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After Fizzling In Boston, 'Rocket' Blasts Off in Toronto

Former Red Sox pitcher has Canadians cheering

"Ride the Rocket" is the long-time slogan of this city's clean, fast subway system. But Toronto baseball fans now think it means hitching their hopes to new Blue Jays pitching ace, Roger "the Rocket" Clemens.

While these hopes soared for weeks as Clemens ran his record to a perfect 11-0, they have trailed off during his last two starts, both of which he lost while the Jays scored just one run. If the club intends to halt its latest slide (nine losses in its last 15 games), Clemens will have to shoulder the load in upcoming series against division rivals Baltimore and Boston, the team that let him slip away.

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For 13 years, Clemens was the Boston Red Sox star pitcher - or long-tenured prima donna, depending on your viewpoint.

Since he signed with Toronto as a free agent in December, Boston fans have endlessly debated whether Clemens was the big fish that got away - or just a pricey over-the-hill gun for hire.

He is a three-time Cy Young Award winner (1986, 1987, 1991) and was voted the American League Most Valuable Player in 1986. Still, he has not won 20 games in any season since 1990, a fact that didn't prevent Toronto from signing him to a three-year contract worth as much as $31.1 million when performance incentives are included.

Blue Jays president Paul Beeston says Clemens is a leader and a ferocious competitor, exactly what the struggling Jays need (they've had three losing seasons since winning the World Series in 1992 and '93).

"Roger leads by example in the way that he goes out and plays the game, and [with] his off-field example in the clubhouse," says Cito Gaston, the Blue Jays manager. "Anytime you've got somebody like that around it's going to help your ball club."

Even if his fastball has lost a little pop, it still regularly reaches 93 to 95 m.p.h. This helps Clemens, who twice has struck out a record 20 batters in one game, overpower hitters, and gives the Blue Jays a confidence boost - something the team badly needed after finishing fourth in the American League East last year, with a 74-88 record.

"What Roger brings far exceeds pitching ability," Toronto third baseman Ed Sprague told Sports Illustrated. "He's a leader, an icon - something we've lacked the last two years. He commands respect around the league, and it doesn't matter what his record is. If he's 0-20, he's still Clemens."

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So far this year the Blue Jays are third in their division, 13-1/2 games behind Baltimore. To stem the loses, the team looks to Clemens, who seems intent on disproving the naysayers by showing he can still get the job done.

Asked if he feels he's pitching better now than he did the last few years, Clemens says, "The only difference maybe is that before I might have walked too many guys. I did that by design trying to pitch around people and keep the team in ball games."

"He's been throwing great," says teammate Carlos Delgado, who contributed a grand slam to one Clemens victory. "When you need somebody to step up, he's the guy that's done it."

When Clemens came to the Blue Jays, Delgado was wearing jersey No. 21, Clemens's number when he was with Boston. Delgado relinquished it. When both men showed up for spring training, Clemens presented Delgado with a $25,000 Rolex watch in return.

Clemens has also been gracious to local reporters, patiently answering postgame questions. If anything he has been almost too accommodating, says Howard Starkman, Jays public relations manager, who praises Clemens for his work with charities.

Such cooperation may stem from a desire to show he's a regular guy despite some special treatment. A clause in his current contract, for example, calls for letting his sons practice in the SkyDome and use a locker next to their dad's.

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