Rocket return not a definite

Cy Young winners don't retire. Pitchers who just went 18-4 don't quit. Stars keep on shining. Athletes keep on playing, because that's what they love most in life.

So how can this possibly be The End for Roger Clemens?

Even at age 42. Even though he's already The Winningest Right-handed Pitcher of Modern Times. Even though his family likes having him around and his mother isn't getting any younger.

How can this man possibly retire?

Well, he can. And he might. And his pronouncements from Japan this week make it seem more likely than ever that we really might have seen Clemens snap off his final splitter.

But don't be so sure.

If you really listened closely to Clemens' words this week, you didn't hear a guy who knows he's done. You heard a guy who knows he's exhausted.

He went from the 2003 World Series to an insane, now-he's-retired-now-he's-not roller coaster of a winter. And then to a prime-time spring-training media show. Followed by a Cy Young summer. And a gut-churning postseason. And a tour of conveniently located Japan.

Heck, we're pooped just from writing that paragraph, let alone living through all that.

But the next season of his life, if there is one, doesn't start next week. So there will be no need for this man to make any decisions next week. Or even next month.

And after conversations with several baseball men who know Clemens -- and the Houston baseball scene -- quite well, we wouldn't be the slightest bit shocked to see him mounting a charge at Cy Young No. 8 next summer.

"I think he'll be back," said one of those men. "I think they'll play it out just like they did last year. ... As soon as it gets a little lax in the hot stove in Houston, they'll fire that out there."

Hmmm. Did someone just mention the hot stove?

You may have noticed that Clemens didn't speak about that hot stove this week when he talked about the factors that will play into his decision whether to retire or not. He spoke mostly about family -- and the sacrifices his family has had to make because dad has played baseball for 21 years.

But there will be more to this decision than that. The Astros can't freeze his kids, or his ailing mother, in time so they'll be there for him when he's ready. But they can do something about the makeup of their team this winter.

And it's clear to those who know how Clemens ticks that the better their team looks, the more difficult it will be for Cy Clemens to resist playing again. Especially after a season that ended with such a powerful sense of unfinished business.

That means the Astros have to make a serious charge at keeping Carlos Beltran.

It means they have to do all they can to bring back Jeff Kent.

It means rebuilding the bridge to Brad Lidge with a formidable set-up crew, because there is only so long Lidge can hold up if he has to be his own set-up man.

It means making an all-out commitment to maintain the exhilarating buzz that surrounded the Astros this season, from the day Clemens signed to the day he walked off the mound in Game 7 of the NLCS.

It means constructing a team that will make Clemens feel, as he did last winter, as if he's the missing piece for a franchise that has never played a World Series game.

But there's a Catch-22 in that. To construct that team, it will take more of Drayton McLane's money than he has ever felt inclined to spend. And now Gerry Hunsicker isn't around to play the vital role of a GM who could occasionally talk the owner into spending what had to be spent to do what had to be done.

The irony is, there will be more of that money coming in now than ever before, too. The Astros just signed a new regional-cable deal that is believed to be worth about $20 million a year. They set an attendance record this season and sold out five straight postseason games.

So you know the cable guys want to see this team offer Beltran the kind of bucks it will take to keep him. And that's where the Catch-22 arrives to complicate the pursuit of No. 22.

Would it be fair for the Astros to offer Beltran $14 million or so a year on one hand -- and then turn around and ask Clemens to work for the same $5 million (with $3.5 million deferred) he got paid last season?

After the bolt of lightning he injected into the franchise?

After a Cy Young season in which they won the last nine games he started -- and needed all nine of them to make the playoffs?

Doesn't seem right to us. So how can it seem right to the guy straddling that retirement fence?

That means that to lure Clemens back, the Astros probably need to plan on dangling an attractive little pay raise, along with all the other attractions they'll have to put in place.

So it won't be as easy as last year, when Andy Pettitte painted the picture on a beach in Hawaii and Clemens essentially woke up one morning and decided to tumble into the Astros' arms. But that doesn't mean it can't happen, either.

At some point, Pettitte will be filling Clemens' head with visions of one last October charge together. At some point, the Astros will be ready to romance the No. 1 sports icon in their chunk of Texas. At some point, decision time will arrive.

And when it does, we have a funny feeling the video on your screen will be of Roger Clemens walking toward the mound -- not into the sunset.

Miscellaneous Rumblings

  • Where will Beltran end up? Way too soon to tell. But one baseball man who talks to Beltran every few days has been telling friends Beltran will wind up staying in Houston.

  • When Scott Boras talks about a 10-year deal for Beltran, is he talking about five guaranteed years with five options years -- or, in Boras-speak, a 10-year contract with the last five all voidable? One big mistake people make in reading Boras is assuming he's talking about all guaranteed years. If he is in this case, he's making a big mistake.

    "If the price is really going to be $20 million a year for 10 years," says an official of one team that's interested, "then Beltran will be the last guy in baseball to sign this winter."

    We've been surveying agents and club officials from both leagues on this. And no one has predicted Beltran will wind up averaging more than the $14-15 million a year that Jim Thome and Vladimir Guerrero got as the marquee names on the market in the previous two winters.

    We haven't heard one club official predict longer than five years. One agent guessed seven. But five, with some vesting options, is closer to reality in this age.

    "I think we all realize now that no one should get more than five years, no matter who he is," says an official of one big-market team. "Everyone has gotten burned on these long-term contracts -- even the Yankees. You're one knee injury away from a disaster."

  • Don't be so sure the Yankees will be willing to give Beltran whatever he wants -- or that Boss Steinbrenner is so desperate to win now that he'll be throwing money around like confetti.

    One baseball man says the Yankees' payroll will be watched very carefully by MLB this winter -- because 1) Bud Selig's debt rules will, for the first time, be strictly enforced and 2) MLB continues to make noises that the Yankees are underestimating the true value of the YES network.

