Roger Clemens would have you believe that he has not yet decided whether he will return for his 22d season in the major leagues, one that would take him through his 43d birthday.
But of this we can be certain: Clemens is out of the business of giving any hometown discounts to the Houston Astros.
Clemens yesterday filed for a record $22 million in salary arbitration, a figure that would better by $4.5 million the highest amount a major league pitcher ever made in a season. Last year, the Red Sox paid Pedro Martinez $17.5 million after principal owner John W. Henry picked up the option year on the six-year, $75 million contract former general manager Dan Duquette gave Martinez after trading for him in 1997. Clemens's request also tops the previous highest figure submitted for arbitration, the $18.5 million sought by Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter in 2001. Before his arbitration hearing that year, Jeter and the Yankees agreed to a 10-year, $189 million deal.
Clemens, who in his first season with the Astros last year won a record seventh Cy Young Award (his first in the National League), is not assured of getting what he asked for. The Astros have offered $13.5 million, and if the sides cannot strike an agreement before an arbitration hearing next month, a panel of arbitrators will decide between the figure submitted by Clemens and the figure submitted by the team.
There has never been a bigger gap -- $8.5 million -- between exchanged figures in arbitration. It would be surprising if the matter is not resolved short of a hearing, but even if the sides settle on a midpoint -- $17.75 million -- Clemens would trump Martinez as the game's most richly rewarded pitcher for a season.
First, however, there is the matter of whether Clemens will pitch at all in 2005. And while some friends privately predict that he will be back, he has not yet publicly confirmed that.
"I am not going to comment on this pending matter," one of Clemens's agents, Randy Hendricks, said in an e-mail last night, "other than to say Roger hasn't made a decision yet about playing."
After pitching for the Yankees in the 2003 World Series, Clemens announced his retirement, but after the Astros signed another Texas native, Andy Pettitte, away from the Yankees, Clemens, who grew up just outside Houston in Katy, Texas, agreed to join his close friend, signing a contract with the Astros last Jan. 12. That deal was for a guaranteed $5 million -- of which $3.5 million was deferred without interest until July 1, 2006. He earned an additional $1.825 million in bonuses tied to attendance. Astros owner Drayton McLane said he negotiated that deal himself, and likened Clemens's presence in an Astro uniform to that of Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan.
The club's telephone system broke down within hours of the announcement of Clemens's signing, such was the frenzy that greeted the news of his coming home. Pam Gardner, the team's president of business operations, called it the greatest day of her life. Houston set a club record for attendance last season at 3,087,872, only the second time in team history the Astros drew 3 million. They also did so in 2000, the year what is now known as Minute Maid Park was opened.
Clemens delivered on the field, winning his first nine decisions, starting the All-Star Game -- in Houston -- for the National League, and finishing with an 18-4 record, 2.98 ERA, and 218 strikeouts. The Astros came within a game of going to the World Series, as Clemens lost Game 7 of the National League Championship Series to the St. Louis Cardinals.
The Astros, who already lost one of their top hitters, Jeff Kent, to the Dodgers in free agency, and also failed to re-sign free agent outfielder Carlos Beltran despite a highly publicized pursuit by McLane, also will be missing star outfielder Lance Berkman at least until May because of injury. They did not offer Wade Miller a contract in order to avoid a potentially expensive arbitration case with a pitcher who has a sore shoulder. Miller, who pitched sparingly last season, signed an incentive-laden deal with the Red Sox.
A retirement announcement from Clemens would be a severe blow to the team, yet the Astros, who were 10th in the majors in payroll last season at $81.9 million, cannot be cheered by the possibility of laying out so much money for the Rocket, though they were aware of that possibility when they offered him arbitration as a free agent in December and he accepted.
"We looked at what some of the comparables were -- Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson -- and we tried to use those star-quality players to come up with a number," said Astros first-year general manager Tim Purpura.
The best-case scenario for the Astros, it would appear, is to get Clemens's consent on a contract that would be heavily deferred.
"As I've said all along, we're going to wait patiently for his answer," Purpura said. "Having Roger Clemens here is very important to the team, the city, and the fans. It would be great to have Roger on board."
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report