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Yankees Should Send Pettitte Out The Right Way

February 3, 2011 - John Whittaker
Andy Pettitte didn't really want it this way.

After watching the man handle publicity since 1995, this Brett Favre-ish will he or won't he play this year saga wasn't how Pettitte wanted to end his career. Truth be told, had the Yankees been able to repeat as World Series champions, I could have seen Pettitte retiring the day after the World Series, or maybe even during the victory celebration at City Hall. I was a little surprised he came back last year — winning the clinching game of the 2009 World Series, in my eyes, was the perfect way for Andy to retire.

For what it's worth, after 17 years watching Pettitte, Friday's announcement that he will retire wasn't about money or publicity. He knew he could still pitch effectively and get people out. He knew how badly his teammates needed him — a fact I think resulted in this drawn out melodrama. In the end, family won out over his teammates. The fact it took this long tells you how much Pettitte hates to let his teammates — especially guys like Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera — down.

Statistically, Pettitte stacks up as one of the five or six best starters ever to wear pinstripes. He won 240 games in the regular season, including 203 with the Yankees, and another 19 in the postseason, 18 for the Yankees. Given the nature of the offenses he faced in his prime, Pettitte's 3.88 ERA is more than respectable. Off the top of my head, I'd rank Whitey Ford, Lefty Gomez, Allie Reynolds, Red Ruffing and maybe Vic Raschi ahead of him as far as Yankee careers. In the pantheon of great Yankees, Pettitte deserves to be one of those retired players who comes back to spring training every year and helps pass on the Yankee tradition. He probably won't end up in the Hall of Fame, but he absolutely deserves a plaque in Monument Park.

I remember fondly Pettitte's breakout season in 1996, when David Cone got hurt and the Yankees needed someone to step up and lead the pitching staff. Andy got shafted out of the American League Cy Young Award after winning 21 games, including 12 or 13 that came after a Yankees' loss. In the playoffs, he threw two solid games in the AL Championship Series win over Baltimore before getting shelled in Game 1 of the World Series by the Braves.

Anyone who had any doubts about Pettitte's testicular fortitude in big games had them answered in Game 5 of that series, when he threw one of the guttiest games I've ever seen. He didn't have great stuff. Atlanta got plenty of runners on base and had John Smoltz, owner of some of the filthiest pitches in the game, on the mound. Pettitte refused to break, though, twirling 8.1 innings of shutout baseball to beat the Braves, 1-0, in a game the Yankees had to win given the choices of Game 6 pitcher weren't really that appealing — battered warhorse Jimmy Key or the gutless and utterly unreliable Kenny Rogers. With all the chips on the table, Pettitte came through. It wouldn't be the last time.

For me, that one game made Pettitte untouchable for life.

I was annoyed when the Yankees talked about trading Pettitte to Philadelphia in the midst of his worst pro season in 1999. George Steinbrenner was one bad burrito away from trading Pettitte, who at the time was 7-8 with a 5.65 ERA. Joe Torre and Brian Cashman talked Steinbrenner out of making the move, and Pettitte rewarded their trust by rebounding to go 7-4 with a 3.46 ERA the rest of the season.

I was even more ticked when the Yankees refused to step up and pay the man after the 2003 season. Pettitte should have been a Yankee for life. He was one of the first players on that team to have tasted success as a Yankee — he was on the team that ended the team's playoff drought in 1995. He authored one of the most important World Series wins in team history in 1996. Joe Torre always set up his rotation so Pettitte was pitching in Game 3, the most critical game in a playoff series, and a status befitting a guy the manager believes will come through in the clutch. So, yeah, I wasn't happy when they lowballed Pettitte in contract talks until just before he was about to sign with Houston. Then, during the season, they let Aaron Guiel and Alan Embree wear Pettitte's number. Out of respect, they should have kept 46 on a shelf for a year. The baseball gods just couldn't reward the team for the way it treated a guy who should have been Yankee royalty.

Frankly, I just thought it was baseball karma that the Yanks struggled in the postseason after Pettitte left in 2004.

It's funny to me that the Yankees kept bringing in pitchers to try to fill Pettitte's shoes and never found the right mix. If Javier Vazquez had one-tenth of Pettitte's desire and will to win, he'd be in the Hall of Fame. If Carl Pavano had one-tenth of Pettitte's toughness, he'd have been loved in New York. Frankly, if Randy Johnson had half the adaptability Pettitte has, he'd have retired a Yankee. If Jose Contreras had any of Pettitte's ability to battle through adversity, he'd be remembered as fondly as Orlando Hernandez.

Pettitte's legacy will forever be about more than his career numbers.

The man cared about the game more than even the most rabid Yankees fan. You could see it just watching him on the mound when he made a bad pitch. Baseball analysts always made a big deal out of the way Andy held his glove up to his eyes as a way to focus or intimidate a hitter. They should remember him for the way he wanted every pitch to be perfect. The guy just wouldn't give in to hitters, even at the end of his career when he couldn't have thrown his fastball by a Little Leaguer. One of my favorite Pettite memories will be Andy missing the corner with a backdoor curveball and screaming into his glove, knowing missing that pitch screwed up the entire at-bat.

He was a guy who had elbow pain ever since 1996 and pitched through it. Yes, he ended up on the disabled list a few times, but he always tried to pitch through the pain until he either couldn't or until he knew there was an option that gave the team a better chance to win. In 2009, with the closure of the old Yankee Stadium looming, Pettitte's elbow was killing him. He shouldn't have been pitching anyway — the Yankees were on their way to missing the playoffs for the first time in 13 years. There was nothing to play for. But there Pettitte was, gutting through game after game just so he could start the final game at the Stadium. It wouldn't have been the same had it been anyone else.

And, when the chips were down, it was Pettitte who helped deliver another title in 2009. Everybody thought it was crazy to have a 37-year-old with a history of elbow injuries pitching on three days rest for the entire 2009 postseason. But there was Pettitte anyway, pitching the clinching game of every postseason series and keeping his team in every game he started.

In big moment after big moment, Andy Pettitte came through. It wasn't always pretty. There were times you had no idea how he managed. For much of his career, he didn't have what you would call an overpowering fastball. His control wasn't always perfect. But, in a big game, you knew he'd find a way to keep the Yankees in striking position even if he didn't have his best stuff. The typical Pettitte game was him struggling early, sometimes giving up two or three early runs while his manager got relievers warming up. Then, somehow, Pettitte would get a big strikeout or double play, scream at himself in the dugout and shut down his opponent until his offense could score some runs. He just didn't give in. His juevos were just too big.

As much as the Yankees will miss Pettitte's pitching ability this year, they'll miss his intangibles even more.

A lot of really good players have made their way through the Bronx over the years. Only 26 have had a monument placed in Monument Park. Only 17 of those players have had their numbers retired.

Five seconds after Pettitte is done speaking with reporters on Friday, Randy Levine or Hank Steinbrenner should do the right thing and announce the team is retiring Pettitte's number and building the guy a plaque for Monument Park.

It's the right thing to do.

 
 

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