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Sunday, June 4, 2006
Clemens rejoins Astros

Associated Press

HOUSTON - Wearing a pinstriped suit and a black Houston Astros cap, Roger Clemens took a last sip from a bottle of water, then stepped to a podium at Minute Maid Park on Wednesday.

"The ball's in my court now," Clemens said at a news conference announcing his return to baseball. "I have to now take the next step and get my body ready to come back, be effective, win games and do what I'm used to doing, and that's being extremely competitive at a high level."

Clemens agreed to a $22 million contract to pitch for Houston for the rest of 2006, ending months of speculation around baseball, and in his own mind, whether he could - or even wanted to - play a 23rd season.

"I think I've placed more responsibility on my shoulders than I ever have in my entire career," Clemens said. "But I accept that challenge."

The seven-time Cy Young winner, second on the career strikeouts list behind Nolan Ryan, could make his first major league start since the World Series on June 22, against the Minnesota Twins.

"We'll see what happens," he said. "Here we go."

Clemens is 23-12 against the Twins, the highest win total of any pitcher against Minnesota.

"I wouldn't blame him for starting against the Twins," said Torii Hunter, who's 0-for-22 against Clemens. "Look at the record he has against the Twins. I mean, that's sick. But it's just one game, so it's nothing to get pumped up about. You can't get any worse than a shutout."

Clemens said he has plenty of hurdles to clear before a much-anticipated return to the big leagues.

The 43-year-old Clemens agreed first to a minor league deal that pays $322,000 over the five-month minor league season. He is due to make his first start next Tuesday at Lexington, Ky., the Class A affiliate where oldest son Koby plays.

If all goes well, Clemens' second start would be June 11 at Double-A Corpus Christi, followed by a start June 16 at Triple-A Round Rock.

Clemens, last seen in the majors leaving Game 1 of the World Series with a strained hamstring, still isn't sure if his body can take another season, even if it is abbreviated. The mental strain, he said, might be even more demanding.

"I know it's going to be stressful, I know I'm going to be tested, I know I'm going to have some lows going through this," he said. "Those are the questions I had to ask myself, if I'm ready to do this again."

By twist of fate, Koby helped push his dad toward returning. Koby broke a finger on his left hand on a slide, then returned to the family's home in Houston to recover.

"Basically, he got me going, and that got my body moving," Clemens said.

But the family debate raged for weeks, Clemens said. His two youngest sons wanted him to walk away and Clemens said he told his wife more than once that he was considering scrapping the whole comeback idea. But one of Clemens' sisters swayed him by musing on what his mother, who died last September, would've preferred.

"Like my sister said, `Mom would want you to be working. She doesn't want you to be unemployed," Clemens said. "'So go back to work."

Family ties also played a major role in what team he chose. Boston, the New York Yankees, Texas also wanted Clemens, but Koby gave the Astros the edge.

"Yeah, Koby is the wild card in all this," Clemens said. "Just like he told me this morning, even if he was somewhere else, we've had too many great moments here the last two years to set that aside."

Clemens was heading to Lexington this week anyway to see Koby play and see his mother's tombstone, which was being made in nearby Cincinnati. Now, he'll have the chance to take the field with his son in a real game for the first time.

"It'll be fun," Clemens said. "But he'd be the first to tell you that if he was with anybody else or if I really felt deep down that I needed to bookend my career in Boston or go back to the guys in New York, he would've encouraged that."

Clemens first retired after the 2003 season, then changed his mind and joined his hometown Astros after former Yankees teammate Andy Pettitte left New York to sign with Houston. Clemens said he was "99 percent" retired after 2004, but he came back for Houston's 2005 run to the World Series.

Then, after the Astros were swept by the Chicago White Sox, Clemens again said he considered himself retired. But he never formally said farewell to baseball and always left open the possibility of returning, even pitching for the United States in the World Baseball Classic.

When Clemens is added to the major league roster, he gets a one-year contract worth $22,000,022 - his uniform number is 22. Because he won't be playing the full season, he gets only a prorated percentage of that, which would come to about $12.25 million if he rejoins Houston in late June.

Clemens wants to prove he's not just coming back for show.

"I'm not riding around in the back of a convertible, waving my hat and selling tickets," he said. "They expect me to get on the field and win ballgames and do it the way they're used to seeing me do it.

"And I accept that more so than anyone."

Houston was finishing its series with the Cardinals on Wednesday afternoon, but the video scoreboard at empty Minute Maid Park was already flashing "The Rocket is Back!!!"

General manager Tim Purpura said Clemens didn't agree to the deal until after midnight, early Wednesday morning.

"It's a tremendous uplift to our situation," Purpura said. "Our young pitching has been tremendous, but our young pitching is inexperienced. What we want to do is get back to the playoffs, we want to get back to the World Series and Roger Clemens' presence in our rotation will certainly do a lot to get us there."

Clemens has a career record of 341-172 with a 3.12 ERA and 4,502 strikeouts, pitching for Boston, Toronto, the Yankees and Astros. An 11-time All-Star and winner of the 1986 AL MVP Award, he's tied for eighth on the career wins list and is second in strikeouts behind Nolan Ryan (5,714).

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AP Baseball Writers Ronald Blum and Ben Walker and AP Sports Writer R.B. Fallstrom in St. Louis contributed to this report.