NEW ORLEANS -- It isn't just idle offseason talk. It isn't just one high-profile baseball player doing his best to talk a buddy into trying on the same uniform.
Nope. As easy as it might have seemed to dismiss that chatter about Roger Clemens joining his pal, Andy Pettitte, next season in Houston as just another hey-wouldn't-that-be-something conversation for your favorite talk-show host, indications are growing that this is a real possibility.
Three days before Pettitte signed with the Astros, we began hearing these Clemens-to-Houston rumblings from an NL executive who was one of the first to tell us that Pettitte looked headed to the Astros.
Then, on the first day of the winter meetings on Friday, we heard the same message from an official of another team, an official who has ties to Houston -- and one who had predicted Pettitte would be an Astro nearly two weeks before it happened.
When the subject of Clemens to Houston came up, the official said, almost matter-of-factly: "Oh, I think that's happening. These two guys are working out together, right? Why are they working out together if the one guy is retired?"
Hmmm, good point. But what about Clemens' emotional, flashbulb-popping "final" World Series pitch? If that wasn't the end, it sure fooled a whole lot of people, from New York to the Rio Grande.
"I never thought that was his final pitch," the official said. "He'll be back. And I think he'll be back in Houston."
We've been hearing this talk as far back as the World Series. Even then, friends were suggesting all kinds of scenarios that could interest Clemens in firing up the engine to pitch another year. And a Pettitte-Clemens reunion back home in Texas was one of them.
But now, baseball people who are hooked into Astros owner Drayton McLane say McLane is openly discussing finding a way to add Clemens to his growing collection of local heroes.
One of those people says McLane has already let Clemens know that even if he doesn't come back to pitch, he is always welcome at Minute Maid Park -- to do anything from shagging flies to tossing batting practice to hanging out in a suite with his kids, eating ribs. But of course, if Clemens does decide to pitch, McLane has made it clear the crack in that door is as wide as the whole state of Texas.
Clemens is a lonnnnngggg ways from deciding he's going to come back, though. And that is just one of the hang-ups that could prevent this fascinating reunion from ever taking place.
Just as messy is the fact that the Astros are already over their projected payroll -- and Clemens isn't dusting off the old splitter for the same money McLane is paying Eric Bruntlett.
But McLane loves his Houstonians. And remember this: Not only are he and Pettitte and Clemens from Houston, but so are both players' agents -- Alan and Randy Hendricks.
So as crazy as this might seem on one level, "don't discount it," says a baseball man who ought to know. And that's good enough for us.
Two baseball officials who have been monitoring the Kevin Brown-for-Jeff Weaver deal say that no significant obstacles remain that would prevent the Yankees and Dodgers from completing the trade -- possibly Saturday, but more likely early next week. The only delay now, according to one of those officials, is "administrative stuff."
One of the trickiest elements in transferring Brown's mind-boggling contract from the Dodgers to the Yankees is the clause that originally made Ruppert Murdoch's Fox jet fleet available to fly Brown's family from Georgia to Los Angeles. But Brown's agent, Scott Boras, said Friday that might not be as complicated as it seems -- because George Steinbrenner "uses the same air service as Fox."
There are conflicting reports on whether Kenny Lofton's impending one-year deal with the Yankees is done -- or just close. But much of that confusion is because this is just one more Yankees transaction Steinbrenner is handling pretty much singlehandedly.
Speaking of matters Steinbrenner is handling himself, an official of one team that spoke with the Yankees on Friday said the Yankees are keeping Gary Sheffield at a distance while they "move in on Vladimir Guerrero." Neither the Yankees nor Guerrero's agent, Fernando Cuza, made an appearance in New Orleans on Friday. But the official said the Yankees had become sufficiently convinced that Guerrero's interest in them was sincere that they were launching a major effort to sign him.
At the same time, they haven't told Sheffield the three-year, $39-million contract he thought he'd negotiated was officially defunct -- but only because they aren't telling Sheffield anything about anything at the moment.
Keith Foulke hasn't quite committed to doing his Christmas shopping on Newbury Street. But there were signs Friday he is close to signing a three-year, $21-million contract with the Red Sox. Foulke's agent, Dan Horwits, met with Red Sox brass Friday after Boston fine-tuned its offer, apparently at Foulke's request. And it's believed the A's -- who are thought to have offered four years, $22 million -- have told him this is the best they can do. Unless the A's change their mind and counter, Foulke could sign with the Red Sox as soon as Saturday.
Numerous sources said Reggie Sanders was close to signing a two-year contract with the Tigers, in the neighborhood of $3 million to $3.5 million a year.
It now appears that if the Yankees and Dodgers finish off the Brown-Weaver deal, it won't be Weaver whom the Dodgers turn around and trade elsewhere for a bat. It is more likely to be Odalis Perez -- with St. Louis (for J.D. Drew) being Perez's most rumored destination.
The White Sox have also been trying to find a way to reel in Perez. But there were indications Friday they had turned their attention to Seattle and Freddy Garcia. At the moment, though, the Mariners are trying to figure out whether they can sign Miguel Tejada. If they can, their aim in trading Garcia would be essentially to clear money for Tejada. If they can't, they could either keep Garcia or take back some high-priced hitter in a trade for him.
Clubs that have been speaking with the Twins say they're actively exploring their options for dealing Jacque Jones. The Braves and Padres are believed to have been the most aggressive, but one club said the Twins would like to trade Jones for a closer if possible. That could create a match with the Diamondbacks, who have been telling teams they would pick up half of Matt Mantei's $7-million salary if someone is interested.
If Arizona is able to dispose of a chunk of Mantei's paycheck without taking on money (which is dubious), one club that had spoken with the Diamondbacks suggests that it might allow them to head back into the free-agent market -- and possibly even make a run at Greg Maddux. But that assumes Maddux is open to a two-year deal at about $5 million a year. And that's an assumption his agent, Boras, isn't encouraging.
"Greg has told me he wants to pitch at least three years," Boras said. "So we're looking at a three-year or four-year deal" (and, at least for now, at more than double those dollars).
In an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution this week, Maddux mentioned all of the NL West teams except Colorado as options, because they'd all be within a one-hour flight, at most, of the home he's building in San Diego. But Boras said it wouldn't necessarily be geography that determines Maddux's next destination.
"Greg has said there are two things that are important to him," Boras said. "One is geography. Two is winning. And sometimes you don't get both."
Despite rampant speculation that the Cubs could wind up as Pudge Rodriguez's next team, two sources who have spoken to the Cubs this week say he has never appeared on their radar screen.