Ausmus open to returning past 2005

Ausmus open to returning past 2005

SAN DIEGO -- Brad Ausmus is entering the final stages of his two-year contract with the Houston Astros, but the conclusion of this chapter of his career doesn't necessarily mean retirement is on the horizon.

If the right team wants him, he would play again. The list is short, and the Astros are presumably at the top. They have already expressed interest in working out a deal, but if Ausmus is looking for a bargaining chip, consider what Roger Clemens said on Wednesday, when asked how much Ausmus' presence will affect his decision on whether to keep pitching in Houston beyond 2005.

"He would have to be here," Clemens said. "He would have to. If I was to be here, I would need that man back there. He's that valuable."

Even without Clemens' suggestion of a package deal, the door is open for Ausmus to return to Houston. General manager Tim Purpura favors retaining Ausmus for at least another year, and the two will likely discuss a future contract once the current season is complete.

Next April, Ausmus will turn 37 -- an age few catchers reach as active players. But in Ausmus, Purpura sees one of the smartest catchers in the league who is still able to handle the everyday wear and tear that accompanies the most physically demanding position on the diamond.

"He has the physical ability to keep playing," Purpura said. "There's nothing there that would lead you to believe that he's got to retire. He's still very competitive at this level.

"It's just a matter of, does he want to do it at that point of his life, and that point of his career? Certainly, he's the guy that's been a big part of the organization for a number of years. From my point of view, I'd love to have him back, if that's of interest to him."

Ausmus appears to be interested in playing -- but not just anywhere. His daughters are growing up quickly, and family considerations weigh heavier than his individual wishes to continue his career. The Ausmus family has homes in San Diego, where they live year-round, and Houston, so it's easy to figure out which teams he would consider.

"I'm not committed to retirement," he said. "If I can play in one of the very few cities that I would like to play in, I would probably play. There are at least two. I don't want to close myself off to anything else, but I am not going to drag my family to a faraway city just to continue my baseball career."

Ausmus' oldest daugther, Sophie, is in the second grade. His youngest, Abby, is in kindergarten. His wife, Liz, and the kids fly to Houston for only a week or so in April and May, before school lets out.

They take a couple of road trips per season in an attempt to keep the family unit together and retain some normalcy under the unusual circumstances that surround being a Major League family. For at least seven months a year, the player is gone more than he's home. It's not easy. As players age, they naturally start to wonder if it's all worth it.

"Travel can get tough on my wife, having to take the kids every two weeks, get on a plane, fly to another city," he said. "The plus in Houston is that we have a home there, the city has always treated us well, the organization treated us well. We know people there."

Defensively, Ausmus has made his mark on this club. Fans are vocal with their ongoing criticism of Ausmus' offensive contributions, but from a pitcher's standpoint, there are few, if any, catchers who would rather be seen behind the plate than Ausmus.

"As far as Brad knowing the game and his receiving skills, he would rank right there with Charlie O'Brien," Clemens said, referring to his catcher during his 21-7 season with the Blue Jays in 1997. "If you are a catcher in Little League, high school, college or in the Minor Leagues, if you don't want to ask any questions and you want to learn by watching, I would get a video tape of either one of those guys."

As Andy Pettitte explained, a catcher is not just a statue behind the plate calling balls and strikes. A catcher is a pitcher's best friend and therapist. He has to sense a pitcher's mood the day of his start, and he has to realize he's the secondary figure, considering that wins and losses are pinned on the man on the mound.

"You have to have a lot of patience with us, as far as never knowing what we might say or how our attitude is going to be that night," Pettitte said. "You can't have a chip on your shoulder. He never does. He does a great job of realizing the pressure we're under."

Trust is the single-most important element between a pitcher and his catcher, and in that respect, the pitchers give Ausmus plenty of credit for their individual successes.

"It's important not just to have someone like him, but him," closer Brad Lidge said. "First of all, you have total confidence in the game he's calling. You know he's as studied as anybody there is. You don't have to worry about thinking something different. Whatever [sign] he puts down, you know he knows the hitter."

When Purpura begins building next year's team, power from the catcher position won't be a priority. Very few defensively sound catchers are also great hitters. Mike Piazza may be considered the best hitting catcher of this generation, but his defense was never considered anything more than just so-so. The Jason Variteks of the world are few and far between, and Purpura would gladly take a cerebral catcher over one that hits in the middle of the order. Ausmus, obviously, fits that bill.

"It's not that Brad's just a physically defensive player, he's a mental defensive player," Purpura said. "He's the guy who takes the scouting report and summarizes it for the pitcher and is able to put it into meaningful words that they can out there and hopefully be successful. He brings so much more to the table than just his physical ability behind the plate."

Clemens, the most influential of all Astros pitchers, shares this sentiment. But the Rocket jokingly offered an addendum to his earlier conviction about Ausmus returning in '06.

"If I make the decision to come back, he will be on my offseason workout program," Clemens said. "So he can hit the ball a little farther."

Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.