Pettitte's devotion to hard work, team made for successful career
Andy Pettitte was the reason I invited the Core Four to lunch 10 months ago in San Francisco. When baseball's Beatles would break up, I figured, it would be Pettitte who would be the first to go, if only because it was increasingly clear that home and family, which always were as regular a part of our conversations as "hello," were pulling him off the pitching mound. I told Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada -- the Core Four -- it was time, before it all soon ended, to document not only the unique collective imprint they put on the game but also their unique friendship.
Pettitte, ever earnest, was the most malleable, willing to adjust his schedule based on the commitments and needs of the others. He even surrendered a day of golf to do the lunch (no small concession for him), so I was happy for him that as it happened it rained that day so that he missed nothing.
That day Jeter, of course, was both clever and careful. Posada was a playful pot-stirrer. Rivera, the sagacious tribal elder, dominated the table with wisdom and a powerful contentment that was almost palpable. And Pettitte, but for the gray on his head, was the same sincere, boyishly optimistic presence as when he showed up in the big leagues 15 years previous.
What stood out for me about Pettitte was this observation about pitching even with his own twilight waning: "I think the tough part is you're never not going to enjoy what we do ... Like, I don't think we're ever not going to love jogging out to the mound, you know what I'm saying?"
It was a simple observation that said so much about Pettitte -- that he chose "jogging out to the mound" as the identifiable moment of love, not snapping a cutter past a hitter or conquering a bitter rival or hoisting a trophy over his head. For Pettitte it was about going to work and always about doing it with a team behind him.
For Pettitte, the joy of pitching finally lost the tug of war with family. He will announce his retirement on Friday at Yankee Stadium.
He never stopped loving pitching, especially its sense of duty. And he never lost the ability to do so -- posting a 3.28 ERA last year in 21 starts and with a healthy arm. He could have come back on one of those Roger Clemens/Pedro Martinez half-year plans, but he ruled it out because he didn't want his own set of rules. He was either all in, or not at all.
As recently as Sunday, after he had been engaged in workout and throwing regimens, his return to the Yankees was "a flip of the coin," according to one friend. But this week he came to the conclusion that too much of his heart was at home and not enough into the rigors of preparing for baseball. It was time.
"I'm happy for him," former teammate Mike Mussina said to me Thursday, "because I know it means a lot when you can go out when you decide it's time."
Mussina went home after winning 20 games in 2008. Mussina and Pettitte are among the luckiest of retirees: having made the decision themselves instead of forced to obey baseball or a broken-down body.
Mussina and Pettitte are among just 19 pitchers since 1900 that ended their careers with at least 100 more wins than losses. (Another, Clemens, pitched with Mussina and Pettitte on the Yankees in '01-03 and '07.) Pettitte (240-138) also has the most postseason wins in history (19).
Unfortunately, Pettitte's retirement announcement quickly will devolve into the usual "Is He A Hall of Famer?" paint-by-numbers portrait. (Quickly: close, but no. He was among the top seven among his league's pitchers in WAR just twice. He will go on the ballot in five years with Ken Griffey Jr., Trevor Hoffman and Billy Wagner and make a strong showing.) More than that, and even with the HGH stain on his record, what's important was that Pettitte was a championship player with a fierce, yet humble resolve.
"After he got knocked around in Game 1 of the 1996 World Series," said his former manager, Joe Torre, "he walked into my office. I said, 'What's going on?' And he said, 'I'm sorry. I thought I had to do something different because it was the World Series.' He's as honest as the day is long. There were no excuses in his pocket."
Pettitte came back on short rest to beat the Braves in Game 5, 1-0. He remains the last starting pitcher to win a 1-0 World Series game.
"Andy is such a considerate person," Torre said. "First of all, he's a great competitor. You would see him before one of his starts in the training room, just staring off into space. But he was able to take whatever anxiety he had and check it because he was always ready.
"And he'd never want to come out. Whenever I did take him out he might stomp off or mumble something about pitch counts. And then later on he'd show up in my office on his way out and apologize for showing me up -- of course, not that he ever did. He just never wanted to come out. And he'd be the first guy to say, 'I can give you an inning or two out of the bullpen.'
"Andy was amazing. The thing about Andy is that he willed himself to do things."
That will took Pettitte to a dark place in May of '02. Pettitte was in Tampa, trying to come back from a sore elbow, when he called Brian McNamee, who trained Pettitte and Clemens, and said, "I need some help, Mac."
Pettitte wanted human growth hormone and he knew McNamee could help. McNamee tried to talk him out of it, but Pettitte told him his mind was made up; either he did it with McNamee's help or without it. McNamee heard the certainty in Pettitte's voice and figured Pettitte, a PED novice, should at least use it with some help. He shot him up twice a day, once in the morning and once at night, with workouts in between.
Pettitte made it back to the Yankees June 14. They were 1½ games behind Boston. The rejuvenated Pettitte pitched the Yankees into the postseason and the Red Sox out of it; with HGH's help, he went 12-4 with a 3.29 ERA after rejoining the team.
Pettitte saw his HGH use as part of his responsibility to team -- he wanted to get back into the rotation so the Yankees could chase down Boston. It was rationalizing a poor choice. He gave himself an illegal edge. When The Mitchell Report broke the news of it, Pettitte called Torre and apologized profusely.
"I don't know how I did this," Pettitte said. "As religious as I am, I even question how God can help me make those kind of decisions."
In the end, Pettitte stood accountable, more than about 90 percent of the worldwide athletes who have been caught doping.
Otherwise, there was nothing terribly exciting about the way Pettitte went about his business. He wasn't a strikeout pitcher. He made just three All-Star teams. He gave up boatloads of baserunners, but thrived on the knack of getting outs when he needed them.
"He liked being the guy behind the big star," Torre said, "not the big star himself."
Somehow he just kept at it, pulling the brim of his hat low and peering out from over his glove as if driving a Bradley Fighting Vehicle through the worst of battle, concentrating only on what was immediately in front of him. From the day he stepped onto a big league field to the day he left it, nobody won more games or started more games than Pettitte. Only Greg Maddux threw more innings in those 16 seasons.
Perhaps the image of Pettitte that should last is the one after he threw the pivotal Game 3 of the '09 World Series in Philadelphia. The Yankees trailed Cole Hamels, 3-0, and were in danger of falling behind in the series, three games to one. Not only did Pettitte hold the game together, he tied it with a single and the first postseason RBI by a Yankees pitcher in 45 years. Pettitte weaved his way through six innings and eight baserunners to eventually get the win, 8-5.
Immediately after coming out of the game, Pettitte was lying on his back on a training table, completely covered in towels, and hooked up to an IV. His legs and body had given out.
And yet there he was four days later, pitching for the first time on short rest in 104 starts, at age 37, pitching the Yankees to a Series-clinching win. He became the third-oldest starter to win a World Series clincher, the oldest in 78 years. It was the last of the five titles for the Core Four. And there was just one way Pettitte knew how to bring the last one home, the only way he ever knew: He willed himself to do it.