THE GAME, a key one in the National League wild-card race on Sept. 14, was about to get away from him, and everyone would have understood why. The Houston Astros hadn't been sure if Roger Clemens would even try to pitch against the Florida Marlins just 15 hours after he had watched bedside as his mother, Bess, 75, drew her last breath after a long battle with emphysema.
"She was really my mother and my father," Clemens, who at age nine had lost his stepfather to a heart attack, said when the game was over. After 22 years in the big leagues the son still phoned "Mama" to share every triumph and salve every defeat. "She was always my first call," he said.
Never more alone on the mound, Clemens looked worn and weary. His days-old beard, which in other starts had cast him as the rugged gunman, now revealed him as a distracted man working on no sleep.
At 43 Clemens could still throw a baseball as hard as 95 mph with laser-guided precision, in great part because he had long ago perfected a textbook-perfect delivery that he could repeat over and over. But he had never had to pitch like this, knowing that Bess was gone. That thought overwhelmed all the circuitry that had made pitching as automatic as breathing. "As soon as I climbed the mound," he said, "I was lost a little bit."
Ten of his first 15 pitches were balls. He walked two of the first five batters, each on four pitches. The Marlins already had one runner home and two more aboard, threatening to put away the game--Houston had scored two runs or fewer in 14 of Clemens's 29 starts--before the Astros even came to bat.
The big righthander had reached a moment that would help not only to further define him as a pitcher and a man but also to help determine the season outcome for the Astros, who trailed wild-card-leading Florida by 1 1/2 games with 17 to play after this one. Following the second walk Clemens waited an extra beat or two before climbing the mound again, this time with a more urgent sense of purpose and focus. "I knew I had to gather it up pretty quick and get through that," he said.
The hitter was shortstop Damion Easley. A double in the gap and, well, Clemens would be down 3-0 and merely applauded for the gallantry of having taken the mound. But the standings have no sympathy; it would go down as a loss, and a crucial one.
On the other hand, one more out and Clemens would escape the inning down only 1-0. As he pumped in called strikes with his first two pitches to Easley, the crowd of 30,911, aware of their hero's personal loss, roared louder to help pull him through. The next pitch was a ball, followed by a foul and then one of the most beautiful pop flies Clemens had ever seen. Third baseman Mike Lamb caught it. Clemens was out of the jam.
He had found his equilibrium as a pitcher again, found it though his heart still ached, found it though he'd never pitched without Bess being at worst a phone call away. "The last 10 years, and especially the last two or three days, [were] grueling for her," Clemens said. "She was very tough to the end. She didn't want to give up. I get my determination from her."
The Marlins would not score another run off Clemens. He would depart one out into the seventh inning, having allowed five hits, the crowd's mixture of appreciation and condolence washing over him as he walked off the mound with a 3-1 lead.
Before she died, Bess had told Roger that his team would score 10 runs for him that night. Clemens laughed; it seemed preposterous given the meager run support he'd come to expect. But the Astros busted loose for three runs in the seventh and four more in the eighth to win 10-2. (Houston would go on to take the wild card--by one game over the Phillies.)
Soon after the last out, the video board at Minute Maid Park played a tribute to Bess Clemens, accompanied by Elton John's Rocket Man. Players from both teams, some who had begun to walk across the field from the bullpens, stopped, removed their caps and watched.
Clemens was in a back room of the clubhouse, alone, while the tribute played simultaneously on a wall-mounted television. His eyes welled with tears as he watched the pictures of Bess, including one from when she was honored on the field before a game. "It was great to see her look so pretty," he said, "like I remember. She was my strength." On his first night without her, he proved that her strength remained within him.
PHOTOGRAPHS BYRICHARD CARSON/REUTERS
BACKGROUND EXTENDED BY SI IMAGING
¬† SEPTEMBER 14, 2005
Clemens said he "was lost a little bit" without Bess, who threw out the first pitch before an April 9 game in Houston.