Notebook > Sports

Rocket fuel

Sports | The Astros will rely heavily on their $18 million man, Roger Clemens

Issue: "Johnny Carson: In memoriam," Feb. 5, 2005

There's a lot about Roger Clemens's $18-million salary that makes sense for the Houston Astros. The amount certainly is a bargain compared to the $22-million deal Mr. Clemens originally demanded. And after Houston's disastrous start to the offseason, Astros management needed to bring something to their fans. Not only did Houston, a 92-win team last year, lose super free-agent center fielder Carlos Beltran to the New York Mets, other teams swooped in and picked off key players while management focused on Mr. Beltran. The Los Angeles Dodgers plucked second baseman Jeff Kent from the middle of the Astros lineup. The World Series champion Boston Red Sox laid claim to pitcher Wade Miller. But at least Houston will have the Rocket-albeit a 42-year-old model.

Last year, the Astros coaxed Mr. Clemens out of retirement to pitch another season for a team in his native Texas. The veteran pitcher even settled with an undermarket contract worth $5 million. But Mr. Clemens was hardly the novelty act. He picked up his seventh Cy Young award and helped carry the Astros into the NLCS. Will 2005 be the repeat performance? For the Astros, it's the $18-million question.

Down lineman

Barret Robbins's bizarre descent from NFL stardom may have finally bottomed out. It has not been a soft landing. Since earning a Pro Bowl berth in 2002, the former Oakland Raiders lineman's career and life have spiraled out of control. While investigating a burglary at a Miami office building, police found Mr. Robbins huddled in a women's bathroom. During an ensuing struggle, an officer shot Mr. Robbins twice. One shot hit the former All Pro center's lung, the other pierced his heart. More than a week after the shooting, Mr. Robbins remained in a coma at a Miami hospital.

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Two years ago during the Super Bowl, Mr. Robbins spent the day in a San Diego hospital. The center, called by his teammates the "Traffic Cop" for his directions at the line of scrimmage, went AWOL the night before the Raiders' Super Bowl loss. Witnesses placed Mr. Robbins across the border in Tijuana and the lineman later admitted he had stopped taking medicine for depression and a bipolar disorder.

In light of his tremendous talent, the Raiders eventually took him back. But Mr. Robbins found more trouble. Prosecutors implicated him in the BALCO steroid scandal and Mr. Robbins eventually tested positive for the performance enhancer, THG. The Raiders cut the former All Pro lineman last July when he failed a physical. After that, Mr. Robbins disappeared from sight with the exception of a December arrest at a nightclub in San Francisco. This time, Mr. Robbins doesn't have a football career to fall back on.

Working vacation

This year, one New Jersey man won't just be using vacation days to go to the Super Bowl. He'll be playing in it. Jeff Thomason hasn't suited up for an NFL team in two years. But when Philadelphia's Chad Lewis-a close friend of Mr. Thomason-suffered a foot injury during the NFC championship game, the Eagles went looking for a replacement. Mr. Lewis suggested the 35-year-old former player. And on Super Bowl Sunday, Mr. Thomason will be Philadelphia's backup tight end. The veteran tight end caught five touchdown passes for the Eagles in 2000.

But he hasn't played for anyone since 2002. He says he's kept in shape since his NFL days by competing in triathlons. And time off from his job on a construction site wasn't an issue either. He'll use his two weeks of vacation time. "When I get back, I'll have to work a year straight without vacation," he said. But there's an upside to freelancing his services to the Eagles: "I'll probably make more during vacation than my annual salary. Now I know how hard it is to earn a buck in the real world. I worked a lot of hours."

Around the Horn

· Pittsburgh Steelers fans booed coach Bill Cower during the AFC championship game for electing to kick a field goal instead of trying for a fourth-down touchdown in the second half of the Steelers' loss to New England. But the pressure might not just be coming from fans. Rapper Snoop Dogg told the New York Daily News that he could see himself as the next coach of the Steelers. "You gotta look out for the team like they look out for you," he told the paper. So should Mr. Cower be looking over his shoulder? Fo' Shizzle.

· How good are the Phoenix Suns? That depends on where point guard Steve Nash is during games. Before the Canadian guard suffered a deep thigh bruise that sent him to the bench, the Suns racked up an incredible 31-4 record. Without Mr. Nash, the Suns finished up a dreadful road trip 0-4. Once he returned, the Suns eventually returned to their winning ways.

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