HOUSTON – The middle-aged man was sweating. Roger Clemens, now 43 years old, began the fourth incarnation of his baseball career in front of 43,769 paid customers at Minute Maid Park, the biggest crowd the stadium had ever seen, and salty beads were gathering on his brow in the second inning.
Do not mistake the perspiration as pressure. Clemens seems impervious to such things. This was simply age, which chases athletes like a race car going after the pace car. Sooner than later, it catches up.
And that's what made Clemens' start Thursday night for the Houston Astros so compelling: He's the pace car that keeps racing. Like him or don't – agree or disagree with his motives for returning to baseball – one must marvel at what he does on the baseball field, for he is the sort of player whose story deserves to be told to grandchildren as the consummate protagonist – the big middle-aged man that could.
"I'm trying to fight off age as best I can," Clemens said.
The first battle lasted 100 pitches on the dot and went in the scorebook as a loss for Clemens. In a 4-2 loss to the Minnesota Twins, he threw five innings, gave up two runs and looked great for short stretches and rusty for others and decent enough altogether – like someone who sat out the season's first two months.
For this game, and for the remainder of the season that will see him paid more than $12 million (the prorated number of his $22 million contract), Clemens prepared by pitching thrice to minor leaguers, most of whose closest encounter with Clemens was through their baseball-card collections.
All of this came about in May when Clemens decided to un-retire. Twice before Clemens had retired, like they were his versions of a mid-life crisis, and twice he returned. While playing baseball allows age to catch so many of his contemporaries, it invigorates Clemens – keeps him looking and feeling young – prompting teammates to wonder where, exactly, they'll be on their 43rd birthdays.
"I will not be pitching for the Houston Astros," said third baseman Morgan Ensberg, 30. "I'll be into Pony League and youth basketball and Pop Warner football for my kids. I'll be a big PTA guy. I'll be paying for pizza parties and helping with the Frito boats. I will do everything a dorky dad does.
"But I promise you, I will not be pitching for the Houston Astros. Unless they pay me $22 million a year. Then I'll learn to pitch."
Clemens has pitched for 23 years. He has won 341 games, struck out 4,506 batters and taken home seven Cy Young Awards. A compelling case can be made for him as the best pitcher in history, though he didn't exactly look it Thursday.
His first pitch, a fastball strike to Twins leadoff hitter Luis Castillo, registered at 91 mph. The crowd let forth a wail, much as it did for practically every breath Clemens took. He worked out of an error he committed on a Castillo comebacker with a double play and finished a 12-pitch inning by striking out Joe Mauer, baseball's leading hitter, on a split-finger fastball.
Clemens bounded off the field. He looked 23 if not for the gritting of his teeth.
"I can imagine it hurts. I'm glad I was managing [at 43]," Astros manager Phil Garner said. "I retired at 39, and any given day I thought I could play. But I couldn't play two days in a row. I see you can do it as a reliever. If you're pitching one batter, that's realistic. If you're a starter, that's tough to do, to push through the routines and workouts. You just don't bounce back as quick."
Two hitters got on in the second inning against Clemens, and he stranded them with a 93-mph fastball Jason Bartlett swung through – the hardest pitch Clemens threw all night.
While his teammates still call him "Rocket," Clemens isn't the pitcher who struck out 20 in one game as a 23-year-old. He might touch 94 or 95 mph if he regains all the strength in his legs, and no longer is that a given. Clemens wins on guile, and in the third inning, it foundered.
By the time the half-inning ended, Clemens had thrown 38 pitches, yielded three hits, walked one and given up two runs. He didn't bound to the dugout. He walked. He looked 43.
For the rest of the season – and the rest of his career, however long that lasts – Clemens will face small tasks grown large because of his age. How does he recover from bad innings? How does he compensate when he has trouble locating his fastball, as he did Thursday, or when his splitter won't dive? How does he succeed not only because of who he is but in spite of it?
Twins manager Ron Gardenhire spent parts of five seasons with the New York Mets and started managing before he hit 30. He contemplated the idea of succeeding professionally at 43 years old and said, "Yeah. In a 40-and-over league."
Even with more 40-year-olds in baseball than ever, the standard for Clemens sits a level above. Last year, he posted a 1.87 earned-run average, the best of his career. It seems almost immaterial that on Thursday he opposed someone almost half his age, the Twins' magnificent 22-year-old left-hander Francisco Liriano, a future Cy Young winner who stifled the Astros.
Clemens was expected to win, just as he's expected to energize Houston, just as he's expected to practically save lives, which he may very well do with a $3 million donation to Memorial Hermann Hospital.
Partly because Clemens expects these things of himself. He's 43, and he still wants to conquer the world.
"I know two things," Astros catcher Brad Ausmus said. "When I'm 43, I won't be playing baseball. And I won't be catching Roger Clemens."
Ausmus would not promise that when he's 43, in six years, Clemens won't still be pitching.
"I've got kids half my age putting their nose on the outside corner," Clemens said. "But that's how it is. Take a couple Advil and go get 'em."
Anything to ensure the big middle-aged man that could still can.