Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 6, 2011

Andy Will Always Be Dandy In The Bronx

A few years hence, there will be a very special day at the Stadium. The place will be packed, and the roar of the faithful will be long and loud. But for now, the Yankees head to spring training with a starting rotation of CC Sabathia, Phil Hughes, and a lot of question marks; because this week Andy Pettitte retired.

Drafted in the 22nd round by New York in 1990, Pettitte debuted in the majors in 1995. Through 16 seasons since, 13 with the Yankees sandwiched around a 3-year stint in Houston, he compiled a regular season record of 240-138, and a post-season mark of 19-10.

This was the third consecutive off-season during which Pettitte contemplated retirement. The lure of pitching in the new Yankee Stadium brought him back in 2009, and a sense of obligation to help his teammates try to repeat as world champions compelled him to return in 2010. But after the Yankees were beaten by the Texas Rangers in last fall’s ALCS, every indication from the left hander was that at age 38, he was ready to stay home with his wife Laura and four children in Deer Park, Texas.

After Sabathia and Hughes, the rest of New York’s rotation is now up in the air. With three years and $50 million left on his contract, right hander A. J. Burnett will certainly be part of it. What isn’t known is whether he will be the effective pitcher who won 13 games for New York in 2009 and beat Philadelphia in Game Two of the World Series; or the disaster who went 10-15 last season, with an ugly ERA of 5.26. Beyond that, youngster Ivan Nova and spot starter Sergio Mitre will compete with the likes of Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia, two oft-injured veterans recently signed off the scrap heap by New York. Regardless of who emerges from that list with a spot in the rotation come Opening Day, that doesn’t look like a starting five that can stop the bats of either Tampa Bay or Boston in the always fiercely competitive AL East.

Certainly Andy Pettitte was well aware of that. At his Friday press conference he revealed that after Lee spurned the Yankees’ 7-year offer and signed with Philadelphia, he began his off-season throwing regimen. Pettitte wanted to determine if his arm could still contribute, and if his desire to do so was still strong. The arm, he reported, was fine. There’s no reason to doubt that. In 2010 despite being sidelined for two months with a groin injury, Pettitte went 11-3 with his lowest ERA in five years, and was selected to the All-Star team for the third time in his career.

But while he acknowledged that he “felt a huge obligation” to the team and while his left arm was more than ready, in the end his heart wasn’t in it. The pull of family finally outweighed that of pinstripes. And while the blow to New York’s 2011 prospects is considerable, Yankees fans have to respect the decision of a gritty performer who won their hearts long ago.

Pettitte became a fan favorite by consistently coming up big when it mattered most. He was never the ace of the staff, a role that went to the likes of David Cone, Mike Mussina, and Sabathia. Instead he was simply Mister Reliable, a gamer who never gave in and who far more often than not seemed to find a way to grind through tough situations. With his cap pulled low over his forehead and his black glove covering his face, only Pettitte’s eyes would be visible as he stared in to his catcher with an intensity that was second to none. Time and again a runner on first would stray too far from the bag and become another victim of the best pickoff move in the game. If he was not often truly dominant, he was even less often dominated.

Pettitte’s ability in the clutch was established early on. In just his second World Series appearance, he took the mound against the Braves in 1996’s Game Five. After losing the first two games at home, the Yankees had evened the Series with two wins in Atlanta. Pettitte had been battered by Atlanta’s hitters in Game One, driven to the showers in just the third inning of a 12-1 loss. But in Atlanta he was magnificent, allowing just five hits over eight and a third innings. Andruw Jones singled in the fifth for the first Atlanta hit, and Pettitte promptly picked him off. In the sixth, he surrendered two singles to open the inning. But then he barehanded a sacrifice bunt and fired to third for the force out. With two on and one out, Pettitte got Chipper Jones to ground right back to him, where he started the double play that ended the inning. On that day Pettitte got the better of John Smoltz, whose 24 victories had led the majors. With the 1-0 victory, the Yankees moved to within a game of a championship, and the seeds of Pettitte’s reputation were sown.

Andy Pettitte was certainly not perfect. Once a good friend and protégé of fellow Texan Roger Clemens, Pettitte was named in the Mitchell Report. But unlike so many players in the steroid era who tried to shift blame, or point fingers, or claim mistaken testing, or just plain lie, Pettitte’s response was characteristically straightforward. He acknowledged twice using human growth hormone to speed recovery from injuries. He plainly said he knew it had been wrong to do so, and added “I accept responsibility.”

Pettitte’s generally considered a borderline candidate for the Hall of Fame. The HGH issue will disqualify him in the minds of some voters. In addition, he never won a Cy Young Award and his 3.88 career ERA would be the highest in the Hall. Certainly he never regarded himself as a likely candidate, citing on Friday how hard he always had to work while future Hall of Fame teammates made the game look easy in Pettitte’s eyes.

But his 240 wins rank 13th all time for a left hander, and his 2,251 career strikeouts rank 16th. The 19 post-season wins are a major league record, and no active pitcher has even half that number. His 173 strikeouts in post-season play are the 2nd best ever. He’s the only pitcher since 1930 to win at least 12 games in each of his first nine seasons, and he was the winningest pitcher of the past decade. As a Yankee, his 203 wins are behind only Whitey Ford’s 236 and Red Ruffing’s 231, and his 1,823 strikeouts trail only Ford in team history.

True to Pettitte’s nature though, personal awards don’t seem that important. Asked on Friday to cite his greatest achievements, he said it was “To be able to come back up here and help them win another championship, especially in the first year in the new stadium. It’s the championships, it’s the team things.”

But Yankees fans who have cheered him on know just how important Andy has been. One of his regular season wins came against Baltimore in the final game played at the old Stadium. Three of the post-season victories came in his remarkable 2009 trifecta. He won the clinching game of the Division Series against the Twins, the clinching game of the ALCS against the Angels, and then the clinching Game 6 of the World Series as New York won a 27th World Championship.

So a few years hence, there will be a very special day at the Stadium. The place will be packed, and the roar of the faithful will be long and loud. On the wall in Monument Park, out beyond the center field fence, #46 will join the ranks of New York uniform numbers forever associated with a legend in pinstripes.

Thank you Andy.

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