A Rocket finale? Maybe, maybe not

MIAMI -- Flash bulbs popping. Opposing players cheering. Tears welling up in Roger Clemens' eyes. Every occupant of a ballpark 1,000 miles from home standing and saluting.

This was the scene in Pro Player Stadium late on a perfect Wednesday night, as a living legend headed for his dugout after throwing His Final Pitch Ever. What a moment. Poignant. Respectful. Classy.

Only one thing could possibly tarnish this indelibly classic World Series memory:

Suppose this wasn't goodbye?

Suppose Clemens' seven typically professional innings in an amazing baseball game -- Marlins 4, Yankees 3, in 12 breathtaking innings -- wasn't the last start he will ever make in a major-league uniform?

Suppose he's sitting home in Texas in a couple of months, thinking about how well he pitched this year and how great his right arm still feels?

Suppose those offers he's almost certain to get from the Yankees, Astros and Rangers start looking so attractive, he begins to fantasize about coming back one more time to perfect that knuckleball he's been kidding about?

Suppose that Olympic-team gig he's been dreaming about energizes him to the point he has a tough time traveling home from Athens in August and watching the stretch drive on his 66-inch flat screen?

Suppose his family sees that look in his eyes and says, "Oh, what the heck. Go play another year?"

Could happen. Easily.

It's incredible how many people in baseball think this Clemens farewell tour was just the warmup act for the next Clemens farewell tour. Even while those flash bulbs sparkle in the October night. Even while Clemens brings his entire family up to the podium with him after his "last" World Series start.

Even while his 9-year-old son Kacy concludes his father's "final" interview session by saying: "Thank you for watching over my dad for the last 40 years -- I mean 20 years. And we'll take it from here."

You want to believe that, because to finish a Hall of Fame career on the World Series stage is as cool an exit script as a guy can write. But there are too many signs out there that point in the other direction to allow us to fully believe that the sunset Clemens is about to gallop off into isn't actually just a golden mirage.

For instance, Yankees general manager Brian Cashman was asked Wednesday how convinced he was that this was the last time he would ever see Clemens start a baseball game in the major leagues.

The easy answer here was for Cashman to start waxing poetic about The Greatest Pitcher of his Time and thanking him for the memories. This was the GM's opportunity to take all those Clemens-comeback rumors and slam-dunk them in the nearest dumpster.

Instead, a fascinating smile formed on Cashman's lips.

"How convinced?" he mused. "Oh, not so convinced."

Just in case, Cashman said, he has been saving the ticket stub from every game Clemens has started since his final regular-season start four weeks ago. But the Yankees keep playing, and Clemens keeps pitching, and "I keep adding tickets," Cashman laughed.

But he might not be through collecting those tickets, either. By the time this Clemens saga finishes playing itself out, Cashman could have more tickets lying around his office than Ticketmaster.

"He's got the ability, always, to change his mind," the GM went on. "He's certainly got the ability to continue pitching."

Oh, the ability isn't even an issue. The guy almost led the league in strikeouts, at age 41. Only four pitchers in the American League won more games this year than the 17 he won. He pitched more innings (211 2/3) than any 40-something non-knuckleballer since Nolan Ryan grunted his way through 239 1/3 in 1989.

And then came this postseason. Clemens' "last" postseason.

He dominated the Twins in his first start. Next, he was a tower of strength on that surreal Saturday afternoon at Fenway when Pedro Martinez and Don Zimmer were auditioning for the next WWE Royal Rumble.

And then, when Clemens scuffled in Game 7 against the Red Sox last week, the Yankees were such good pals, they made sure to rally miraculously and give him another shot at rewriting his final chapter.

Which brought us to this game. His "last" game. In a teal and orange football stadium that has been home to many more 300-yard passers than 300-game winners.

Clemens almost fumbled this handoff, too. The sight of a pitcher this great giving up five straight two-out hits in the first inning was almost impossible to fathom. And when he finally squirmed out of that mess, his team trailed by three runs, the bullpen was pumping, and he'd already thrown 42 pitches -- in one inning.

