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Archive for Sunday, September 18, 2005

Commentary: Clemens offered lesson in courage

September 18, 2005

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— Brett Favre lighting up Monday night with four touchdown passes less than 24 hours after his father, Irving, died.

Barry Bonds homering in his first game back after the death of his father, Bobby.

Pete Sampras playing tennis through tears and winning at the Australian Open after learning that his coach, Tim Gullikson, had brain cancer.

We all handle grief in different ways. Some of us take years to climb out from it. Others among us get angry and turn distant.

For some of our elite athletes, however, grief has the most remarkable effect.

It sharpens their focus even more. It steels their resolve even further. It makes them almost unbeatable.

Witness the great Roger Clemens.

Pitching mere hours after his mother, Bess, died after a long bout with emphysema, Clemens didn't just take the mound against the Marlins. Although that would have been tribute enough.

No, the Astros ace put his sagging team on his broad shoulders by pitching into the seventh inning Wednesday despite his heavy heart and raging emotions. Clemens laid the groundwork for a 10-2 win by responding to the impassioned support of his hometown crowd of 30,911 at Minute Maid Park.

Along the way, he gave all of us another exhibition in courage when it comes to handling grief.

"He understands the meaning of the word 'duty,'" Astros general manager Tim Purpura said. "His mother taught him about duty."

What didn't she teach him? After all, she spent a significant chunk of her 75 years raising Clemens and his three siblings as a single mother.

One of Clemens' life-shaping memories is watching his stepfather die of a heart attack in the family's front yard. Clemens was 9.

That unspeakably painful episode has driven Clemens through the years. It helped form his maniacal work ethic. So did watching his mother and grandmother each work three jobs.

"She was my strength," Clemens said of his mother. "She was always my will. She gave me so much. She was really my mother and my father. She played both roles."

So, yes, it was his duty to pitch for the team that is paying him $18 million this season at age 43. Particularly after the Marlins won the first two games of this huge series.

He spent Wednesday morning at his mother's side in Georgetown, Texas. To the end they talked baseball.

She wanted to know about Andy Pettitte's elbow. She asked if the Astros had made the playoffs yet. She told grandson Koby, an Astros minor leaguer, to "set the woods on fire."

And then she made a reference to Shoeless Joe Jackson. Clemens quizzed her on this. Asked if she had seen Field of Dreams. Asked her if she was in that famous cornfield.

"I think I am," she told him in those hazy final hours.

With that he told his mother he "needed to go to work." She agreed.

So Clemens did. And then, for good measure, he claimed career win No. 340.

Nothing was going to beat the greatest pitcher of our time on Wednesday night.

Not the Marlins. Not physical breakdowns. Not A.J. Burnett. And definitely not grief.

Bess Clemens' boy made sure of that.

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