- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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But nothing can mess with fate like dollar signs. And it's those dollar signs that suddenly have left the future of this seemingly beautiful relationship in a December fog bank.
The Astros decided Wednesday not to offer arbitration to the great Roger Clemens -- after spending their day debating the meaning of what life might look like in a world without the Rocket.
The official reason for that decision was that Clemens had told them he couldn't decide yet whether he wanted to play next year. But his agent, Randy Hendricks, told ESPN.com that no matter how hard the Astros might want to pressure Clemens to make a quick decision, the Rocket Man simply isn't physically, mentally or emotionally prepared to make that call for weeks. Or even months.
So here were the Astros, essentially trapped in their worst nightmare. They could have offered arbitration to Clemens. But if they had, they knew what that meant: potentially a $20-million paycheck for the Rocket and a $100-million payroll for their team.
Or there was that other alternative, the one they finally took -- not offering arbitration. And they chose that route, even though there was no way of knowing what the heck that might mean.
Technically, it means only that Clemens can't play for them until May 1. But it also might mean he might never play for them again at all.
And, in the Astros' all-time most torturous scenario, it could even mean having to watch Clemens make a glorious return to the Yankees. Or the Red Sox.
Or he could reenact The Life and Times of Nolan Ryan and hightail it across the state to Arlington. Yikes.
Talk about your momentous decisions. How'd you like to be facing that one?
Well, the man who made it was owner Drayton McLane. As hard as GM Tim Purpura tried to portray this as "an organization decision," from all indications this was almost wholly the owner's call.
So now that that decision has turned out to be a no, and the Astros have in fact slammed the door on their favorite icon until May, if not beyond, then here's the question of the hour: What will the Rocket's response be?
Well, one word that wouldn't describe it, said Hendricks, is anger.
"We've made it clear that Roger has really enjoyed the last two years [in Houston]," Hendricks said. "It's been a magical experience -- for Roger, for his family and for his fans. I'm not sure what the future holds ... but it's their decision. They have to make a team business decision. But Roger has his own decision, and he'll make it -- in late January or early February."
Then again, Hendricks suggested, it's even possible it could be well after that.
Clemens is determined to pitch for the United States in the World Baseball Classic next March. And that, Hendricks said, "could be the real moment of truth."
Suppose that extravaganza ends with Clemens feeling like he's 25 again? Suppose it ends with Clemens throwing six innings of two-hit ball to deliver a gold medal to the land of the free and the home of the brave?
It's hard to imagine a man in that position would utter the word "retirement." He might, on the other hand, utter the word "hiatus."
It's very possible, Hendricks said, that Clemens might not even want to pitch again until May, just to save the wear and tear on his 43-year-old body. Which might just mean that he could still be an Astro, even after the decision not to offer arbitration.
Or, on the other hand, it might not.
If the Astros team he saw in April was another offensively challenged mess that was a threat to get shut out nine times when he pitched, why would he want to come back in May and join that team?
We know, and he knows, he sure as heck will have alternatives -- in New York and Boston and Arlington. And he also knows those teams wouldn't go a month without scoring a run when he was on the mound.
So this is one Clemens drama that clearly didn't come with a midnight expiration tag. This one could still stretch out for weeks. For months. Through all sorts of zigzags in his own personal plot line.
"The biggest reason Roger is not sure yet if he wants to play," Hendricks said, "is that he's not sure if he can physically make it through what he requires of himself to get ready for another season, to go through another spring training and then pitch for six months and another month of the postseason. He didn't make it last year without a breakdown, and Roger knows that.
"He pitched Cy Young-caliber baseball for five months. Then his body rebelled, and that's been wearing on his mind. And then there's another question: When is it time to go? That one has been wearing on his mind, as well."
But as Clemens wrestles with his issues, the Astros also have their own little crises to kick around.
How do you plan for another season when you don't know whether you do or don't have a walking Hall of Famer with a sub-2.00 ERA hanging around your rotation?
