energy, all of my efforts into this game, the respect I have for it, what it's given me back, and I think you can tell by the effort I've put forth, even at home, I've shown that to my home state and city. They're very excited. I just want them to enjoy it as much as they can, everyone -- not just my family, not just my teammates, but the entire state."

Being The Rocket means carrying that kind of heavy load. But if anybody has demonstrated that he can bear up under it, Roger Clemens has.

You heard him make that passing reference to another possible retirement. You understand why he might be pondering that, again. But you also wonder how anybody who is still performing this well, and who has always been the ultimate competitor, could walk away at this juncture. Maybe a World Series championship for the Houston team would be a fitting departure point.

Either way, it's Game 1 of the World Series and The Rocket will be on the hill. This is exactly the way things ought to go.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.