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ON BASEBALL

For Nipper, it would be classic reunion

CLEVELAND -- Roger Clemens's decision should come soon, Al Nipper said yesterday, probably within a couple of weeks, if not days, of the 20th anniversary of his 20-strikeout game against the Seattle Mariners in Fenway Park, which is Saturday.

Retirement? The way Nipper was talking, that's not on the table anymore. Sometime next month, Nipper said, Clemens will decide where he will pitch this season. And Nipper, Clemens's former teammate, longtime friend, and once-and-perhaps-future pitching coach, is convinced the Rocket will seriously consider staging his final act in Boston.

''I think we have a chance," Nipper said. ''We have a chance.

''We talked in Texas at great length, about things like how he'd fit in, and we talked to him about the ball club. I laid everything out. Believe me, I threw everything but the sink at him. Plus, he's going to be wearing a Red Sox hat into the Hall [of Fame], pass Cy Young [in wins by a Sox pitcher] and everything.

''We'll be talking more. We've exchanged e-mails and stuff like that. When he gets close to making a decision, I'm confident he's going to give me a call, because he told me he'd call and we'd talk more.

''I just think it would be a great ending to his career. There's no question it would give Boston, it would give our city a huge lift, it would give our club a huge lift, it would give our pitching staff a huge lift. I could not imagine going into a three-game series with Clemens, Schilling, and Beckett."

Nipper, who 10 years ago was fired by Dan Duquette as Sox pitching coach, just a month into what was Clemens's last season in Boston before he left for Toronto as a free agent, returned to the Sox as minor league pitching coordinator and was promoted this winter to bullpen coach. When Dave Wallace developed a serious infection this spring (he now awaits hip replacement surgery), Nipper stepped in to fill the breach at pitching coach.

Despite Curt Schilling's no-decision last night against the Indians, Nipper has seen enough to be convinced this is no mirage, that he is back to ace status.

''I think the concern with him coming into this year was his velocity," said Nipper, ''and that was answered when his first two pitches against Northeastern were 94 and 95. He answered a lot for himself right there.

''The ankle? That's yesterday's news. I have never, ever heard him say one thing, from spring training to this point, about his ankle. Not even an issue.

''I wasn't here last year, but I just know from talking with him, what he was able to do in the offseason and in spring training -- what he's done cardiovascular-wise, more weight work, more leg work -- obviously he's doing more now than last year. Obviously, he's got to be a lot stronger, and it's very evident in the way he's been throwing.

''I see no reason why he cannot go out and pitch the way he's doing, with his preparation, his delivery is so solid, he's able to command the ball -- there's no doubt in my mind he's going to go out and keep us in games and be successful."

Nipper never had seen Beckett before this season, but he's reminded of a young Rocket.

''Just his competitiveness, his electric stuff, his cockiness," Nipper said. ''He's a very cocky kid. He's aggressive, very sure of himself. He reminds me a little of [Clemens], believing in his stuff. He has that little feeling of being bulletproof, of being invincible. And he goes out there and backs it up. This kid is something special."

And then there is Clemens. He filed for free agency last winter, and when the Astros did not offer him salary arbitration, they lost the right to negotiate with him until May 1, which is Monday. Houston is home; Clemens helped take the Astros to the World Series last season, and he rivals Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan for folk-hero status there. The Yankees have the dollars to blow everyone else out of the water. The Rangers have interest, too, but of the four bidders for Clemens's services, they would appear to face the longest odds of advancing to the postseason.

''For me, this is definitely going to be his last year," Nipper said. ''There's no doubt about it. This is absolutely the ending, and when he signs, it's going to be for a half a year. He's going to do it right. He's going to end it right.

''He's going to sacrifice a half a year for being there, physically and mentally. His family, everybody will be out of school, they're going to be with him and they're going to sacrifice that time, and he's going to do it right. Then he's going to ride off into the sunset. He's going to go out on his own terms and be with his family, and live happily ever after."

Nipper said he expects Clemens will make a decision next month and be pitching for someone in June. (Schilling, by the way, said last night he has stayed in touch with Clemens but refused to comment.)

''He's working out, believe me," Nipper said. ''When he comes back, he's going to be ready. He's going to be ready and raring to go. It's not going to be, 'I've got to throw some starts.' He's going to be ready and he's going to be throwing and he's going to be ready to tear it up."

Nipper laughed when asked if he felt any pressure from the Red Sox to deliver him.

''I can only do what I can do," he said. ''I guess maybe I could kidnap him.

''Roger is going to do what he wants to do. He's going to do what's right for him and his family. From my point of view, I feel what is right for him is to come to Boston. I'm looking at the whole overall picture. Going to New York, there's nothing to prove there. This is the best fit for him overall, if you look at everything, for him to be here with the Boston Red Sox.

''Duquette is long gone. He's over that. We have new management. He loves Boston, he loves the fans, he still has so many friends here.

''He could come back home here and end his career in storybook fashion. Come back home and do it right."

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