T

HEY GOT RAJAH

. . .

From Bar Harbor to the Back Bay, those three words announced a summer of unease. Oh, the faces will be brave and the words will be defiant. Red Sox fans will point to the standings this morning and smile. They will say that all Roger Clemens is anymore is a six-inning pitcher on a team without a bullpen. They might even mean it, this morning.

May will turn to June, though - Yankees in Fenway, beginning on June 1. Then June will melt into the cauldron that is summer in the American League East. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, history abhors a runaway in that division. And now, the foundation that the Red Sox have built against a Yankees team battered by pitching injuries seems to mean just a little bit less.

Three words, then.

They got Rajah . . .

No need to identify "they.''

No need to identify "Rajah.''

The Yankees have signed Clemens, age 44, after his annual springtime sabbatical. They did everything yesterday but bring him into the Stadium accompanied by the blare of trumpets and carried on a sedan chair. During the seventh-inning stretch, the irreplaceable Bob Sheppard announced on the public-address system that everyone should turn and face the owners' box, where Clemens took a microphone and announced his own return.

And, well, let's just say that the people thought it was swell news. There was cheering in the stands and high-fives among the players in the Yankees' dugout. The Yankees have signed maybe the greatest righthanded pitcher in the history of righthanded pitchers - and, in recent years, the most famous mercenary working on American soil since the Hessians.

But, more than that, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner has taken another big swing.

He is an old man now, and people openly speculate about Steinbrenner's health. He is rarely seen in public anymore, spending more time at his home in Tampa than in New York, not even bothering to attend any of the games the last time the Yankees visited the Devil Rays. He speaks almost exclusively through prepared statements.

Some see a sense of growing detachment, as general manager Brian Cashman grows in his job. Some see softness, as manager Joe Torre continues to hang on amid the kinds of struggles that once routinely turned managers into former managers in the Bronx.

You can see whatever you want. But yesterday, the old man took another big hack. Steinbrenner again made the kind of move that defines him as unique among professional sports owners, a combination of commitment and wherewithal that no one else possesses.

Yesterday, Steinbrenner signed Roger Clemens.

Yesterday, George was George again.

"As I pledged just a few days ago, I will do everything within my power to support Brian Cashman, Joe Torre and this team as we fight to bring a 27th championship to New York,'' Steinbrenner said, in one of those prepared statements. "Roger Clemens is a winner and a champion, and he is someone who can be counted on to help make this season one that all Yankees fans can be proud of. The sole mission of this organization is to win a world championship.''

And they have the cash that enables the owner to be a hero. Reports are that Clemens, who technically signed a minor league contract and won't be ready to pitch for the Yankees for a couple of weeks, will end up making about $18.5 million for 4 months' work. The Yankees are the only team on the planet who can send pitcher Carl Pavano away for presumed elbow surgery, essentially eat a 4-year contract paying Pavano $40 million and get almost nothing in return, shrug, and throw $18.5 million more at Clemens. It must be nice.

Clemens had said he would consider employment by three teams once the last petunia was planted at his home: the Astros, Red Sox and Yankees. The Astros offered nearness to home, which has been what he wanted the last three seasons. The Red Sox offered the best shot at a championship. The Yankees seemed to be the clear loser of the three, limping out of the gate this year, their manager under fire, their pitching staff so injured and uncertain.

Yet Clemens is a Yankee again, rejoining old pal Andy Pettitte, returning to the team whose insignia he wants to be a part of his Hall of Fame plaque.

A motivated mercenary, then.

An owner taking another shot at it all.

An uneasy summer, from Manchester to Montpelier.

*

Send e-mail to hofmanr@phillynews.com. For recent columns, go to http://go.philly.com/hofmann.