Golden oldies

Pitchers develop on different schedules. But generally they leave baseball in the same way, with few walking away while they can still be effective.

Roger Clemens came out of the University of Texas with both an overpowering fastball and an idea of how to use it. Randy Johnson had five seasons in the big leagues before Nolan Ryan helped him turn the corner. Jamie Moyer had to return to the minor leagues to figure things out.

Age is proving to be a relative thing for all three of them. Clemens, Johnson and Moyer are all past 40 but figure to play major roles in the 2004 playoff race.

Moyer, who a year ago became just the fifth pitcher in modern history to have a 20-win season after turning 40, is the only one of the three still at his peak. But the other two are stubborn enough to think there's enough left in their tank to help Houston and Arizona win division titles.

Clemens, 41, is officially on borrowed time -- with his family, anyway. He was sure his World Series start in Florida would be the last outing of his career, with the only possible exception an appearance for Team USA in Athens.

"I was pretty relaxed,'' Clemens said this spring. "The Olympic team was going to be something that was fun to do.''

Clemens figured he would spend this season watching his sons play baseball. He bought season tickets to take them to watch the Astros at Minute Maid Park. The next thing he knew, his former Yankee teammate and workout partner, Andy Pettitte, had landed in Houston.

"I wouldn't be here if he wasn't here,'' said Clemens, who owns 310 career wins and 4,099 strikeouts. "I had a great vacation. I sat on my couch and ate a few desserts. I was pretty relaxed, and then the town went crazy when it got a 20-game winner ... I had no intention of coming back. I was pretty satisfied with everything except losing in the World Series. There's no other feeling like winning together.''

A 17-game winner with the Yankees last season, Clemens looked like his old self in spring training. He was in his usually terrific condition and did not suffer any of the nagging injuries that older pitchers learn to dread.

Johnson, 40, knows all about those. He won a career-high 24 games and a fourth Cy Young Award in 2002, but missed 12 weeks after having arthroscopic surgery on his right knee last season.

It looked like the beginning of the end. But the 6-foot-10 lefty pushed himself over the offseason and the results showed this spring. His fastball was clocked at 96 mph in his Cactus League debut against Colorado.

"You guys can write what you want to write and say what you want to say, but it's night and day," Johnson said, referring to his readiness at this time a year ago. "I'm very encouraged by all the hard work I put in this offseason, and hopefully it will pay off like it has in the past."

Nothing went right for Johnson last season. He had his first losing season since 1992 and his highest ERA since his rookie season in 1989.

Johnson carries more burden than ever in Arizona following the trade of Curt Schilling and the failure to re-sign Miguel Batista. He anchors a rotation that includes only one double-figure winner from a year ago, Brandon Webb.

Like Clemens in Houston, a deep cast of pitchers surrounds Moyer in Seattle. He had never won more than 12 games in a season until being traded there from Boston -- for outfielder Darren Bragg, yikes -- in 1996 but now has won at least 13 games eight years in a row, including 21 a year ago.

"Let's be honest, and I mean no disrespect to Darren Bragg," Moyer said. "But the Mariners didn't have huge expectations for me when they sent a fourth outfielder to Boston."

Like Clemens and Johnson, the thing that drives him the most is the chance to get his team back in the playoffs. He's made four playoff starts for the Mariners, going 3-0 during their 2001 trip to the championship series, when Clemens' Yankees denied them a chance to face Johnson's Diamondbacks in the World Series.

Moyer, always built more like a tennis player than a pitcher, hasn't overpowered hitters since he was a kid. His fastball rarely breaks 85 mph, but he's won 185 career games by mastering the art of not giving in to hitters' strengths. His best pitch is his changeup, which sometimes arrives at the plate under 70 mph.

"Most aggressive pitchers are aggressive with their fastball," Moyer told the Tacoma News Tribune this spring. "I'm aggressive with my changeup. I've always found it ironic that baseball drafts hitters who can hit a fastball -- and pitchers that can throw one. Successful pitching depends upon upsetting the hitter's timing. It's harder to do that when you're throwing what he hits best."

Unlike Johnson and Clemens, the 41-year-old Moyer is becoming a better pitcher as he ages. He's won 54 games the last three seasons and has a .692 winning percentage since 1996, better than any other starter in the majors. That's impressive.

No wonder Moyer does not spend a lot of time thinking about his exit plan. Larry LaRue of the News Tribune recently asked him if he could pitch another decade.

"I'd love to say yes,'' Moyer said, "but there's wear and tear on your joints whether you're throwing 95 or 75. You put stress on your muscles, your tendons, your whole body. It takes hard work to maintain what you have. Sooner or later, something may give. It won't be the change-up that forces me out of the game, it'll probably be my body."

Clemens is planning for this to be his last season, but we've heard that before. Johnson has two years left on his Arizona contract.

Whenever Moyer, Clemens and Johnson pitch in 2004, you might want to set the VCR to get tape for your personal time capsule. But then again, it could a while before baseball is without any of the three.

All three of them were touched in one way or another by Ryan during his remarkable career, and Big Tex pitched until he was 46. Who wants to tell them that they can't do the same?

Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com.