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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Twilight star

The Sox should launch a probe for the Rocket

Roger Clemens is the greatest pitcher in the history of baseball. The Red Sox should do whatever it'll take to bring him back home for the stretch run in 2005. If the world's greatest band can play Fenway in August, why not the world's greatest pitcher at Fenway in September and October? Clemens may be 42, but he's still a couple of decades younger than Mssrs. Jagger and Richards.

Have you been paying attention to what's going on in Houston? The Astros can't score. They are 2-16 on the road and have been nestled at the bottom of the National League's Central Division. And Clemens keeps putting up zeros.

He has started seven games and pitched seven innings in each game. He's only 2-1 (the Astros have scored 11 runs in his seven starts), but his ERA is 1.10. He's given up only 31 hits and 16 walks and has struck out 50 in 49 innings. He has allowed zero runs in four of his starts. He has not given up a run on the road and righthanded batters are hitting .148 against him. He's even hitting .357 with a couple of RBIs.

As Ted Sarandis would say . . . wow. The man is 42 years old. And he is still the best power pitcher in baseball. He's hit 97 miles per hour on the radar gun this season.

It's hard to believe now that he actually retired after the 2003 season. His last appearance on a big league mound was going to be the seventh game of the 2003 American League Championship Series when the Red Sox routed him early en route to what looked like a Boston trip to the World Series. That was before He Who Must Not Be Named left Pedro Martinez on the mound and Pedro coughed up the lead. All that, plus Aaron Boone's blast, erased Clemens's lame departure. And so he came back to pitch in the World Series and again we thought we saw him for the last time when he pitched seven innings of Game 4 in Miami against the Marlins.

But then the Astros and Andy Pettitte talked him out of retirement. It was agreed that Clemens could go to all of his kids' games and still pitch for the hometown team every fifth day. So he went out and won his seventh Cy Young Award, finishing 18-4 and taking the Astros to the seventh game of the NLCS against the St. Louis Cardinals. One more win and he'd have started the fourth game of the World Series against the Red Sox in Houston.

Now he's dominating the National League again. He's been even better than he was last year in Cy Seven. Never a bad outing. He keeps his woeful team in every game. Nine years after Dan Duquette sent him into the twilight, Clemens is still one of the best pitchers in baseball. Nineteen years after he started the season 14-0 for the World Series-bound Red Sox, Clemens still has them swinging and missing.

He has won 330 major league games. Only eight men ever won more and all of them are dead. It's always going to be impossible to compare him with Cy Young (511 wins) and Walter Johnson (417), but Clemens certainly matches up well with Bob Feller, Warren Spahn, Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, and Greg Maddux. Even the estimable Bill James has submitted that it might be time to call Clemens the best pitcher of all time.

We have always made a big deal out of Ted Williams hitting .388 at the age of 39 in 1957. And we think of Ted as the greatest hitter of them all. What Clemens is doing at 42 is just as impressive as what Ted did at 39.

The Astros deny they'll trade Clemens if they continue to stumble, and the Rocket (who has a no-trade clause) comes with a hefty price tag, but the Sox should keep an open dialogue with Houston and pounce in late July.

It would not be cheap. Clemens gets an automatic $3 million bonus if he is traded. There's also the small matter of his salary, which is $18,000,022. And it might cost a young player or two.

The Sox could certainly live with Roger's Rules. Pedro already established it's OK to do what you want if you pitch well every fifth day. And we know that under manager Terry Francona, anything goes.

After he beat the Marlins Monday, Clemens was asked if he'd finish his career in Houston and answered, "I'm not even thinking about that . . . I can't think that far ahead."

That certainly sounds like a guy who would approve a trade.

Maybe he hates Boston. Maybe he can't forget the way he was hooted out of Fenway when he was routed by the Sox (and Pedro) in Game 3 of the 1999 ALCS. But maybe he'd come back here to get his 193d win with the Red Sox, which would finally vault him ahead of Young in the Sox' win column. Maybe he'd like to be part of a Sox team trying to defend its world championship. Better here than in New York, right Theo?

Clemens is not fully appreciated here. His mediocre final four seasons, coupled with a few unfortunate interviews and his inability to win in the postseason, turned the Nation against him. Then he committed the ultimate sin -- he won a World Series with the Yankees.

But the big lug won three Cy Youngs and 192 games for the Red Sox. He won the MVP in 1986. He did a tremendous amount of charity work here. He should be remembered more fondly. And if it's possible, the Sox should bring him back.

. . . For the real twilight of his career.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com.


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