Saturday, February 5, 2011

And Then There Were Three

An era ended yesterday morning. At a press conference at Yankee Stadium, Andy Pettitte said goodbye. The story actually broke on Thursday, which now gives me yet another reason to wonder whether Mom really did me a favor by standing fast and refusing to announce my arrival to the world until February 3 as opposed to February 2. Eight years to the day before I was born, the music died. Forty-four years to the day after I was born, the Core Four died as well.

Driving home from the office on Thursday night I heard the story on the radio that Pettitte had called one of the Silver Spoon Twins (although I do not know whether that conversation took place yesterday or at some earlier time) to tell him that his baseball-playing days were through. Almost immediately I smiled at the thought of the Missus and me and our decision to play hooky from work on that frigid Friday morning in November 2009. We skipped work that day to head to the Canyon of Heroes for the ticker tape parade celebrating the World Series win over the Phillies. We made the trip - the first one for either of us - because something in my gut had told me that that go-round would be the last go-round for Messrs. Jeter, Posada, Rivera and Pettitte as a group. Although they remained together for one more try at a brass ring in 2010, my gut was right. 2009 was indeed the last dance.

Andy Pettitte is an athlete for whom I shall always have a fondness because of the impression he made in the mind's eye of a young baseball fan - Rob - when he was just starting to learn and enjoy the game. Pettitte was always better than advertised even if the Yankees brass and certain elements of the Yankees fan base had a difficult time comprehending that and appreciating him. Invariably there shall be debate in the days ahead - it started in fact from the moment he announced his retirement - regarding Pettitte's bona fides for the Hall-of-Fame. Whether he did enough on the field to get in. Whether he did too much off of the field (his admission regarding his use of performance enhancing drugs) to get in. At last check, I was not a member of the Baseball Writers of America so I have no vote. And while I have my own thoughts on the subject, they are no better or worse than yours - whatever yours may be.

He played in the major leagues for sixteen years. He spent thirteen of those sixteen years in the Bronx pitching for an organization that knows a thing or two about the importance of excellent left-handed pitching. Whitey Ford and Ron Guidry blazed that path before Pettitte and he carried on in their footsteps masterfully. Likely for no reason other than Boss George always coveted the toys in the neighbor's backyard more than those in his own, at the end of the 2003 season - a season that ended in a disappointing six-game World Series loss to the Florida Marlins that ended at the Stadium with Pettitte on the hill for the Bombers as his mates were shut out by Josh Beckett - inexplicably the Yankees stiff-armed Pettitte. He was a free agent who likely never intended to leave New York but whose shabby treatment led him to head home to Houston. He stayed there for three years.

From 1996 through 2003, the Yankees made the World Series six times. They won the World Series four times. They made the playoffs every year during that stretch - losing the Division Series to the Indians in '97 and to the Angels in '02. Over that eight-year period, Pettitte was part of a team that won twelve American League playoff series and six American League pennants. During the three years that he was away in Houston, the Yankees won a grand total of one playoff series. They were three-quarters of the way to winning a second when the Roster of Imposters they had imported in a half-assed effort to fill the void left by Pettitte's departure revealed their true colors. In the 2004 American League Championship Series, the Yankees learned the hard way some new math: Kevin Brown + Javy Vazquez were less than Andy Pettitte.

During the Houston hiatus, the Yankees won zero pennants and played in zero World Series without him. He won a National League pennant and played in a World Series without them. In 2007, he came home. In 2009, he was as responsible for the Yankees' 27th World Championship as anyone else on the roster. He started and won the clincher all three rounds of the playoffs: the Division Series against the Twins, the ALCS against the Angels and the World Series against the Phillies.

Pettitte's most endearing quality as an athlete - to me at least - was his toughness. He never was the prettiest girl at the prom. He never was the first name ticked off on anyone's list in response to, "Who is the best pitcher in baseball?" Yet, every time you looked up, there he was. When he won, he did so with class. When he lost, he did so with grace. He would - after a bad performance - offer an explanation of what he had been trying to do out on the mound but never put forth an alibi or an excuse for a less than stellar result. And facing the realization that while his arm is willing his considerable heart is not, he stepped away.

Perhaps the best thing about Andy Pettitte's three-year hitch in Houston is that it helped prepare us Yankees fans for today. There were too many among our number, and I happily exclude myself from this group, who did not fully appreciate Pettitte's importance to the team prior to his exile following the '03 season. None shall make that mistake this time around. He did his job. He did his job well. Now, this time on his own terms, he is going home. This time for keeps.

Well done #46. Many thanks for many thrills. Presuming that the Jumbotron-sized plaque of Boss George that was installed in Monument Park last summer did not consume all of the available real estate out there, methinks that on a summer afternoon a few years further on up the road, Pettitte will join the other Yankee greats in the Bronx's very own locale of fame. The Bronx's best apostle standing with his hands on his own hardware....

....and with five World Series trophies, you better believe he will need both hands.

-AK

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