    So if the Yankees are going to have a payroll north of $200 million -- plus pay another $100 million in luxury-tax and revenue-sharing bills -- they need to prove to the commish that they have more than $300 million in revenue to pay for it all.

    But they're reporting to MLB that they make "only" $50 million a year from their own personal cable venture. The skeptics at MLB, on the other hand, have been quietly investigating to see if they're actually taking in a lot more.

    So if they run up $300 million in bills next year while they're only claiming, say, $250 million in revenues, then the debt-rule police will start blowing their whistles.

    Which could mean, believe it or not, that even the Yankees have their limits. Sheez, what's the world coming to?

  • How eager are the Yankees to trade Kevin Brown? An official of one club reports he was speaking with a Yankees executive about Brown. And when he speculated about a team he thought could be interested, the Yankees exec replied: "Tell them to call us -- collect."

    The Phillies are one team with definite interest. But for now, at least, one friend of Brown says he thinks Brown would waive his no-trade only to go to Atlanta. And the Braves would want the Yankees to pay essentially all of Brown's $15 million salary.

  • Clubs that have spoken with the Braves say they're trying to move Andruw Jones to create desperately needed payroll wiggle room. And Jones has three years, and $39 million left on the six-year, $75 million contract he signed before the 2002 season. But all you need to know about how much the Braves have soured on Jones is that he batted .526 in the playoffs -- and still hit in the No. 7 hole until his team was one loss away from elimination.

  • One guy the Braves tell teams they're not moving is John Smoltz -- yet. But Smoltz is now a year away from free agency and is just about adamant about heading back into the rotation after this season. So if this is the year the Braves don't contend, Smoltz will be No. 1 on the Rumor Central charts come July.

  • An official of one team that had some initial, tentative interest in Pedro Martinez says that interest all but ended once the Red Sox offered him $25.5 million for two years.

    "I can't see any other team giving him $12.5 (actually $12.75) million a year," the official says. "He should take that offer before they change their minds."

  • Cubs GM Jim Hendry continues to say publicly he expects Sammy Sosa to be his right fielder next year. Privately, he seems to be telling everyone he talks to in baseball that just about everybody in the organization wants Sosa gone. Still, that won't be easy. And the big reason is: It's Sosa's call.

    He has complete trade-veto rights. And agent Adam Katz has been relentless in saying Sosa wants to remain a Cub, even though his bosses have done nothing to stop their fans from hurtling off the We Love Sammy bandwagon.

    "If the Cubs want him gone and Sammy wants to stay, he stays," says one baseball man who has spoken with both Hendry and Katz. "It's that simple. He'll make his money. And if they want to make him miserable in hopes that will make him want to leave, it will just mean they have a $17 million player who's miserable."

  • Baseball did some preliminary fan polling before renaming the Expos. And the surprise favorite was ... the Washington Senators.

    The only trouble was that the mayor, Anthony Williams, had already gone on record as saying the team would not be named the Senators this time around. And after all the heavy lifting the mayor has done to push a ballpark bill through a divided district council, MLB couldn't overrule him on the name.

    So the club will be renamed the Nationals, even though there was big support in the polling to name them the Grays, in honor of the old Negro League's Homestead Grays. But MLB opted to go with something more generic, on the theory that once the team is finally sold, the new owners may want to change the name again when it moves into the new ballpark. And the blander the initial name is, the easier it will be to change.

  • Speaking of new ballparks, the buzz is that the Marlins have never been closer to finally getting the funding in place for their new park near the Orange Bowl.

  • Finally, our headline of the week comes from the always-amusing parody site, sportspickle.com:


    Special Useless Info Dept. Mini-Edition
    The top five Useless Info mini-nuggets of the week:

  • Fifth prize: Alert to potential Sammy Sosa trade partners: Sosa just set a record -- for fewest RBI in a season (80) by a guy who hit 35 homers or more. Previous record (in non-strike seasons): 83, by Frank Robinson (38 HR, 83 RBI) and Wally Post (36 HR, 83 RBI), both in 1956.

  • Fourth prize: A loyal reader named Alan (who didn't give his last name) wondered if the Red Sox needed to beat teams with more combined regular-season wins to win the World Series than any previous champ in history.

    Well, we did the math, and turns out they did. They beat a 92-win team (the Angels), a 101-win team (the Yankees) and a 105-win team (the Cardinals), for a total of 298. The old record was 292, shared by the 2002 Angels and 1999 Yankees.

  • Third prize: Our favorite postseason factoid: The Red Sox went 45-0 this season when they scored eight runs or more (48-0 if you count the Angels series). Then they scored eight in Game 3 of the Yankees series -- and lost by 11, in that infamous 19-8 game. Of course, they didn't lose another game the rest of the month in which they scored any runs.

  • Second prize: After Edgar Renteria made the final out of this World Series, we had zillions of loyal readers wondering whether he was the first player in history to get a walkoff hit to win a World Series and make a walkoff out to lose a World Series.

    The correct answer ... no.

    Our buddies from the Society for American Baseball Research report that SABR member Dave Pettit researched that question -- and found that Renteria joined Goose Goslin in that club. Goslin made the final out of the 1925 World Series but came back 10 years later to get a game-winning ninth-inning single against (who else?) the Cubs.

  • First prize: Finally, loyal reader Neil Golden reports that the Red Sox World Series win was sheer mathematics:

    Number of days between Red Sox World Series triumphs: 31,459

    The fabled mathematical concept, PI (of PI R SQUARED fame): 3.14159

    Draw your own conclusions.

    Trivia Answer
    Greg Maddux (nine), Randy Johnson (seven), Tom Glavine (six) and Mike Mussina (five).

    Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.