Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 20, 2012

Andy Is As Dandy As Ever

The sad tale of the aging athlete who stays past his time is told too often, in all of our sports. Bill Miller, whose excellent The On Deck Circle blog is highly recommended, wrote of the issue this spring; after Chipper Jones announced that he was going to play one more season before retiring from the Braves, and Andy Pettitte announced that he was coming out of a one-year retirement to pitch again for the Yankees. Jones is 40 and Pettitte is about to be; and when the former began the season on the DL after minor knee surgery and the latter got knocked around in a series of minor league tune-ups during extended Spring Training, it seemed fair to doubt whether either would be able to will their bodies to perform for a season at the high level fans have come to expect from a 7-time All Star like Jones or the pitcher with the most post-season wins in the history of the game.

We who sit in the stands can only try to imagine what it must be like to live the life of one of our heroes on the field. There is the money of course, but far more than that there is the constant acclaim, the unabashed love that they must feel when 40,000 voices are chanting their name. Even when one has a bad day and the cheers turn to boos, there is still no doubting who the center of attention is. It is a powerful elixir, and when it is suddenly taken away, when the cheering stops and the travel with teammates ends, a great yawning emptiness is inevitable.

Because the Great Game is played out in tiny increments spread over more than half a year, the true measure of a season cannot be made in a single evening. But sometimes, even in the twilight of a career, a single evening can invoke grand memories. Andy Pettitte gave up a pair of two-run homers and took the loss against Seattle in his 2012 debut one week ago. While he got little support from the suddenly docile Yankees offense, there was nothing in that indifferent outing that presaged what we in the stands would see last Friday night.

It was a lovely spring evening in the Bronx, and as I made my way into the Stadium it was impossible to miss all of the jerseys and T-shirts with “46” on the back being worn by my fellow fans. With five championships and 19 post-season victories, Pettitte will forever be among the most beloved of Yankees. He recorded a superfecta of victories in their most recent championship season, winning the division-clinching game in the regular season followed by the deciding games in each of the three post-season series.

Shortly after 7 p.m., Andy peered in on home plate from behind the black glove held in front of his face. With his Yankees cap pulled low over his head as always, all the Reds’ batters could see of his face were his eyes. That piercing Pettitte glare is a permanent part of the collective memory of Yankees fans. His first offering, an 89-mph four seam fastball was a called strike, and we saluted it with a roar. Zack Cozart, the Reds shortstop, swung and missed at the next two pitches and Andy had his first strikeout of the night. But the third strike got away from backup catcher Chris Stewart and rolled toward the Cincinnati dugout. He raced to get it even as Cozart sprinted to first. Stewart picked up the passed ball and had time to throw out Cozart, but his throw sailed high over first baseman Nick Swisher’s head, landing in the stands on one hop. Instead of one out and the bases empty, Cozart was at second, and Andy was faced with pitching a four-out inning.

One pitch later a perfectly executed sacrifice bunt had moved Cozart to third, with the dangerous Joey Votto coming to the plate. Andy fell behind in the count, 3-1, and an early wave of anxiety passed through the stands. But as quickly as it materialized Andy made it vanish. Mixing pitches and speeds, from a 90 mph fastball to a 75 mph curve, with a biting cutter in the upper-80’s and a moving slider thrown a bit slower, Andy rallied to set Votto down swinging and then closed the inning by striking out Brandon Phillips on three pitches.

Even as he walked to the Yankees dugout and the cheers echoed through the Stadium, what we in the stands could not know was that on this night Cincinnati had just come as close as they would to scoring. In addition to Cozart reaching on Stewart’s throwing error, just five more Reds would touch first base safely; four on singles in the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 6th innings, and one on Andy’s lone walk in the 7th. None would make it to second. In addition to the three strikeouts in the first, Andy would fan the side in the 3rd, and strike out one each in the 4th, 5th, and 7th innings.

From my seat along the first base side I could not see it occur, but I later learned that in the home half of the 7th Andy was in the dugout talking manager Joe Girardi and pitching coach Larry Rothschild into letting him return for the 8th. By that time the Yankees were clinging to a 1-0 lead, obtained in the 4th when Curtis Granderson singled, went to third on a Robinson Cano single, and scored on an Alex Rodriguez groundout. With a healthy bullpen that dugout debate might have had a different outcome. But with Mariano Rivera lost for the season and setup man turned closer David Robertson on the DL, Andy prevailed; and he returned to the mound in the top of the 8th. He needed just nine pitches to set the Reds down in order, with the ball never leaving the infield. When Rodriguez dove to his left to snare Drew Stubbs grounder and fired across the infield for the final out, Andy whirled around and pounded his glove with his fist, as intense after his final out as he had been when he took the mound. As he walked off the field it was to a swelling ovation and the repeated sing-song chant of “An-dy Pe-ttitte;” as we rose once again to salute our hero of old, who on this night was so much more than just an old hero.

The offense tacked on three insurance runs in the bottom of the 8th, and Boone Logan set the Reds down in order in the 9th; but this night and this win belonged fully to Andy. The media stories after the game focused on the passage of time since he had done various things that he did Friday night; 22 months since his last regular season win, 36 since throwing as many as his 115 pitches, 46 since hurling 8 shutout innings. Yet the most amazing thing was that his line in full was unique. In his 241st career victory Pettitte for the first time ever threw at least 8 scoreless innings while striking out at least 9 and allowing 4 or fewer hits.

A single game in the longest season is just that; and there no way of knowing whether come October Andy’s decision to come out of retirement will be deemed wise, or an act of vanity. But for at least that single game, on a lovely May night in Gotham’s northernmost borough he did everything we could have asked. To the unbridled delight of just over 42,000 of us, Andy stood on the mound with his cap pulled low, his black glove held high over his face, and stared down Father Time.

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