But he stopped it right there. Because that's all he knows. After allowing five hits to the first seven hitters, he gave up three hits to the next 22.

The "final" pitch was vintage Roger Clemens. He'd been battling Luis Castillo for nine epic pitches. On the 1-and-2 pitch, the flash cameras first began to twinkle. By 3-and-2, there were so many bulbs gleaming in so many places, this stadium looked more like the set of Phantom of the Opera.

Even Clemens gushed later: "It was quite amazing. I think everybody started understanding that it was going to be my last inning ... And my last hitter ... And my last pitch."

That "last" pitch was one final 94-mile-an-hour scorcher. It froze Castillo, for one "last" strike three. If this really was The Final K, it was No. 4,242, counting the postseason.

And then, right there in the middle of a tense, critical ball game, a Roger Clemens testimonial broke out. With all 65,000 people on their feet, stomping, clapping, roaring, in respectful admiration of all this man had done. With even the Marlins filing out of their own dugout, applauding, pointing.

"That just shows the respect he's got," said Marlins first baseman Derrek Lee, "from players and fans."

With 72-year-old Jack McKeon, hardly ready to retire himself, climbing to the top step and tipping his cap.

"It was a very touching moment," McKeon said. "He's a class act. We're gonna miss guys like him."

With Pudge Rodriguez, heading for the plate in shin guards, stopping to pound his palms together, over and over.

They had already had their moment, Clemens and Pudge, in the second inning, when Clemens stepped into the batter's box. Rodriguez tapped him on the leg and said, "Nice career."

"It's been fun, battling," Clemens replied.

"Yeah," Rodriguez told him, "it's been great."

And this moment was great. For just a couple of minutes, a baseball game froze in time -- for all the right reasons. Asked if he could ever remember stopping in the middle of a game, especially one this big, to applaud a member of the other team, Marlins reliever Chad Fox replied: "No. Never. And I don't think I ever will again. But that says something. It says this guy is probably the best I've ever seen."

Don Zimmer and some Yankees coaches shoved Clemens back out of the dugout. He waved. He doffed his cap. He pointed across the way at the Marlins' bench. You could see his eyes begin to water. You could read his lips as he sighed: "Whew."

Then he headed back into the clubhouse, leaned back and thought about it all.

"It kind of just hits you a little bit," Clemens said, "everything that's happened in your career. I was able to go in and sit in the office in there and reflect for about five minutes. Everything I did kind of passes in front of your eyes. It all crossed my mind real quick."

If you just took in this scene, if you just heard those words, you would think this really was this man's Grand Finale. But we'll advise you again to proceed with caution. We just hear too many things.

We've heard a million scenarios. Everything from Clemens returning to the Yankees for another full season to Clemens coming back from the Olympics to pitch the last month as an Astro, while living at home.

Who knows? He might even decide the only way he can get ready to be a proper Olympian is to pitch in the big leagues from April to July, then ask for permission to take a leave of absence and head for Greece with the Olympic team. Then he'd be back for September and the playoffs.

We've heard that Astros owner Drayton McLane has never lost hope of bringing Clemens home. We've heard that Rangers owner Tom Hicks would love to find a way to have Clemens re-enact the Nolan Ryan Story in Arlington.

But in the meantime, Cashman pondered all that Wednesday and said: "Could be. But I'll tell you this: He ain't going anywhere but here."

"I think he liked his Yankee life," Cashman said. "So I don't anticipate him doing anything in any uniform but the pinstripes."

You don't wear pinstripes when you're watching your kids' Little League games. You don't wear pinstripes while you're doing the gardening. You don't wear pinstripes while you're walking down the 18th fairway. You only wear pinstripes if you're playing baseball. And if we were in a betting mood, we'd bet that's just what Roger Clemens will be doing next year -- if not in April, then certainly in September.

But if he plays baseball next year, what do we do about that ovation Wednesday night? Does it still count? Do the tears have to be rescinded? And if he's pitching in the next World Series, do we have to stage it all over again?

"He's gonna be just like Michael Jordan," said Lee. "We'll have to keep retiring his number -- and unretiring it."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer at ESPN.com