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Astros Begin a Game of Hurry-up and Wait

The Houston Astros’ brass have probably been sitting in their offices all month with fingers crossed, in hopes that they could find themselves near the top of the National League by month’s end.

Sure they wanted to avoid having to fight from a 15-30 hole as they did last year to make the playoffs, but the real reason they needed a scintillating first month was a for marketing purposes. Why would a team which made its first-ever World Series appearance be worried about marketing so soon after reaching new heights? Because it’s not the fans to whom they are trying to put on their best face, but to one of their former players.

As of May 1, the Astros are legally allowed to open contract negotiations with hometown hero Roger Clemens.  So, after an off-season spent quietly hoping that they could talk Clemens into returning, the Astros are now free to talk out loud. And they seem intent to put their money where their mouth is, having already indicated that they would entreat Clemens to return with a pro-rated salary of at least the $18 million he made last year. They want to make it clear that money is seemingly not an issue.

After watching what happened to the team’s credibility when it lost Nolan Ryan in free agency to the Rangers almost twenty years ago, owner Drayton McLane is smart enough to know the team can not afford to lose another legend. And considering the recent draft bumbling of Bob McNair of the Texans, McLane knows well that not following the publics’ wishes can make an owner persona non grata in the community. One owner/pariah is enough for one town.

The Rocket will certainly take into consideration the team’s record, as he weighs offers from the division-leading Texas Rangers and Boston Red Sox. And, of course, there’s always the Yankees.

Although Clemens has given no guarantees regarding pitching this season, beyond the fact that if he does return it will not be until at least June, many believed he would wait until the season took form around the all-star break and then head to the team that gave him the best chance to win.

Fortunately for the Astros, the biggest drawback to Clemens’ season last year was his lack of run support and this year they have raced out to a scintillating offensive start, with Morgan Ensberg and Lance Berkman both putting up MVP-type numbers. Other teams know that Clemens wants that offensive security in making his decision. The Rangers, when courting Clemens during the off-season, put together some numbers that indicated the Rocket would have gone 25-3 with them last year, and he put up the same pitching numbers on the same days. Of course, those numbers would be slightly skewed due to the fact that he’d be facing a designated hitter in a tougher pitchers’ league, but all’s fair in love and war and free agent recruiting.

While many assumed the Yankees would be the frontrunners in the Clemens Sweepstakes, the strong starts by Boston and Houston, and the relatively good start by the Rangers in the AL West, will make things a little more interestingly, and probably delay a decision by the future hall-of-famer. Each team offers unique opportunities: The Yankees would provide the most run support; the Rangers’ power line-up would do the same but just up the road from home; and the Red Sox could offer Clemens a chance to finish up where it all began for him more than twenty years ago. Naturally, Houston feels they are the most attractive option, as they are the only one of the bunch that played in the World Series last year; they can offer a flexible travel schedule to allow the Rocket more time with his family; and he is already wildly loved in the Bayou City.

But, as eager as the Astros may be to bring Clemens back, they know not to expect an answer any time soon.

"I think it [Houston's offer] was very positive overall," Clemens' agent Randy Hendricks told the newspaper. "I don't want that to imply that Roger will sign with the Astros tomorrow. I had a very good meeting with Boston, New York and Texas. That doesn't equal a decision.

Houston’s ready to play ball. But for now, that ball is in Clemens’ court.

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