Mission accomplished

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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Around the Clemens household, they know better than to ask whether dad is playing baseball this season.

Now, this is not easy. The baseball world, eager for a final verdict, stops when Roger Clemens talks. At the very least, being married to the Rocket must count for some nugget of insight.

"Nope," said Clemens' wife, Debbie. "So we've got an inside joke. We ask whether he's going to be my caddy at the city championship."

Sounds like a plan. Roger Clemens dressed in knickers and a beanie. Or, better yet, people calling him "Fluff."

Anything to end this seemingly endless charade of will-he-or-won't-he-retire schmaltz that's so ubiquitous it deserves its own station on satellite radio.

On Friday afternoon, Clemens pitched a beaut of a game against South Africa, which is like saying he squished an ant with a sledgehammer. He threw 4 1/3 innings, gave up one hit, didn't walk a batter, struck out six and left to a standing ovation in a 17-0 mercy (rule) killing that advanced Team USA to the second round of the World Baseball Classic.

Clemens tipped his cap and waved his glove and listened to the aural delights of various toadies proclaiming him the best thing since TiVo. Of course, at various points in his 22-year career, Clemens has been the best thing since Cabbage Patch Kids, slap bracelets, Reebok Pumps, Pogs, the Macarena and wall-mounted fish that sing.

All of those things have gone out of style. Clemens should, too.

Disappear. Adios. Vamoose.

The moment Clemens asked the Houston Astros for what the team called the Freedom Clause – the contractual provision that allows Clemens to skip games he's not scheduled to start, giving him, essentially, a one-day-a-week job – he should have stopped himself. Presumably, he'll ask the Astros or Boston Red Sox or New York Yankees or Texas Rangers, his four current flirtations, for the same deal should he play this year. Seven Cy Young awards don't give any baseball player the right to act selfish, and the Freedom Clause was the ultimate in preferential treatment.

At the end of September, when Hurricane Rita threatened the Houston area, Clemens retreated to Las Vegas with his family. Local gossip sheets said he went to Lance Burton's show, and then Penn and Teller's. Most telling was Sept. 24. Manager Phil Garner called the game "critical." Clemens was scheduled to start and pulled out because of a sore hamstring. He was seen that day in Vegas shooting a round at Rio Secco golf course.

During the playoffs, I asked Astros GM Tim Purpura his thoughts about Clemens playing hooky.

"I don't have any knowledge of that," Purpura said.

He smiled.

"I cannot verify that," Purpura said.

He smirked.

Clemens gets away with this because, at 43, he is still one of baseball's best pitchers, and some general managers would trade their first-born and the rights to a future zygote for a right-hander with a sub-2.00 ERA who fills stadiums.

All that's left for Clemens to accomplish is in the WBC. He's the United States' top pitcher and will start the third game of round two against Mexico. Four days later is the championship, and if the U.S. is there, Clemens will be, too, pitching on short rest and maybe for the last time ever.

The perfect exit.

"I wouldn't be here if I didn't feel like I could compete and compete at a high level," Clemens said. "I wanted to make sure I was ready for this. … But, you know, I don't see myself starting this season unless something really, really kicks to where I get that edge. I'm just trying to fade away a little bit.

"Maybe. I don't know. May, June, I don't know what's going to happen. I've tried to make the call a few times. It's just not working. One day I will. I'll pull out my journal and get it down on paper."

Clemens has tried this diary thing before.

The last time he retired.

"I'll miss the competition the most," he wrote in 2003 on MLB.com. "… I'll miss the one-on-one confrontations between the pitcher and batter, working with Jorge Posada, and just competing. I'll miss the noise from the crowd when I get two strikes on a hitter, striking out a guy in a big situation."

Mind you, that was the second time Clemens quit. This would make the third. Please let it be a charm.

Debbie Clemens would like Roger home, if nothing more than to help haul the kids to all their baseball games. More than that, she wants him contented.

"He was really tired and kind of burned out at the end of last season," Debbie said. "I don't want him to be as stressed as he was from the end of July on. It was really injury related. As long as his back is 100 percent wonderful, Mama Bear here will be a happy girl.

"He did caddy for me in a couple of tournaments last year. I'm a 12 handicap. I'd like him to read my putts. He's good at that."

Debbie laughed. She was holding a shopping bag. During the fourth inning Friday, she went to the Scottsdale Stadium gift store and bought Team USA jerseys for the kids and a T-shirt for herself. She didn't get anything for Roger.

Regrettably, the store doesn't sell knickers or beanies.