KISSIMMEE, Fla. Hundreds of fans crowded around the practice mounds at Osceola County Stadium yesterday, straining to catch a glimpse of six-time Cy Young Award-winner Roger Clemens as he threw his first, tentative pitches in a Houston Astros uniform.
General manager Gerry Hunsicker sized up the surprising turnout, marveled at the swarm of national media that had descended on his teams fresh-scrubbed training complex and drew his first sweeping conclusion of the spring.
"Life has changed in Astroland," he said.
Indeed, it has.
The arrival of Clemens and 21-game winner Andy Pettitte has altered the competitive landscape in the National League Central and dynamically enhanced the stature of a largely anonymous franchise, both at home and throughout the baseball world.
"We're not flying under the radar anymore, Hunsicker said. "We moan and groan that we don't get the attention we think we should get. Good or bad, that isn't the case now."
So far, its all good. Ticket sales are brisk, and the Astros have been the talk of Houston since Pettitte signed as a free agent in December and rumors began to circulate that Clemens would choose to delay retirement to join him in a dramatically improved starting rotation.
"You want to have great expectations, said Clemens. You want the fans and the city to be fired up like they are at home. It gives us more encouragement to do what we love to do."
There is no question the Astros have raised their game to another level, at least on paper, and they werent exactly a second-division team last year. They finished only a game behind the Chicago Cubs in the NL Central in 2003, so the addition of two pitchers who combined to win 38 games last year ought to spark an early case of playoff fever.
I think the city is starved for a big winner not just a successful team, but a big winner, Hunsicker said. The addition of Clemens and Pettitte, with what they have accomplished, I think it has created an excitement in our fans that weve got a chance to get to the World Series. Things are different.
The rotation already included solid young pitchers Roy Oswalt and Wade Miller, and manager Jimy Williams moved quickly to reassure them they have not been marginalized by the arrival of two established stars. Williams immediately announced his projected starting rotation for the regular season, naming Oswalt the Opening Day starter, followed by Pettitte, Clemens, Miller and Tim Redding.
How good is that? So good that Jeriome Robertson, who won 15 games last year, is projected to start the season in the bullpen.
Clemens and Pettitte applauded Williams for the savvy decision to give Oswalt the honor of pitching the opener.
I think its great, said Clemens. [Williams] and I talked about it a couple of weeks ago. To me, all these guys are deserving. I love it, because where we come from, thats usually top secret. As methodical as Andy and I are about the way we do things, this gives us a chance tolay it all out.
The two new Astros took part in an afternoon news conference on their first day in uniform, answering a wide array of questions about the circumstances that led them to sign with their hometown team and the boost they have given the franchise.
I really didnt think that it would be that big of a deal, said the low-key Pettitte, who was lured away from the Yankees with a three-year, $31.5 million deal. I didnt think it would be that big a deal in New York when I left. Obviously, the fans there appreciated that I gave every ounce I had when I was on the mound. I think people appreciated that in New York.
Clemens fielded questions about his decision to unretire confirming he would not have considered it if Pettitte had signed with any other organization but he would not answer any questions about his plans after this season. I'm not going to mention the word [retirement], he said. I've got so much to do over the next 6 months. I don't want to let these guys down. I'm going to be 42, and I want to be more than decent. I told these guys, we've sold the tickets, now I want to win some games.
He and Pettitte have come to Kissimmee with more than a New York state of mind. They've also brought a grueling workout regimen sure to be adopted by many of their young teammates. It's hard to argue with the training methods of two pitchers who have combined to win more games over the past five years (159) than any other two teammates in baseball.
These guys have pitched in the big arena in New York and done really well, Williams said. Theyll lead by example, and they should help the other pitchers on our staff. They look to me like they are outstanding teammates. Their skill level speaks for itself. Im very impressed with the way they've handled themselves.
The defections left a huge void in the Yankees rotation, but the defending AL champions recovered nicely with the acquisition of Kevin Brown and emerging star Javier Vazquez.
I talked to Andy as soon as it happened, on Dec. 14, said Yankees manager Joe Torre. He was sort of apologetic on the phone, because there were some reports that he planned it that way. I said, You dont have to tell me. I know you.
The Roger thing didnt surprise me after Andy went there. At first, I thought it wouldnt happen, because of the emotional high he left on at the World Series, but thats a special opportunity. I had Andy for eight years and Roger for four. They are very special people to me.