Pettitte bows out in style

What a way for Andy Pettitte to end his major-league career. The lefthander gave Yankees fans one more brilliant performance before a crowd of 37,199 at Minute Maid Park in Houston, some 20 miles from his hometown of Deer Park, Texas. Pettitte completed his 18-season career with a complete game, his first in seven years.

The 2-1 victory over the Astros brought Pettitte’s season record to 11-11, which means that he never had a losing record, the first pitcher to do so in a career of 15 years or more. Andy had one other .500 season – 2008 when he was 14-14 – otherwise it was nothing but winning campaigns.

“It’s a shame you have to grow old,” Pettitte said immediately after the game.

Yes, it happens to all players, even his teammate, Mariano Rivera, who is also finally stepping away from the game at season’s end. Pettitte hated walking away from the game so much once before that he came back out of retirement to pitch another two years for the Yankees.

andy
(New York Daily News photo)

The finish was a momentous way to go out. It reminded me of how it all began. The day I arrived at what was the last spring training camp the Yankees had at Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in 1995, then manager Buck Showalter drove up to me in a golf cart on the sidelines of the main field and said, “Hop in; I want you to see someone.”

He drove to me to one of the back fields where two pitchers were warming up. I have long forgotten who one of them was, but the one I remember was Andy Pettitte. He wasn’t as cut as he would later become; he still had some love handles, but one pitch after the other sunk with stinging action.

Showalter, who grew up in the Florida panhandle and attended Mississippi State University, had an affinity for Southern players. Still does, probably, so I said to him, “Okay, which is it? Louisiana or Arkansas?”

“Texas,” Buck said. “You can’t quote me on this, but this guy might win 15 games for us this year.”

“Pretty tall order for a rookie,” I said.

Showalter missed on his prediction. Pettitte won 12 games, not 15, but he helped stabilize a rotation snagged by an injury to Jimmy Key, who finished second to David Cone, then with the Royals, in the previous year’s American League Cy Young Award race, and was a key ingredient in the Yankees’ reaching post-season play for the first time in 15 years, as the newfangled wild card.

Pettitte’s victory total was second on the staff only to another former Cy Young Award winner, Jack McDowell, who was 15-10. Pettitte’s 12-9 record and 4.17 ERA was not overwhelming, but it was good enough for him to finish third in the AL Jackie Robinson Rookie of the Year Award voting behind winner Marty Cordova of the Twins and runner-up Garret Anderson of the Angels, a couple of outfielders.

The lefthander started Game 2 of the Division Series against the Mariners at Yankee Stadium and was not involved in the decision, a 7-5 Yankees victory on a two-run home run in the 15th inning by Jim Leyritz that gave them a 2-0 lead in the series before they went 0-for-Seattle.

With Showalter gone after turning down a two-year contract offer from George Steinbrenner, Pettitte had to prove himself all over again to a new manager, Joe Torre, in 1996. It wasn’t easy, either. Torre at first thought the deeply-religious Pettitte was a bit soft. Yet start after start, Pettitte kept the Yankees in games and ended up winning 21 of them and becoming a Cy Young Award candidate, although he finished second in the voting to the Blue Jays’ Pat Hentgen.

Pettitte never came closer to winning that award, but even better he won over Torre with 8 1/3 gutty innings of shutout ball in Game 5 of the World Series at Atlanta in the last game played at Fulton County Stadium, a 1-0 Yankees victory that put them up 3-2 and in position to take the Series two nights later, which they did. From that point on, Torre never questioned Pettitte’s toughness again.

Pettitte pitched that night with the authority he showed during his 21-8 regular season as well as Game 5 of the American League Championship Series at Baltimore that clinched the Yankees’ first World Series appearance in 15 years. The key inning for Pettitte in Game of the ’96 Series was the sixth when he got himself in and out of trouble.

He gave up singles to opposing pitcher John Smoltz and center field Marquis Grissom, whose fourth-inning error accounted for the game’s only run. Pettitte pounced on a sacrifice attempt by Mark Lemke and forced Smoltz at third base, which prompted Braves manager Bobby Cox to say later, “He was a cat on that bunt; it took a lot of guts to throw that ball to third base.”

