Dec. 8, 2005, 12:11AM
By DAVID BARRON
The Houston Chronicle
In the giddy days of January 2004, with Houston engaged in a collective pinch to assure itself that Roger Clemens really was coming home to pitch for the Astros, skeptics speculated Clemens might soil his Hall of Fame credentials by pitching again at age 41.
It was a fair question for the master of all statisticians, baseball historian Bill James, whose predictions that day would become astonishing reality in Clemens' brief but spectacular career in Houston.
"Could he damage his legacy? Sure," James wrote in an e-mail to the Chronicle. "But he could build on it as well. Suppose he goes 15-8 and helps the Astros to the World Series. Suppose he goes 19-8 and wins another Cy Young Award."
Two years later, we no longer have to suppose. In 2004, Clemens went 18-4 and won an unprecedented seventh Cy Young Award. In 2005, he went 13-8 with a league-leading 1.87 ERA as Houston advanced to its first World Series.
Getting better with age
In a two-year coda that may or may not signal the end of his baseball career, Clemens solidified his stature among the game's greats.
"He's become even more of a legend," said author, broadcaster and former Astros pitcher and manager Larry Dierker. "But you're right in saying that he could have damaged his record. A lot of guys do."
While conducting research for a book he hopes to publish next year on baseball's all-time greats, Dierker said he compiled a list of more than a dozen pitchers who over 10 good seasons had ERAs in the 2.50 to 3.00 range.
"But for their careers, a lot of them wound up over 3.00 because they kept pitching," Dierker said. "It's that way with everybody. The longer you play, the more your records are diluted.
"But Clemens was able to maintain his ERA. It actually got lower (from 3.19 when he retired from the New York Yankees after the 2003 season to 3.12 after two years in Houston).
"He benefited from pitching in the National League, but what he was able to accomplish here added to his legend rather than detracted from it."
Moving up lists
In a game where numbers are everything, Clemens certainly benefited from playing in Houston. His two All-Star appearances in an Astros uniform boosted his career total to 11.
His 31 wins in Houston improved his spot on the career list from 17th with 310 wins to ninth with 341. He moved into second place on the career strikeout list at 4,502, trailing only Nolan Ryan. He is now 10th in career starts and 19th in innings pitched.
By pitching so well into his 40s, Clemens also placed himself alongside Ryan as the best of Texas pitchers.
They ranked 1-2, in fact, in a recent ESPN documentary rating the best performances by athletes in their 40s.
"Roger is the greatest pitcher in his 40s of anyone," Peter Gammons, the longtime baseball writer for the Boston Globe who now works for ESPN, said in the documentary. "To dominate the way he's done these last two years is incomprehensible."
Added Hall of Famer Don Sutton in the same show: "Every time I watch Roger Clemens go to the mound, I keep thinking, that old dude's dealing. ... I admire his work ethic, I admire his passion for the game, and I certainly admire his performance."
But Houston benefited as well by Clemens' presence, said former Phillies first baseman John Kruk, now an analyst for ESPN.
"What he did in Houston was above and beyond the call of duty," Kruk said Wednesday. "At the All-Star Game (in 2004), he took it upon himself to entertain the world. Granted, he didn't pitch well, but he accomplished his goal. Baseball in Houston was alive and well.
"I will never take away anything that Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio did for the Astros, but Roger Clemens did more for that organization in two years than anybody."
Raised franchise a notch
Even if Clemens doesn't return — some speculated Wednesday he might re-sign with the Astros after pitching for the United States in the inaugural world baseball tournament next spring — Kruk said the Astros will continue to benefit from his presence and his performance.
"Roger Clemens didn't have to say a word to anybody on that pitching staff," Kruk said. "All they had to do was watch him. You learn from the best, and he's the best."
Though the Astros still trail the Yankees, Mets, Red Sox and the California teams as a contender for big-time free agents, "Roger Clemens made people think about the Astros," Kruk said.
"When he's gone, it will free up money (for payroll). You'd be crazy not to go there. If I were a position player, you have to look at Andy Pettitte and Roy Oswalt and Brandon Backe, and you know they'll find another pitcher. Who wouldn't want to go there?"
Worth the risk
James said two years ago that Clemens will go into the books as one of the five best pitchers in baseball history, and his performance in Houston did nothing to change that.
"That's what the game's about — taking on that risk in the effort to better yourself," James wrote in 2004.
"I've got no sympathy for the guys who want to rush to the sidelines, and I have always observed that that's not really something athletes do. It's something that people who aren't competitive think that athletes ought to do. (But) there's plenty of time to be old."
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