By Jeff Capellini, CBSNewYork.com
NEW YORK (CBS 2) — To some, the lasting image of Andy Pettitte in pinstripes will be those eyes sunken under his cap looking over his glove as he toed the rubber.
But to me, there was one signature moment that defined the man more than any other.
I take you back to Game 5 of the 1996 World Series. The Yankees had just pulled off a remarkable comeback the night before to tie the series against the Braves at two games apiece. Pettitte took the mound with a chance to pitch the Yankees within one win of their first world title in 18 years. Across the diamond was arguably one of the best pitchers in baseball at the time, John Smoltz. What happened next was a duel for the ages that was not decided by Cecil Fielder’s RBI double in the top of the fourth, regardless of what the boxscore says.
Yes, the Yankees did win the game 1-0, but what Pettitte did in the bottom of the sixth truly told the story.
Smoltz led off with a single and moved to second on a single by Marquis Grissom. Up next was Mark Lemke, a man who knew how to handle a bat. Not a big average or RBI guy, but Lemke was adept at moving runners along. There was no reason to believe he wouldn’t sacrifice both runners in this instance, setting the stage for stud Chipper Jones with one out.
Oh but wait, something incredible happened — and I’m not overstating it one bit. You remember, don’t you?
Lemke laid down a bunt between third and the mound. Pettitte, channeling his best Ron Guidry, sprang off the dirt like a cat, as the late Phil Rizzuto used to say, barehanded the ball and then, maybe because he’s left-handed or maybe because he was one of the smartest pitchers to ever play the game, Kent Tekulve’d a missile to Charlie Hayes at third.
The force-out was recorded and the Yankees had seized back every bit of momentum they had lost. If you still didn’t think 1996 was truly their year what happened next gave you a better understanding. Jones grounded back to Pettitte, starting an inning-ending double play and the Bombers were on their way.
That will always be my Pettitte memory.
If Derek Jeter will forever be the captain and Mariano Rivera his first lieutenant, Pettitte should be remembered as the Yankees’ sergeant at arms, because his left one did nothing but help carry this franchise away from the hellish days of the 1980s and early 1990s.
Pettitte hung ’em up on Friday with 240 wins and a sub-4.00 ERA, probably not good enough numbers to get him into Cooperstown, at least right now. Ten years from now, though, when a 300-game winner will be about as hard to find as a 3G smart phone, Pettitte may get his day in the upstate New York sun.
But none of that really matters to Yankees fans on this day. What does is the fact that this man played an integral role on five world championship teams and carried himself as nothing less than a true gentleman of the game. Some will say Pettitte’s image was tarnished a bit by his admitted HGH use a few years back, but I think a true fan of the Yankees or a person who understands what this franchise has always been about, believes Pettitte when he says he took the drugs not to improve his on-field performance but to get over an injury and back to his teammates faster.
Was he wrong for doing it? That’s not for me to decide. I do know at the end of the day there will be a lot more people talking about Pettitte the competitor than Pettitte the sidekick in the weight room to Roger Clemens.
Pettitte’s retirement shouldn’t be about the gaping hole it leaves in the Yankees’ already suspect 2011 rotation. Let GM Brian Cashman fix that problem. Friday is a day to reflect on the career of a man, who for 16 major league seasons, all but three with the Yankees, went out on the field and pitched with a plan, used guile and focus to overcome his lack of a serious fastball and outsmarted most everyone.
Off the field he did things the right way, even after the Yankees sort of turned their backs on him and all he accomplished following a stellar 21-8 campaign in 2003. Pettitte got to go home for a little while, spending the next few seasons in Houston. Ask any member of the Astros if they would have gotten to the 2005 World Series without Pettitte. The answer would likely be a resounding no, even if he hadn’t won 17 games that season.
At the end of the day Pettitte and the Yankees realized they were made for each other. Sure, they often argued about money in the offseason, but once all the I’s were dotted and the T’s crossed, Pettitte was in the business of winning baseball games. In his final two seasons in the Bronx, Pettitte went a combined 25-11 with 3.81 ERA. Not bad for a guy who dealt with an assortment of injuries.
Pettitte didn’t have Smoltz’s fastball or Greg Maddux’s pinpoint control and he never won a Cy Young, but retired with 19 postseason wins, more than any other player to ever play the game. Yes, he certainly did have extra chances with playoff-round expansion, but he made the most of them. Not many can say that.
The soft-spoken Texan armed himself with a nasty slider and the belief that he could handle any task put before him. You knew if he failed it wasn’t because of a lack of effort or planning. Sometimes opponents got the better of him. But that’s the beauty of baseball. It caters to the players willing to do the work.
Pettitte was that type of player. Rarely was he flashy or overwhelming, but he approached his craft with a silent assassin mentality. Behind “the stare” was a cerebral ballplayer who methodically stuck it to you time and time again.
He was one of the biggest of the big-game pitchers of his era. Just ask Smoltz, one of the most dominant pitchers of the same era.
After Smoltz was beaten in Game 5 of the ’96 Series he reportedly said his performance that night was one of his greatest to date.
That in itself speaks volumes about Pettitte, who at 24 was on top of the world. Little did we all know he’d one day be remembered as one of the best to ever pitch for the most successful franchise in the history of North American sports.
To all the players who hope to one day call the Bronx home, don’t even think about asking for No. 46. It has been spoken for — for life.
How do you think Pettitte stacks up on the list of all-time great Yankees pitchers? Tell us about it in the comments section below!
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini