Clemens, Piazza to be forever linked

HOUSTON -- When Roger Clemens retires, the catcher with the highest earned run average as his partner will probably be Mike Piazza, at 27.00. And there is something strangely appropriate about that.

The only fireworks generated with the battery of Clemens and Piazza came from the American League, which scored six runs in the first inning of Tuesday's All-Star Game, including three earned runs. And Clemens would not come out for the second inning, having labored through 35 pitches in what might be the last All-Star inning he throws.

Clemens was the Most Valuable Player of the All-Star Game the last time the event was held here, in the town that Clemens calls home; he threw three scoreless and hitless innings in that game. Clemens was 24 years old then. Now he is in his 42nd summer, and was working with much less than his best.

He and Piazza comported themselves just as they said they would -- professionally, all-business, no hints that they shared an ugly history. Clemens began warming up as the National League reserves were being introduced, and just as Tom Glavine's name was called, Piazza took over to catch Clemens briefly.

Midway through Clemens' warm-ups, he gestured to Piazza, asking a question about something he was doing. Clemens often asks his catchers to rate his stuff in the bullpen, to tell them if he has a good fastball or a splitter, or his slider is spinning sharply.

Piazza offered some assurance with a nod, and when it was time for Piazza to return to the infield to be introduced with the rest of the NL starters, he pumped a fist at Clemens, nodding again, indicating that what Clemens was trying to do looked good.

But Clemens looked sluggish right from the outset of the game, his first fastball reaching only 91 mph. After Ichiro Suzuki doubled, Clemens threw a first-pitch slider to Ivan Rodriguez -- an early sign that Clemens was not feeling good about his fastball -- and then continued throwing off-speed stuff. I-Rod smashed a triple off the top of the right field fence, driving home Suzuki.

Vladimir Guerrero grounded back to the mound for an out, with Rodriguez holding at third, and Manny Ramirez fell behind in the count no balls and two strikes. Clemens looked in for a sign from Piazza, and shook him off once. Twice. A third time. And Clemens stepped back away from the rubber.

He went back on top of the mound and shook off Piazza again, once. Twice. And when he got the sign for a slider, he threw -- a hanger. Ramirez blistered a two-run homer into the left field stands.

Clemens struck out Alex Rodriguez, but Clemens' old teammates got to him. Jason Giambi reached first on an error by second baseman Jeff Kent, Derek Jeter singled over first base, and Alfonso Soriano jumped on another splitter for a three-run homer. As Soriano rounded the bases, Clemens retrieved another baseball from home plate umpire Ed Montague, his face covered by a small smile.

Maybe Clemens and Piazza will settle their personal differences in the future, rather than continue their unspoken non-aggression pact. Until then, we will watch them, through Hall of Fame and other baseball events they attend together.

We're all fascinated, the same way we were when Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding skated on the ice together for the first time after the rinkside assault, the same way we are every time boxers stare down each other at pre-fight press conferences. We won't let it go, in part, because Clemens and Piazza probably never will, either. The baseball world is filled with rubber-neckers and we are all stalled watching a dormant feud between two of the game's greatest stars.

Clemens and Piazza said a lot of things about the other at their respective press conferences Monday. But Clemens never said sorry; he tried to say that directly to Piazza four years ago and was rebuffed, and because he believed that the Mets' catcher effectively vilified him in the days that followed, he probably will never say sorry.

And Piazza never said he wanted to bury the hatchet, forgive and forget. They both just want to move on.

"I don't have to pitch at him, I'm pitching with him now -- we're on the same team," said Clemens. "It's not a story that's what's going on here ... I'm glad I get to throw to him, and I don't have to face him."

They kept telling reporters Monday that they were putting a lot more energy analyzing this uncomfortable partnership than it was worth. "You've thought about this a lot more than I have," Piazza said, at one point.

Piazza, surrounded four-deep by writers and cameramen, was asked: Is there any air to clear here? "That's not for me to say ... The issue? I really don't know what the issue is. It's out of my control; it's out of our control."

And Piazza said flatly, "I'm excited for the opportunity," rolling his eyes, in such a way that made it clear he could instantly vanish from the room.

This is not media-created reality television. Four years ago, a future Hall of Fame pitcher beaned a future Hall of Fame catcher with a 92 mph fastball. And when the pitcher attempted to apologize, he was flatly rebuked. The following day, Piazza said in a press conference that he had lost his respect for Clemens.

The very next time the two future Hall of Famers faced each other again, Clemens destroyed Piazza's bat with an inside fastball, and then flung the splintered barrel across the same baseline Piazza was running. And Piazza asked Clemens, at that moment: "What's your problem?"

There was some jostling, a retaliatory brushback pitch aimed at Clemens a couple of years later, and nothing was really settled. Clemens reached first base in a game between Houston and the Mets earlier this year, on a day when Piazza was playing first, and during a pitching change, Piazza became deeply engaged in conversation -- with the umpire, who was standing 30 feet away from Clemens.

It's hard to imagine what either could've done to continue the feud, even if they were so inclined. Oh, sure, Clemens could've crossed up Piazza, zipping a fastball after nodding his head to the sign for a splitter, and bounced a pitch off Piazza's mask.

Or Piazza could've informed the hitters what the next pitch was going to be, the same way that Kevin Costner-as-Crash Davis did in the movie "Bull Durham." OK, Mr. Ramirez, here you go, fastball away. Have fun with it, and speak well of me.

None of that happened, of course. But Piazza and his 27.00 ERA have another special place in Clemens' history.

Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book, "The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty," will be released later this summer and can be pre-ordered through HarperCollins.com.