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Rocket Science
Tom Verducci
September 10, 2001
Ignited by his twin passions for family and fitness, the Yankees' ageless Roger Clemens has lifted off to an 18-1 record—and toward a sixth Cy Young award
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September 10, 2001

Rocket Science

Ignited by his twin passions for family and fitness, the Yankees' ageless Roger Clemens has lifted off to an 18-1 record—and toward a sixth Cy Young award

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Roger Clemens's last memory of his stepfather, the man he calls "my father," is of the spinning red lights and wail of the siren as the ambulance pulled I away. Nine-year-old Roger watched through a basement window while standing on a table he'd hauled atop an old couch. His older sisters, Brenda and Janet, had rushed him to the basement just after their stepfather, Woody Booher, had dropped to the floor of their Vandalia, Texas, home with a heart attack. Roger would never see him alive again.

Thirty years later only a few other memories of Woody remain, like assorted snapshots in an old shoe box. The gallon of Blue Bell ice cream he would bring home every other day after his shift at the tool-and-die company. The sultry evenings when Roger and Woody would curl up together on the floor to watch Bonanza and, during commercial breaks, the way Woody would tickle Roger's face with his five o'clock stubble. The rides Woody gave Roger to Roger's ball games—always an hour early, never trusting Bess and the girls to be done fixin' their hair and such soon enough to get his son there on time. The horse Roger would tie to a tree in the front yard, knowing Woody insisted that the family's five steeds be kept out back, and the subsequent cleanup job that would be imposed on him.

There's not much more. Two fathers by nine—his mother left his biological father, Bill, when Roger was 3� months old—and then suddenly none. Nine years are nothing. Maybe they're crueler than nothing. They're long enough for a few isolated images to form in the darkroom of the mind. Dots that can't be connected. "Ever since I got to the big leagues, I've noticed fathers of players waiting outside the clubhouse for their sons," says Clemens, the New York Yankees' ace righthander. "I remember Mo Vaughn's dad in Boston. Andy Pettitte's dad has been around here. I always thought how special that would be."

Today Woody Booher's son is as close to an unbeatable pitcher as there has ever been in baseball. With career victory 278 last Friday, a 3-1 conquest of the Boston Red Sox in which he scattered seven hits while striking out 10 in seven innings, Clemens became the first man in the 101-year history of the American League to start a season 18-1. (National Leaguers Rube Marquard, Don Newcombe and Elroy Face did so in 1912, '55 and '59, respectively; Face finished the '59 season with that mark and a .947 winning percentage—the major league record.) Through Sunday his 186 strikeouts led the American League, and his 3.48 ERA ranked sixth. Clemens's victory set the tone for New York's suffocating three-game sweep, which was capped by righty Mike Mussina's 1-0 Sunday win, in which a two-strike single by the Red Sox' Carl Everett broke up a perfect game with two outs in the ninth.

Clemens turned 39 years old on Aug. 4 and is the father of four sons, the oldest of whom just started high school. Fathers of teenagers aren't supposed to be blowing 96-mph heaters past Gen X batters and taking Wite-Out to the record book. They're supposed to be standing on the sideline at their kid's first high school football practice. Clemens, by his will and his wealth (he's in the first season of a two-year, $30.9 million deal with New York), can do both. One day last month he was home in Katy, Texas (about 30 miles from Houston), thanks to the time-share jet he owns with golfer Justin Leonard and two businessmen, watching his 14-year-old son, Koby, a defensive end, go through his first drills with the Memorial High squad. Two days later Roger was mowing down the Tampa Bay Devil Rays at Yankee Stadium for win number 16.

"The best investment I ever made," Clemens calls the jet, his share of which he bought last year, his second with New York. He uses the aircraft to fly home the night before every Yankees off day, no matter where the club is playing. Roger's family uses it to visit him. His sons have served as batboys for some New York road games, and they and his wife, Debbie, occasionally join him in the Big Apple. If Debbie and the kids aren't with him, Roger calls home at least three times a day, so often that when Debbie saw the Yankee Stadium switchboard number pop up on her caller ID during Roger's aforementioned win over Tampa Bay, she picked up the phone and cooed, "Oh, honey, are you thinking about us?" It turned out to be a front office employee checking to see if she needed help getting the satellite television feed of the game.

"Last year he invited the team to his house for a barbecue," says New York manager Joe Torre, "and while there I got a sense of how he's been able to keep going. With most guys his age or even younger, they get, I don't want to say pressure, but influence from home, with [wives and children] asking a lot, 'When is Daddy coming home?' But he's made his family a big part of his career."

Says Clemens, "I have a great team here with the Yankees. And it's like I have another great team at home. There's no way I could be doing what I'm doing without both of them."

True, the three-time defending world champs are a pitcher's dream. New York travels with two strength coaches, a massage therapist, two trainers, a sports psychologist and the richest collection of ballplayers ever assembled, including the game's best closer, Mariano Rivera. Through Sunday the Yankees had averaged 6.39 runs for Clemens, fifth most among American League starters. Six times this year Clemens had left a game trailing, but only once, on May 20 against the Seattle Mariners, had his teammates failed to get him off the hook. Clemens had left with a lead 19 times (he had no complete games), and only once had his bullpen not locked down his W The bottom line: The Yankees were 25-3 when they gave him the ball (and 56-53 when they gave it to anyone else).

Says Fran Pirazolla, a sports psychologist who works with the Yankees, "Mentally, Roger is one of the strongest athletes I've ever been around. When children lose a parent, they can go in two directions. Roger has made it a source of strength. He's always looking after the people around the team, trainers, batboys, whomever, asking if he can do anything for them. He has this sense of responsibility that's fatherly in a way, even among his teammates."

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