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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Retro Rocket? Not this night

HOUSTON -- As the hits kept coming, each one harder than the one before, it was impossible to avoid the suspicion that catcher Mike Piazza was telling American League batters what was coming.

Pssssst, Manny. Here comes a fastball. Alfonso. Splitter, down and in.

Roger Clemens, making his return to the All-Star Game in Houston, was downright Wasdin-esque last night, giving up five hits and six runs in a single inning of the American League's 9-4 victory over the NL in the 75th Midsummer Classic. And we could only wonder if Clemens's enemy Piazza was tipping pitches, like Crash Davis in "Bull Durham." "Nobody told me what was coming," said the Yankees' Derek Jeter, who contributed a single to the carnage.

Clemens started and gave up a single, double, triple, and two homers. In one inning, he gave up as many runs as had been scored in the previous two All-Star Games played in Houston. Only one pitcher in 75 All-Star Games ever gave up more runs (Atlee Hammaker, seven in '83). It took Clemens 35 pitches to get back to the dugout.

(By the way, the AL victory clinches home field for the World Series opener and the Red Sox already have been asked to stencil the World Series logo into the grass behind home plate at Fenway).

Clemens and Piazza are enemies dating back to the 2000 season, when the Rocket beaned the Mets catcher during a Yankees-Mets game. Piazza said he had no respect for Clemens and the feud carried into the 2000 World Series when Clemens fielded a piece of Piazza's broken bat and flung it toward the catcher as he ran down the first base line. Clemens later explained that he thought he was holding a baseball instead of a piece of wood, which sort of made sense if you've listened to Rocketspeak through the years.

To their credit, neither batterymate acknowledged the feud in the days leading up to the game, a stubborn silence that no doubt frustrated the New York tabloids. But former Yankee and Red Sox Jim Leyritz, in the press box as a media geek, submitted that since it was Fox Family Hour, Piazza would be required to use at least two fingers for every signal to the mound.

Piazza left the park before the game was over, but told the Associated Press, "We were a little indecisive there. I went through every pitch. It was very amicable. It wasn't awkward."

The 41-year-old Clemens faced Ichiro Suzuki to start the game, fell behind, 2-0, then surrendered a hard double over the head of right fielder Sammy Sosa. Pudge Rodriguez was next and he went the other way, hitting a ball almost to the exact same spot on a 1-1 pitch for an RBI triple. Was Piazza telling them what was coming just to make Clemens look bad? Not since Isiah Thomas and friends froze out Michael Jordan in MJ's rookie year had an All-Star Game enjoyed such frivolous speculation.

After Clemens got Vlad Guerrero to hit a grounder back to the mound on the first pitch, your own Manny Ramirez worked the count to 0-2, then hit a heat-seeking missile into the seats in left. Fox resisted the urge to run footage of Game 3 of last season's ALCS when Manny started to charge the mound on a pitch that was high but not inside.

Briefly regaining a measure of dignity, Clemens fanned Alex Rodriguez (swinging) on a 3-2 pitch. Jason Giambi fouled off several 3-2 pitches before reaching on an error by second baseman Jeff Kent. Jeter then bounced a 1-2 pitch over the head of first baseman Albert Pujols.

"I hit a fastball away," said Jeter. "Hey, Rocket knows how to pitch. It was just one of those things. That's baseball."

The Rocket already had officially given up the cycle when Alfonso Soriano launched a first-pitch three-run homer to left. Danny Kolb started to get loose in case it got truly embarrassing, but just when it looked as if Jack McKeon might have to go to the bullpen, Clemens caught fellow starter Mark Mulder looking at a 92-mile-per-hour 2-2 fastball.

Clemens was honored by commissioner Bud Selig with the Historic Achievement Award. The ceremony was put off until the end of the fourth when Clemens and his family came onto the field for the presentation.

During the brief ceremony, Clemens said, "I put our guys in a hole, but we'll get our crowd into it a little bit. These guys are working their way back into the game. We're going to win the game."

He was not on site when the game ended. His sister, Janet, accompanying their mother, Bess, said, "Roger's already gone. He wasn't feeling that great."

The Red Sox' Curt Schilling said, "You don't want to see anybody have a night like that. I was sorry to see him have the night he had, but that was some lineup we were running out there."

Clemens no doubt was embarrassed by his performance. Proud of his hometown, he'd wanted everything to be perfect for All-Star week in Houston and it was . . . right up until he started throwing the baseball.

AL manager Joe Torre said, "Roger's an emotional person and I'm sure he was run ragged all week."

Clemens was everywhere in his hometown during the week, the virtual maitre 'd of Houston. Try to picture Wayne Newton in Vegas or Buddy Cianci -- when he was still a free man -- in Providence. Everything OK with your stay? Anything else we can do for you? Did you like the bar-b-que? How 'bout a tour of NASA?The Rocket was a one-man welcome wagon. He drove buses from the airport to downtown hotels, manning the microphone and pointing out the charms of his hometown. He gave tours of the Astrodome and Galveston. He showed folks Ken Lay's house and the oil rig where John Travolta broke his arm in "Urban Cowboy." Then he went to the mound and made AL hitters feel at home and the conspiracy theorists had a field day.

In truth, there's probably nothing to the wild speculation. Piazza is a professional and it would be hard to keep a lid on such a conspiracy. It was probably Father Time, not Catcher Mike who made the Rocket crash land on his home soil.

Eighteen years ago, when he last started in the Astrodome, 23 year-old Clemens faced Ryne Sandberg, Tony Gwynn, Keith Hernandez, Darryl Strawberry, Gary Carter, Mike Schmidt, Dale Murphy, Ozzie Smith, and pinch hitter Kevin Bass, batting for Dwight Gooden. That's three Hall of Famers (Carter, Schmidt, Smith), soon to be four (Gwynn). It was nine up, nine down, with Clemens throwing 25 pitches, 21 for strikes. He fanned Sandberg (looking) and Strawberry (swinging) and allowed only three balls out of the infield. He was MVP of the AL's 3-2 win, en route to a 24-4 Cy Young/MVP season that would take the Red Sox to the seventh game of the World Series. None of his four children had been born.

He was so much younger then.

He's older than that now.

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

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