The Yankee way ... out

NEW YORK -- After learning that Roger Clemens had officially un-retired on Monday, the Yankees made an immediate, internal decision to avoid a public squabble with the right-hander. Instead of debating whether they'd been lied to, executives specifically urged George Steinbrenner not to lash out -- advice that, for once, he accepted. The Boss issued a statement in which he benignly called Clemens, "a teacher and a leader".

GM Brian Cashman was similarly accommodating to the Rocket, telling reporters, "we all have the right to change our mind."

The Yankees' restraint was based on two factors. First, Clemens' decision to pitch for the Astros and not, say, the Red Sox, places him far out of their universe, where he can't hurt them until October. And second, aware of how Clemens' bitterness toward former Boston GM Dan Duquette fueled him in New York, the Yankees were wary of becoming the Rocket's newest target.

"The last thing we want to become is a foil for Roger," the Yankee executive said. "Look at what he did to Duquette for years and years. He killed him. We're not going to let that happen to us."

But sculpting a careful response isn't the same as a blanket endorsement of Clemens' decision. The Yankees have a few issues with the Rocket -- the first of which is why he didn't even hint at a change of heart when the team was deciding whether to offer arbitration.

Actually, it's not the lost draft pick that bothers the Yankees -- "to us it's a consolation prize, we don't care about draft picks," said one official. What really wounds the Yankees is having missed out on the chance to persuade Clemens to pitch in New York in 2004.

"That's the question, could we have signed Roger or not?" Cashman said. "If we had known there was a chance, we would have definitely considered it."

As it turns out, the Yankees wouldn't have gotten far in those talks. Clemens insisted as late as Nov. 12 he was beyond baseball's tentacles, irreversibly retired. By the time Clemens started to re-think his position -- goaded by Andy Pettitte, now with the Astros -- the Dec. 7 arbitration date had come and gone. As agent Randy Hendricks confirmed in an email to the New York Times, "The big difference was Andy signing and the response of the Houston community. (Clemens) would not have played anywhere else."

But Pettitte's exodus did more than just lure Clemens out of retirement. It sparked an argument that rages even today -- whether the Yankees ignited the engine of Clemens' return by letting Pettitte leave, or whether the left-hander had made up his mind to flee months ago, regardless of the Bombers' offer.

In fact, some conspiracy theorists suggest that Pettitte and Clemens, both represented by the same agents, choreographed their dual defection as far back as last summer. No one in the Yankee front office truly believes the two pitchers could have been so duplicitous, but the Bombers still insist the failed negotiation with Pettitte was based on the lefty's impenetrable desire to return to Texas.

That's why the Yankees are so defensive at the suggestion that they were the catalysts to Pettitte's and Clemens' migration. Cashman said, "the fact that Andy took less (in average annual salary) from Houston tells you he'd made up his mind to go. There is no doubt in my mind about that."

That issue will likely never find closure, but aside from blaming each other for Pettitte's decision, the Yankees and Clemens had no other desire to bloody each other on Monday. And one neutral observer, A's general manager Billy Beane, said Yankee fans had no right to be angry or even surprised that Clemens chose the Astros over retirement -- even if those sentimental final moments in 2003, particularly Game 4 of the World Series, seem a little emptier now.

"If you look at this rationally, the real surprise would have been if Roger didn't come back," Beane said. "Look at the opportunity he's getting to pitch at home. If he didn't take it you'd almost have to ask, 'why not?' "

That's why Clemens is hoping the public will believe him when says he was telling the truth last summer, promising to retire. The Rocket believes the going-home theme is so universal, it's possible to remain a Yankee in spirit and still go into the Cooperstown wearing a Bombers' cap. That may or may not impress Steinbrenner, considering Clemens has agreed to a 10-year personal services contract with Houston.

By doing so, Clemens effectively ended his relationship with the Yankees -- no small divorce, considering Clemens seemed to love the idea of being a Yankee alumnus some day. Every spring, the right-hander enjoyed spending time with Reggie Jackson and Ron Guidry and Yogi Berra, and looked forward to the day of being a celebrity instructor/coach at Legends Field, too.

Obviously, Clemens must have considered the risk. That -- and the relatively modest $5 million contract he signed with Houston -- kept the Yankees from pushing their case too hard on Monday.

The Yankees might think Clemens could have been less clumsy coming out of retirement, but as Cashman said, "Roger gave us a lot of great moments when he was here. Obviously, that's something you have to respect."

Bob Klapisch of The Record (Bergen County, N.J.) covers baseball for ESPN.com.