Stan Grossfeld/Globe staff
WICHITA, Kansas — Roger Clemens appeared tanned and muscular with just a little excess in the middle to separate him from, say, 1996. He was here to pitch competitively for perhaps the last time, in this summer’s National Baseball Congress World Series, for the Kansas Stars, a group of former major leaguers who formed the team to compete in a tournament against mostly college-age players.
Not since Satchel Paige struck out 60 batters while winning four games here in 1935 has a pitching appearance been as highly anticipated.
“It’s going to be interesting,” said Clemens.
Asked if this is the “twilight of his career” referred to by former Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette 20 years ago, Clemens laughs.
“Yeah,” he said. “Still.”
His catcher will be his son Koby, who played in the Houston Astros farm system and is the only player on the Stars roster who is not a former big leaguer. The roster includes Josh Beckett, J.D. Drew, Adam LaRoche, Tim Hudson, and Roy Oswalt.
Most of the retired players are in their 30s and 40s; Clemens is the oldest at 54. Combined, they made more than $113 million in just their last seasons in Major League Baseball. The other teams in the tournament are made up of amateur college-aged players.
“I’ve always said if I do something like this setting, I want to have my son catch me and be the last person to catch me,” said Clemens.
He has been working out for three weeks, throwing batting practice to his kids.
“We don’t have one foot in the graveyard and another on a banana peel yet,” Clemens said during a brief press conference with his buddy, country music star Toby Keith, who served as honorary manager.
Clemens won seven Cy Young awards pitching in Boston, Toronto, New York, and Houston, and was a first-ballot lock for the Baseball Hall of Fame until he was named multiple times in the Mitchell Report, an investigation into steroid use sanctioned by MLB in 2007. He has vehemently denied any steroid use and was acquitted of lying to Congress after testifying before a committee investigating baseball’s drug problem.
Koby Clemens acknowledges that his father was hurt by the low support (37.6 percent) in his first year of eligibility for the Hall of Fame in 2013.
“We live in a world of innocent until proven guilty, and he was never proven guilty,” said Koby. “I believe in my heart and soul that he has never taken any substances or drugs of any kind to help him perform on the field. He’s a warrior and he’s worked his butt off.”
The Rocket retired nine years ago. He last pitched competitively with the Sugar Land Skeeters, an independent league team, in 2012, tossing 4⅔ innings to his son.
A young Roger Clemens, not yet the Rocket, pitched in Wichita at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium with the Hutchinson Broncs, posting a 2.16 ERA in the 1982 NBC World Series.
Old-timers remember him.
“He threw awful hard,” said Steve Ruud, who co-owns the local independent team, the Wichita Wingnuts. “Hard and tight. Nobody dug in on him. But I never thought he’d have the career he had. Not in any way, shape, or form,”
Young opponents talked about him with a sense of awe.
“Honestly, if I take him deep, I could probably quit baseball and die a happy man right there, “ said Blake Brewster, a right fielder for the Liberal (Kan.) Bee Jays.
The idea to form the Stars came when Kansas natives Nate Robinson and LaRoche decided to recruit their friends to play in the annual amateur event. For them, it was about baseball, camaraderie, and having their now-older kids see them play.
“It has nothing to do with the money,” says Oswalt. “Even if we win this thing, we’re giving the money [$18,000] to charity.”
Players were housed at a Kansas casino out of town. Golf and gambling were readily available. There was ice-cold beer on the bus and in the clubhouse, which was closed to the media.
Keith, citing his managerial powers, declared that there would be a 10 o’clock curfew.
“Ten o’clock a.m.,” he said.
Before Clemens showed up, the Stars began play in front of a standing-room crowd of 7,000, amid an air of excitement. Beckett strode into the dugout with a foamy beverage in a paper cup. Nobody cared.
Hudson, 41, who started Game 7 of the 2014 World Series for the Giants, threw three no-hit innings against college kids.
“For an inning — inning and a third — I felt pretty good,” said Hudson. “Then somebody tied an elephant to my back and it was a little challenging after that.”
