Thursday, June 22, 2006

Set to face Twins, Clemens has already won over 1 of their fans

June 22, 2006, 12:21AM
Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle

On his final day as a member of the Astros' minor-league set, Roger Clemens gave a 15-year-old leukemia survivor and his family more than they expected Wednesday in their first visit to Minute Maid Park.

Tonight, Clemens will attempt to put the same charge into a crowd of 42,000 fans in his return to the Astros' major-league roster at age 43.

After a three-week road trip through the minor leagues, Clemens will open his 23rd major-league season against the Minnesota Twins before a packed house hoping and expecting to see one of baseball's greatest pitchers in top form — which is what Clemens expects, eventually, from himself.

"They should expect that. I expect to do well," he said this week. "I know I'm going to have some bumps in the road, but like I've told you all along, I wouldn't have started this if I didn't feel I could come back and help.

"I have the same expectations (as Astros fans). I want to come back and perform — and perform well."

Tonight's game is a sellout, although scalpers were offering tickets at $20 to $85 Wednesday afternoon and a few enterprising ticket holders were trying to top that price on eBay. The first 30,000 fans who walk through the turnstiles will receive commemorative Clemens posters.

$12 million and change

Clemens, who agreed to a minor-league contract with the Astros on May 31, will be added to the big-league roster today and will begin earning the pro-rated portion of a $22,000,022 salary that will equate to about $12 million and change for the balance of the season.

He already has given a substantial chunk of his paycheck to charity, having pledged Tuesday with his wife, Debbie, to donate $3 million to Memorial Hermann Hospital for a pediatric unit.

And on a day when most baseball starting pitchers are notoriously standoffish as they prepare for their next turn on the mound, Clemens on Wednesday gave an hour of his time and a few tips from his vast trove of baseball knowledge to Matthew Vosejpka, 15, a high school sophomore from Lonsdale, Minn., who visited Minute Maid Park with his family as part of a visit arranged by the Make-A-Wish Foundation in conjunction with ESPN.

Such visits are standard fare for major leaguers in all sports, and Vosejpka, who was diagnosed last July with leukemia and underwent a bone marrow transplant last November, expected the standard treatment.

"They told me to expect maybe five minutes and a handshake and maybe an autograph," he said.

Vosejpka, who pitches on three summer-league teams in his hometown, south of Minneapolis, got a good deal more than that after arriving at the park with his parents, Larry and Shelly, and younger siblings Caite, 12, and Mitchell, 11.

A few tips from the master

Indeed, Clemens shook hands all around when he emerged from the dugout at about 4:30 p.m., then signed a few autographs. But then he turned to Vosejpka, looked toward the Astros bullpen and said, "Let's go see if we can learn a few things."

So off they went, stopping along the way during batting practice to chat with Craig Biggio, Brad Ausmus, Lance Berkman and other Astros.

Having arrived at the bullpen, they got down to work with catcher Javier Bracamonte. Clemens threw a few pitches, talked to Vosejpka for a few moments, then gave him a glove and pointed toward the mound.

The kid threw a few pitches, then Clemens jumped up to put his shoulder and left leg into proper power pitching positions. Vosejpka let one fly, and Clemens said, "That was a good one right there."

Lesson completed, Clemens talked with Matthew's father, who coaches his son's Babe Ruth League team.

"We talked about throwing that four-seamer (fastball) a little different way and maybe a different grip on the (breaking ball), too," Clemens said.

Father, son and family were, of course, delighted with the attention Clemens gave their son, including a tour of the Astros' clubhouse and some private conversation away from the television cameras.

Vosejpka was diagnosed last July with acute lymphoblastic leukemia and also was found to have the "Philadelphia chromosome," a genetic condition that produces the disease.

Two months later, he signed on with the Make-A-Wish Foundation and told organizers of his desire to meet Clemens, who has been his favorite pitcher since he watched Clemens pitch for the New York Yankees in the 2000 World Series.

In November, Vosejpka was transfused with bone marrow from his younger brother and, after more than a month in the hospital and 10 days on a ventilator because of post-operative complications, began the long, slow trip toward recovery.
"He's never gotten down," said Shelly Vosejpka. "He never says no and never complains. Baseball has been his motivation. That was the first thing he said (after the transplant): 'I'm going to play ball this spring, right?' "

His parents estimate that Vosejpka is at 50 percent to 70 percent of full strength, and that number probably got a boost when he heard Clemens would return to the Astros.

"The day he signed, he called us both at work and said Roger was going to pitch against the Twins, and, 'Mom, I think we'll be there,' " Shelly said. "We're a baseball family, and for this to happen for us is just amazing."

Hope high for Astros fans

Amazing events, however, have become routine for the Rocket. Wednesday's agenda, sharing his time with a young man whom he had never met, certainly falls into that category. And Astros fans certainly hope that things follow suit today, although Berkman joked that the team was going to make Clemens work for his money.

"He's going to have to win a 2-1, 1-0 type game," Berkman said. "We've got to get our money's worth out of the guy. To me, he's got to throw a shutout."

That could be what the Astros need, since Minnesota will throw one of its top young pitchers, Francisco Liriano, against Houston tonight. Clemens expects to throw about 105 to 110 pitches, and he's realistic about his first start.

"I think I've been pretty honest about this," he said last Friday after his final minor-league start in Round Rock. "I don't know if I need to do this. I don't know that I want to do this. But I'm committed to it."

Tonight, tens of thousands of Astros fans — and a family of Twins fans who will be rooting just this night for the men in the brick-red and white uniforms — will find out if Roger Clemens is up to the challenge.

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