On Pettitte’s next pitch, Chipper Jones hit a one-hopper to the mound. Pettitte was a cat again, starting an inning-ending double play.

“Andy took the ball every five days, and if he had it his way, he’d get it more often than that,” Torre recalled. “What’s really unusual about him is that a lot of times pitchers are more consumed with themselves. Andy was probably the consummate team player, especially for a pitcher. He was so concerned not only about the day he pitched but he always had his arm around a young guy in between starts.

“He has been a huge favorite of mine because he’s such a standup guy, and he hasn’t changed from day one. He was a great teammate, and I think that’s why he won so many games. The guys that play behind him understand how intense he is, and it becomes contagious.

“I think the impact he had on the teams we had in the mid-to-late 1990’s was enormous even though he was never the guy in the spotlight. He liked the fact that he wasn’t the No. 1 guy even though I trusted him like a No. 1 guy. But he didn’t have an ego that dictated he needed all that attention.

“He did a great job of channeling his energy into competing, and he was about as consistent a performer as anybody in terms of getting your money’s worth. He glued our staff together. When you’re performing with the same people year-in and year-out, it’s always nice to have that security blanket. He was certainly that guy on the pitching staff.”

For other managers, the Astros’ Jimy Williams and Phil Garner and the Yankees’ Joe Girardi, Pettitte proved just as reliable in a career he brought to a halt this week.

That Game 5 of the 1996 World Series four nights after the Braves handed his head to him in Game 1 (seven runs, six hits in 2 1/3 innings) remains the centerpiece of Pettitte’s career, but there were plenty of other times when he gave the Yankees everything needed from a pitcher.

He was the Most Valuable Player of the 2001 ALCS when he won both his starts and held a Seattle team that had won 116 games during the regular season to four runs in 14 1/3 innings. Even in defeat, Pettitte could be magnificent, such as the Game 6 showdown with the Marlins’ Josh Beckett in the 2003 World Series, Andy’s last start for the Yankees before signing as a free agent with his hometown Houston club.

Three years later, Pettitte was back with the Yankees reunited with Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada and helped ring in the new Yankee Stadium by winning the clinching games of all three post-season series in 2009 as the team achieved its 27th championship. In 2010, he was a Cy Young Award candidate for half the season before a groin injury cost him at least a dozen starts. That sent him into his first retirement, but he was lured back in 2012. Pettitte dealt with health issues each of the past two seasons yet was no less competitive

“Andy was a great teammate and a wonderful guy,” Rivera said. “He was a fighter and all about winning, and he was respected by every person in the clubhouse.”

“It has been a pleasure to play with Andy for all these years,” Jeter said. “The Yankees have been fortunate to have him representing the organization both on and off the field. More importantly, it has been an honor to get to know him as a person, and I consider him family. I wish for nothing but happiness for him and his family, as I know how important they are to him.”

Of course, it didn’t take long for Hall of Fame talk about Pettitte to sprout. Let’s give it the five-year wait before getting serious about that. Pettitte has a lot going for him – a won-loss record more than 100 games over .500 at 256-153, a postseason-record 19 victories and winning five rings in eight World Series overall. He also has some things going against him – allowing more hits than innings pitched, a rather high ERA (3.85) and three more dangerous capital letters, HGH, which he admitted to using after his name surfaced in the Mitchell Report.

His path to Cooperstown won’t be smooth. Over the next few years, the ballot will contain the names of starting pitchers superior to him in terms of statistics – Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens, Pedro Martinez, even Curt Schilling and Mike Mussina.

“I don’t think about the Hall of Fame unless I’m asked about it,” Pettitte said. “I feel blessed that people will bring my name into that conversation. Have I been a pitcher who dominated? Every game has been a grind for me. I’d continue to pitch if [the Hall of Fame] was a desire of mine. I wouldn’t have retired in the first place.”

The writers who vote will be talking about him for a while. But to Yankees fans, Pettitte will always be in their personal Halls of Fame for his competitiveness and remarkable consistency.

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