Beckett, wearing Dodger blue, relieved him.
“It was the only uniform I had,” said Beckett, who also tossed three no-hit innings in an 8-0 Stars win.
Beckett, 36, had a rib removed when he underwent thoracic surgery in 2013.
“That’s not why I retired,” he said. “I retired [in 2014] because of my hip.”
Drew, 40, got the Stars’ first hit, a scorching double into the right-field corner.
“I literally didn’t think I would make contact,” said the now-bearded Drew. “I have not faced live pitching since I walked off the field in Baltimore [at the end of the 2011 season].
“As soon as I hit it, I go, ‘Oh no, now I gotta run.’ That’s the problem.”
Drew still hunts and fishes in his native Georgia, is involved in the real estate business, and does work for the Mailbox Club, which spreads the gospel worldwide.
His 2011 Red Sox uniform is a tad loose.
“That’s from chasing five kids around,” he said.
LaRoche hit a home run in the Stars’ second-game victory and was congratulated by his son Drake. LaRoche made headlines in March when he left $13 million on the table and abruptly retired after the White Sox wanted to put restrictions on how much time his 14-year-old son could spend in the clubhouse.
“I had no intention of retiring,’’ LaRoche said. “I was put in a situation where I felt like I would rather be around my kids than continue to play.”
Here, Drake was back in uniform and often at his side.
“They had to watch me for a long time, so it’s my turn to return the favor,” said LaRoche.
Coming back against college kids isn’t easy. Brad Penny, another former Red Sox pitcher, said the team held only two workouts and he missed both of them.
“I retired because it hurt,’’ he said. “So I told them in the clubhouse, ‘Next year, let’s just go to Hawaii or something.’ ”
Penny said he and Beckett reminisced about Fenway Park.
“We were talking about favorite places to pitch,” said Penny. “You walk inside the ballpark and the smell, the passion, the fans. I’ve always said Brad Pitt could walk into a bar and a Boston Red Sox can walk in next to him and the Boston Red Sox guy would get all the attention. It’s incredible.”
One night, players signed autographs to raise money for expenses of all the other teams in the 82-year-old tournament. A Clemens signature cost $75, Beckett $35, and Drew $20.
Clemens watched the Stars’ second-game win from the bench, massaging a baseball into his knees, thighs, and calves, worrying about whether his legs would hold up.
For the Stars’ third game, Clemens took the mound, sweat dripping from his face with the heat index near 100 degrees.
Koby Clemens gave him a hug before his first pitch. He said before the game it’s OK if his father shakes off his signs.
“I’m just going to listen to Pops,” he said. “It’s going to be fun.”
In 2⅔ innings, Clemens gave up three runs on five hits, some of them the seeing-eye variety. He struck out one, hit two batters, and uncorked one wild pitch. According to one radar gun, he topped out at 86 miles per hour in the first inning.
After tossing 45 pitches, Clemens departed with a 4-3 lead.
“He was running out of gas,” said Stars pitching coach Dave LaRoche, a former major league pitcher and father of Adam. “Just to be able to go out there and compete at his age is awesome.”
Clemens received a standing ovation, high fives from teammates, and another bear hug from Koby.
The Stars would end up losing, 11-10. They would later be eliminated in a 17-inning loss.
Out beyond the left-field fence, Clemens, wearing a peach-colored shirt and hair still wet, emerged from the clubhouse unnoticed in the seventh inning.
“I feel very blessed and very lucky,” he said. “It was great. We accomplished what we wanted to do and I think we brought some smiles to a lot of people’s faces.”
None of the happy faces heckled him about steroids.
“Oh, God, no,” he said. “No way.”
However, it was the suspicion of steroid use that left him with 45.2 percent of the vote on the 2016 Hall of Fame ballot, well short of the 75 percent needed.
“I have zero control,’’ said Clemens. “I have a lot of great friends in the press that know me as a person, that love me just like these fans and all my fans. I get nothing but praise wherever I go.”
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