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Wednesday, June 21, 2006
Updated: June 22, 9:17 PM ET
Clemens back in the business of making history

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

HOUSTON -- Craig Biggio says none of us media geniuses should be permitted to use the phrase "coming out of retirement" to describe what it is Roger Clemens is doing Thursday night.

"He never said 'retire' -- not this time," Biggio said Wednesday, on the eve of Clemens' much-ballyhooed comeback from, well, something or other.

Roger Clemens talks about his return to the major-league mound.

"I think when he left the Yankees, he said he was done, didn't he?" the Astros' trusty second baseman semanticized. "But this time, he never really said the word, 'retirement.' So that means Michael Jordan still has him by one [in the all-time comeback-from-retirement-by-living-legend standings]."

Well, hold on. Jordan was known to play some word games himself back then. So we'll debate the merits of those standings some other day. But in the meantime, we need to figure out what Clemens is returning from Thursday if "retirement" doesn't accurately describe it.

"What do you do when you leave the Army?" Biggio deadpanned. "You're AWOL for a little while, right? He was just AWOL for a little while."

AWOL, huh? Uh, that can't be it, either. In the Army, the guys who go AWOL get arrested when they finally turn up. Clemens, on the other hand, will get more than 12 million bucks for turning up in an Astros uniform.

"No, you're not under arrest unless they catch you," Biggio quipped. "And we couldn't catch him. Now, we finally caught him. So now he's back."

CLASSIC FLAMETHROWERS
Before you watch Roger Clemens make his return to the Astros on Thursday night on ESPN, don't miss the
six-hour "Classic Flamethrowers: Roger Clemens" at 10 a.m. ET on ESPN Classic.

Oh, he's back, all right. The Rocket will be back in all his packed-house splendor Thursday at Minute Maid Field, where he'll face the Minnesota Twins -- a franchise he has started against 43 times through the years (plus once in the 2003 AL Division Series).

But back from what? We still haven't settled that compelling question.

"It was a sabbatical," Clemens' catcher, Brad Ausmus, said helpfully. "The first time, that was a retirement. This was a sabbatical. He just played some leisure baseball during the World Baseball Classic."

But for a guy who was on sabbatical, or a guy who was AWOL, or even just for a guy who forgot to appear in a single box score, Clemens sure did one spectacular job of keeping his name in the news. Even his teammates noticed that.

"Some of the things I've seen go across the Bottom Line on ESPN about Roger Clemens over the past four months -- this is actually light coverage," Ausmus chuckled. "I've seen him more on the cover of USA Today sports during his sabbatical than any other teammate I've ever played with ... who was active."

But then again, that tells us something about the world's only living 341-game winner. It tells us we're not all crazy for being so mesmerized by a 43-year-old man who hasn't pitched in a real major league game for eight months.

"He's a superstar," Ausmus said. "He's certainly a superstar among baseball players. I think he's a borderline megastar on the planet. The few times I've gone out to eat with him or been around him in public, he attracts a lot of attention because he's so recognizable.

"He's a large human. And he's played in some of the biggest markets in baseball, in New York and Boston. Seven Cy Youngs. The résumé is well-documented. He's a megastar. He's one of the few sports icons who is recognizable across the board -- not only by baseball fans but by John Q. Public who cares less about baseball."

Roger Clemens
Clemens' comeback began with three minor league starts.
So on Thursday -- when Clemens lines it up against the Twins and one of the most buzzed-about young pitchers alive, Francisco Liriano -- of course the ESPN cameras will be in attendance. And of course, sportswriters from all across America will be in attendance. And of course, millions of John Q. Publics everywhere will find themselves caring more than they really ought to care.

Clemens, we might add, will be facing a Twins lineup that hasn't seen a whole lot of him. Only three Twins regulars -- Torii Hunter, Luis Castillo and Michael Cuddyer -- have had a regular-season at-bat against the Rocket.

But it appears they've still heard of him. And that isn't necessarily good.

"He's got his aura, man," said Hunter on Wednesday. "That's why I've got to talk to some of these younger guys [Thursday] and say, 'Don't let his name get to you.'"

Hunter is the perfect guy to give that speech, too, because he was once 22 years old and facing this man himself. And he knows exactly what the fear of that aura did to him. It led him to this:

0-for-23, with 13 strikeouts.

That, friends, is Hunter's lifetime record against Clemens, counting the postseason. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, no player -- past or present -- has faced Clemens more times without a hit than Hunter has.

So, Hunter sounded like one desperate human being Wednesday when he said, "Man, I'm going to be pumped up. I'm going to get a hit -- no matter what.

"Now don't get me wrong. I'm trying to win. But I want a hit."

The question is, though, does he want one enough to lay down a bunt?

"No, I ain't going to bunt on him," Hunter said, almost as if he could feel Clemens' aura boring a hole through his forehead, reminding him what flavor beanball might be in store if he dared drop that bunt.

"Oh, I might bunt on him," he laughed, "when I think he's coming out of the game" (meaning he'd almost certainly never have to face the guy again).

But with a guy like Clemens, even that tactic might not be safe. After all, he could always come out of, well, sabbatical, three years from now to face Hunter again.

"Then I won't play that day [in three years]," Hunter joked. "My stomach. My stomach's hurting. I'm sick. I've got the flu bug."

Somehow, though, we have a feeling it won't ever come to that. Somehow, we have a feeling this is it -- Clemens' very last season. Which means this is his very last comeback ever.

From whatever it is he's coming back from.

But whether it's a retirement or a sabbatical or just a vacation, that part of the Roger Clemens story is over now. And we know exactly what comes next.

History.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.