It's a tricky question. And it's one that has propelled the Astros to quietly complain that the uncertainty over Clemens impacts everything they do.
Can they trade a starting pitcher for a bat, or do they need to add a starting pitcher? Do they have money to spend on a free-agent bopper, or do they need to dump money to pay their annual living-legend bill?
We sympathize with a team in that spot. And we understand that, in Purpura's words, the Astros "learned a lot" from last winter, when Carlos Beltran, Scott Boras and (to a lesser degree) the Rocket left the team hanging beyond mid-January before they announced if they were returning to Houston or not.
No team would want to live through that again, careening through another winter with somebody else at the wheel.
Even if they'd offered arbitration, "he still could have decided not to play," Purpura said. "And then we're into January, and then we're into February, and it would have been much like last year. We'd have nowhere to go. The free agents are gone. The trade possibilities are exhausted."
But hold on. Would it really have been as big a catastrophe as they've made it out to be?
First, can money really be as big an issue as McLane has been intimating it is to his owner buddies?
Yeah, had he offered arbitration, he'd have had to pay Clemens more money than he has ever paid to any pitcher. But this isn't any other pitcher. It's The Rocket Man.
If any pitcher alive pays for himself, it's this guy. Of the 17 games Clemens started in Houston this season, six sold out and four more were virtually sold out. That included games with noted non-draws like Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Colorado, by the way.
Clemens' starts averaged nearly 37,000 paying customers. When he didn't pitch, the Astros averaged 34,049 paying customers a game. Start adding up that math.
Purpura said the Astros had "started to see some slippage" in the attendance bump Clemens had brought them. But this man still contributed a whole lot more to this gala than just sending out the invitations.
Add in all the charisma he lends to the franchise itself, how much more buzz there is about baseball in Houston when he's a part of it, and how likely the Astros would have been to show up in the '05 World Series without him.
How many dollars a year is that worth? Hey, our calculator would blow up just trying to calculate it. But whatever it is, it's worth pretty much any figure they would agree to pay him.
And even if that bill is a problem this year, because of backloaded contracts to Andy Pettitte and Lance Berkman and Jeff Bagwell, it's hard to believe Clemens wouldn't have offered to defer as much money as his team needed him to defer to help the cash flow.
After all, no one wants the Astros to be able to afford more run-producers than he does -- since they produced a run for him about every other week this season.
Purpura did his best to minimize the impact of what seemed like a big wave goodbye to the most popular Astro of them all. What really drives attendance and revenues, he said, "is the performance of your team."
We don't dispute that in most cases. But this isn't most cases. This is a case by the name of Roger Clemens, in a place he turned into a baseball town practically single-handedly.
So the Astros really should have two payrolls, shouldn't they? A team payroll and a Clemens payroll. And one shouldn't have anything to do with the other.
And yeah, it's inconvenient, from a team-building point of view, not knowing whether the guy is going to play or not. But even if he does play, can they really count on a man his age holding up all year? You wouldn't think so.
So why wouldn't they just have assumed he wasn't returning and planned accordingly -- and then thrown the party of the century when he came walking back in the clubhouse door?
"What's the worst thing that could happen if you offer arbitration and then he decides to play?" one NL front-office man conjectured. "So it means Wandy Rodriguez is out of the rotation. Well, fine. What's the problem?"
Exactly. When you really analyze this, is it that big a problem? In Drayton McLane's mind, maybe it is. There are indications that in the minds of many members of his front office, however, it's something they could have lived with.
But letting this man walk away from this franchise with an announcement that he wasn't offered arbitration? That's a potential final chapter this owner shouldn't want to live with for the rest of his life in baseball.
After all, McLane has seen what his franchise looks like when Roger Clemens isn't part of it. And he shouldn't have to wrack his brain too hard to remember that the world needed a much bigger telescope back then simply to locate the Astros on its map of the baseball solar system.
If McLane really wants to relive those days, heck, far be it for Roger Clemens to stop him.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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