Day 1: Astros | Extra Innings
KISSIMMEE, Fla. – The first time they met, in 1995, Andy Pettitte was a young kid from Houston who had just made the Yankees' rotation. Roger Clemens was a superstar from Houston who was the ace of the Red Sox.
So when Pettitte approached Clemens as The Rocket ran pregame wind sprints in center field at Fenway Park, he did it with the expected nervousness of someone meeting an idol. And Clemens reacted as a Red Sox player would to a Yankee. He was short with Pettitte.
Clemens told Pettitte he knew who he was, knew he was from Houston and wished him well, but that was that. Conversation over. It was disarming. Pettitte disavowed himself from the Clemens fan club.
"Hey, I didn't want to get fined $500 in a kangaroo court [for talking to an opponent]," Clemens said Sunday with a laugh.
There were plenty of reasons to laugh and smile here in central Florida on Sunday as pitchers (including the newly acquired Pettitte and Clemens) and catchers reported to Astros camp. The two long ago patched up that disagreement. And despite being as different as West Texas and East Texas – Clemens is fiery and emotional, Pettitte is calm and quiet – they became tight friends and loyal workout partners during five seasons together with the Yankees.
So when Pettitte signed with Houston on Dec. 11, 2003, it only took a month and a day for Clemens to get swept up in the excitement, end his brief retirement and join their hometown team as well.
"I wouldn't be here if he weren't here," Clemens said. "Then the town went crazy when we signed a 20-game winner and here I am."
The fallout from signing two-fifths of the Yankees rotation – one (Pettitte) a 21-game winner last season, the other (Clemens) a sure-bet first-ballot Hall of Famer – has turned this franchise on its ear.
Phone lines at the Astros' ticket office have been jammed. Talk radio discussion in a football-mad state has been almost all baseball. And the media turnout at camp was historic for a historically under-the-radar franchise.
"I'm glad to see all of you out here," Astros manager Jimy Williams said as microphones surrounded him. "It shows you like what the club did and there is excitement out there."
It's a perfect story for a franchise that is less than storied. Two friends, two hometown heroes, two All-Stars joining a very capable club that is now confidently thinking World Series.
But in Houston, that is the expectation. And the new pitchers sure aren't shying away from it.
"Our expectations are so high now," said Clemens, who went 17-9 with a 3.91 ERA last season. "We want to get to the playoffs and win 11 games. We are accustomed to that and we expect that."
This was unforeseeable in October. Few then would have predicted Pettitte would get away from the Yankees, let alone go to Houston. While no one was 100-percent sold Clemens was serious about retirement, the Astros didn't seem a likely destination.
But the Yankees made a feeble effort to keep the popular Pettitte, allowing Houston to step in.
"I don't know," Pettitte said when asked why New York ostensibly let him go. "As long as I was there I really thought I had a great relationship with the organization. I don't think Mr. Steinbrenner wanted to get rid of me. [But] he listens to other people's advice."
The signing of the lefty out of suburban Deer Park, Texas, caused a wave of excitement in Houston. Soon Clemens, who was "retired" in Katy, Texas, was caught up in it too. In his brief retirement he had taken a vacation, eaten some desserts and played a little catch.
"And sat on the couch," he said.
Then all of a sudden everyone wanted him to pitch again. And soon he, at 41 but in great shape thanks in part to all those strenuous workouts with Pettitte, did also.
"It wasn't like he retired because he wasn't pitching good," Williams said.
Which is why he was here in the Florida sun once again. Running sprints in center field like he always has. But this time running right along with him was a guy who, in a center field long ago and far away, determined he couldn't stand his rude idol.
Funny how friendships, and careers, turn out.