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Hall of Fame pitcher close to return

The Rocket has wavered on whether he will return to the Houston Astros in 2005, but the team is set to add some sizzle to his salary if he'll just say yes.

The Astros and Roger Clemens are "very close to agreement" on a one-year contract that will make him the game's highest-paid pitcher. Specific salary structure was not available, but the deal would have to top $17.5 million per season.

Pedro Martinez, then with the Boston Red Sox, was the game's highest-paid pitcher last season at $17.5 million. The Astros will reportedly give Clemens a guaranteed contract for more than that amount.

The agreement could be announced as early as Friday afternoon.

Clemens' representatives and the Astros were not immediately available for comment.

Clemens asked for a salary that matches his uniform number in arbitration -- with a bunch of zeros added on.

Clemens filed for a record $22 million in arbitration on Tuesday, and the Astros offered the seven-time Cy Young Award winner $13.5 million.

The Rocket, who helped lead the Astros within one win of their first World Series last season, still has not decided whether to pitch this year or retire.

"We are proceeding down the arbitration path as if Roger were going to play," Clemens' agent, Randy Hendricks, said. "He has not yet decided whether to play in 2005, but I expect him to do so by Feb. 1 at the latest."

Clemens, who wears No. 22, would be playing his 22nd major league season.

Until now, the highest figure ever submitted for arbitration was $18.5 million in 2001 by New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, who then agreed to a $189 million, 10-year deal.

"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," Astros general manager Tim Purpura said.

Clemens, 42, left the Yankees after the 2003 season and intended
to retire. But after former teammate Andy Pettitte signed with the
Astros, Clemens was persuaded to sign with his hometown club.

He took an undermarket deal that guaranteed him $5 million, of
which $3.5 million was deferred without interest until July 1,
2006. Clemens earned an additional $1,825,000 in bonuses based on
his selection to the NL All-Star team and Houston's home
attendance, which was more than 3.3 million, including the
postseason.

The $8.5 million spread between his figure and the Astros' was
exactly double the previous high in salary arbitration -- the
Yankees filed at $14.25 million with Jeter in 2001. The midpoint of
$17.75 million is just above the highest listed salary for a
pitcher this season -- Randy Johnson's salary with the New York
Yankees is calculated at $16.5 million, including a prorated share
of the $1 million personal-services contract he agreed to with the
Arizona Diamondbacks before he was traded.

Clemens had a remarkable season in 2004, going 18-4 with a 2.98 ERA and
218 strikeouts. As he did last winter, he says he is leaning toward
retirement but has not ruled out playing.

With the loss of Carlos Beltran to the New York Mets more than a
week ago, Purpura realizes that securing Clemens for another year
would bolster the Astros' hopes of reaching the playoffs for the
sixth time in nine seasons.

"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."

Astros outfielder Lance Berkman, who is eligible for free agency
after next season, asked for $11 million and the team offered $10
million. The sides might try to work out a multiyear deal. Pitcher
Roy Oswalt asked for a raise from $3,425,000 to $7.8 million and
was offered $6 million.

Two pitchers asked for more than double what Houston was
offering: Tim Redding ($1.4 million vs. $575,000) and Pete Munro
($1.1 million vs $525,00).

Hearings will be held next month for players who don't agree to settlements.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.