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This old story becomes new again

There's going to come a time -- and who knows, maybe it's this season -- when Roger Clemens isn't going to be successful every fifth day when he takes the mound.

Having said that, the Yankees yesterday did what they absolutely had to do.

They clicked the right numbers to unlock the vault at Fort Steinbrenner and opened a chest with the word "ROGER" written across it. The chest contained the treasure of a prorated $28 million. A treasure they would dole out any day, any time, especially these days, when they have been riddled with injuries the first five weeks of the season and needed something to give them hope.

That's what Clemens represents to the Yankees -- $4.5 million per month in salary and hope. That's all it guarantees them.

The greatest pitcher of our generation made his decision some three weeks ahead of last year's. That's how much Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte's recruiting helped. Meanwhile, Red Sox pitcher Julian Tavarez was saying publicly he didn't think the Sox needed Clemens, which couldn't have helped negotiations. Curt Schilling seconded that emotion on a NESN interview after yesterday's game.

Given what the Red Sox offered, a prorated $18 million vs. the Yankees' prorated $28 mil, Clemens went with the Yanks. And the head-scratcher of them all was agent Randy Hendricks indicating at a news conference the Red Sox and Astros weren't interested in having Clemens join them until late June-early July. The Yankees, meanwhile, told Clemens he can start any time, and he could go June 1 at Fenway against the Sox.

The Red Sox put out a very curious statement that reinforced Hendricks's version of the proposed timetable. It indicated that for "health purposes" they wanted Clemens to stick to his routine of last year. Were those 20-30 days really going to make that much of a difference in whether Clemens stays healthy? If you're concerned about his health, why even make such a substantial offer?

"Their words and the meeting was terrific," said Hendricks, who was in Boston last week for meetings with Sox brass Tuesday and Wednesday and had dinner in John W. Henry's box Wednesday night during the Sox-Athletics game when the Sox made their bid for Clemens. "They wanted him later than our schedule. I think they would have liked him but didn't think they needed him. I would say they didn't feel the need but had the desire."

While that comes off as a little arrogant, the Red Sox do have the best rotation in baseball, with Jon Lester waiting in the wings. But if the Yankees' rotation is now stabilized with Pettitte, Chien-Ming Wang, Mike Mussina, Clemens, and Darrell Rasner, who pitched 5 2/3 innings of shutout ball against the Mariners yesterday, the Sox' lack of action could come back to haunt them.

And it's a double-whammy: losing Clemens and having him go to the enemy.

While the Sox have reason to feel confident, their five-game lead in the loss column isn't insurmountable. With as much adversity as the Yankees have been through, things could have been much worse for them, and that's where the bold words of the Sox players get a little uncomfortable.

It might be that Clemens was going to go to New York all along and perhaps the Sox knew it and didn't want to get involved in a tug of war. There weren't many people surprised by where Clemens went, only by how early he was willing to start pitching.

Once the Rocket knew his favorite manager, Joe Torre, was going to stay on as Yankees skipper, he was on board. Pettitte and Jeter were constantly in his ear. Pettitte would give Yankees general manager Brian Cashman updates on his conversations with Clemens. Of course, the money didn't hurt, either, and the Yankees offered a lot more.

But here's where the Red Sox might be right -- Clemens will be 45 in August. Is this guy Superman?

While missing the first two months of the season saves his body for the stretch run, at some point even that limited pounding is going to lead him to say, "Ah, I can't really do this anymore." Or, at least, "I can do this, but not like I used to do it."

Maybe he can pull this off one more time. Maybe his return to the American League won't be as difficult as many think it might be. But while the eighth and ninth hitters used to be a chance for him to catch his breath with the National League's Astros, now he'll have to keep working and grinding. His pitch count will get up there quicker.

He's going to be a six-inning pitcher in New York, but with the Yankees' offense, six innings allowing three runs or fewer will produce wins. That's the way Hall of Famer Gaylord Perry sees it.

"I was 45 when I called it quits," said Perry last night. "But while my arm was still in good shape, my legs went. I would have loved to have kept on pitching, but back then we didn't have the benefit that Roger does now. For one thing, he's been able to go out there for five or six innings a start. He starts his season in June or July. So he's really been able to preserve what he does have left.

"I'm sure he's going to do fine," Perry added. "His ERA will elevate a little bit because he's over in the American League and he's facing better hitters, but he can still be dominant as long as he stays healthy. Obviously, there's a greater risk of breaking down the older you get. Like I said, if my legs didn't go from the wear and tear, my arm was still in pretty good shape."

Whether Clemens is an All-Star or just another guy, the move buoys a team that felt it needed a life raft.

The development has so many other effects. Yankees radio voice Suzyn Waldman brought up a great point during the broadcast yesterday, noting that Clemens will do for young Phil Hughes the same as he did for Roy Oswalt, Pettitte, and Schilling, who will tell you what a meeting with Clemens many years ago did for his career. It also invigorates a fan base that was starting to have its doubts. It creates a work ethic for a pitching staff that might have become stagnant. And instead of trotting out Kei Igawa or someone else as the fifth starter, Clemens will give them quality and sometimes dominance. At least we think.

"I think we all knew it was coming," said one AL executive. "One thing you learn pretty quickly is never rule out the Yankees. I'm guessing Boston is going to come up with something at a later date to trump this. Short of obtaining Rich Harden, not sure what that would be."

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com.

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