The Rocket returns to the launch pad

As expected, Roger Clemens leads the United States’ 30-man roster for the World Baseball Classic. If he is still there on March 2, when the rosters become final before the next day’s opening games, we’ll at least know that he’s healthy enough to pitch competitively. But will he go beyond that? His agent still says that retirement is the “lead horse” in the race, but it hasn’t reached the finish line yet.

So here’s my prediction: If his health fails him again, like it did at the end of last season, the WBC will be his curtain call. He’s done. He’ll get the U.S. as far as he can, probably to San Diego for the semifinals at least, and then bow out. His number will be retired in Houston before the season is over and in five years, the year he enters the Hall of Fame, the Red Sox will make it official and put No. 21 up on the edge of the roof. (While not officially retired, no Boston player has worn 21 since Clemens left town.)

If he’s healthy, he’ll play on. He’ll accelerate his conditioning to be in mid-April form in mid-March and carry the U.S. as far as he can. He’ll then take a step back, rest up for a week or so and recover from the higher-intensity efforts so early in the year before resuming his training. Unable to re-sign with Houston before May 1, he’ll use that month to conserve his energy for the long haul of one more season. September was his worst month of the 2005 season — and he didn’t do too well in the World Series, either. He was worn down. Taking a month off at the start of the season should keep him healthier later into the calendar. He only went 1-1 in five April starts last year anyway because the Astros weren’t scoring runs for him.

Clemens insists he won’t decide whether or not to play this year until after the tournament concludes. Whether that means the final game for Team USA or the March 20 tournament final — which we all hope are one and the same — is not clear. But with that timetable, the Rangers, Red Sox and Yankees won’t be able to wait around. They’ll have to set their rosters and rotations. The Yankees already have six starters — Randy Johnson, Mike Mussina, Shawn Chacon, Chien-Ming Wang, Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright — for five slots. These teams can’t wait around for Clemens’ decision, though they’d certainly make room for him if he did suddenly decide on March 21 that he wants to sign with one of them. At this point in his life, however, I feel Clemens will want to have the flexibility he’s had the last two summers, with the opportunity to be away from the team to watch his sons play their high school games and to travel to Lexington or Salem or wherever his eldest son Koby is assigned.

If there’s one thing we’re assured it’s that we’ll see Roger Clemens dial it up one more time, most likely March 7 in the United States’ opener against Mexico. I don’t think we can predict what he’ll do until we know whether his body holds up, but unless a healthy Clemens is part of a gold-medal winning U.S. squad, I think a refuled Rocket will return to Houston for one last season. If Nolan Ryan can pitch five seasons — only three of them up to his stellar standards — in Arlington and have that be enough to wear a Texas cap on his Cooperstown plaque, three stellar, Cy Young-worthy summers in Houston might get Clemens a star on his bronzed likeness.

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