By Jason Keidel
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Most sports icons have a defining feature or physical expression, a more muted version of Michael Jackson’s moonwalk. Derek Jeter has his stab, spin, and leaping pirouette as the ball beats the runner by a whisker. Michael Jordan’s tongue wags while he leaps over another awestruck defender. Muhammad Ali had his renowned shuffle, a festive salute to his greatness while preening over a prostrate opponent.

Andy Pettitte’s trademark visage is more nuanced, couched in silence. He broods into the open mitt cupped around his jaw, staring at home plate like Dracula, glaring hypnotically through the two-finger gap between his glove and cap. Since 1996, Pettitte has been the ideal pitching dichotomy – a killer on the diamond and diplomat in the dugout.

And more than any hat he wears, Pettitte has a penchant for appearing in the right place at the right time and pitching a proper game on the biggest stage.  So it’s fitting that he comes back this spring, when the Yankees need him most. And while Brian Cashman is known for some of the most expensive pitching blunders in baseball history – Kei Igawa, Carl Pavano, Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens, (the second time), A.J. Burnett, etc. – he just signed the best insurance policy of his career.

Some retracted retirements feel forced, financially driven, or vainglorious. None of those vibes beam from Pettitte, who’s as close to a regular guy as you get in the stratosphere of superstardom. Indeed, it was his retirement that sounded halfhearted, as though he hoped the repeated echo of his farewell speech would finally resonate.

You may recall that Pettitte is the only admitted cheater who got a full pardon from the press and the public. There are several reasons for this, among them his southern charm and hopelessly Cajun cadence, both of which were in full view when he spoke to Mike Francesa last night. “Whenever ah do anythang, ah tawk to mah wayfe first. We pray on thangs and Gawd gave me the drave to compete.”

When Pettitte says he prays we believe him. And he follows the lone life maxim that applies to all vocations – be nice to folks on the way up, because you’ll see them again on the way down. Even in 2012, a little kindness goes a long way to forgiveness. Simply, he’s so likeable that we can look the other way when he hits the steroid speed bump. It’s almost impossible to believe his mea culpa was candid – he said he used HGH just twice – but we buy what he’s selling because he’s the pious Andy Pettitte.
He was too good to leave two years ago, and now he knows it. And if any quarter of the Core Four were most welcome back to the Bronx, it’s Andy Pettitte, whom we knew had a few more sublime games in his divine left arm. We don’t know exactly how many arrows are left in the lefty’s quiver of cutters, curves, and fastballs, but it’s safe to say there’s still a big game up his long sleeve.

Sometimes a deal feels right, from all angles. Clearly he doesn’t need the money, and if he latches onto the starting staff, then his $2.5 million is tip money to Hal Steinbrenner. If Pineda or Kuroda bombs, if Freddy Garcia pitches to his age, or Phil Hughes slides back to the bullpen, you’ve got a borderline Hall-of-Famer in place to replace any gaps in your rotation. Who wouldn’t be comfortable handing the pill to Andy Pettitte in a big spot, no matter how long it’s been since he’s pitched?

Age, more than wage, is the issue. But it says here that a late start in warmer weather is the elixir for Pettitte, who has a history of prickly muscle pulls. And he won’t have his normal, colossal workload all season. He won’t be expected to toss more than four or so months and 150 innings, and if the whispers are true about Pineda’s portly arrival at camp and lacking the fire required for pinstripes, Pettitte can slide in as smoothly as his move to first base.

And Pettitte is not returning to warm the bench, beg for a middle relief job, or be a spot starter when he’s better than the guy he’s replacing. No, Andy Pettitte is here to usurp a starting spot from Garcia, Hughes, or Pineda. And let’s be honest, if he pitches now like he did last time, he will be in the rotation for as long as his limbs don’t snap.

Forgive the cliché, but this is win-win for everyone, a rare moment when the player, team, and town are simpatico. It’s not a coincidence that the Yankees haven’t won a World Series since 1996 without Andy Pettitte, who has been a big, electric safety blanket during the cold days of October while the turnstiles have whisked the risky and eclectic pitching acquisitions through the Bronx.

Many people worry that once their heroes lose a step on the field it dims the light on their legacies. But it doesn’t. We still remember Broadway Joe as a Jet, Willie Mays as a Giant, and John Unitas as a Colt. Part of what makes Pettitte and his peers so dominant is their inability to admit defeat, whether it’s a manager asking how his panting pitcher is feeling in the eighth inning or something more profound, like retirement.

Unless you’re Jim Brown, Barry Sanders, or Rocky Marciano, the competitive synapse flares until he’s forced out the door. Players like Pettitte are lifers without parole. This is all they know, and their monolithic devotion to their craft makes them so appealing until their fading gifts make them appalling. But Pettitte has given New York so much he’s earned this return, no matter how it ends.

Branch Rickey said it’s better to trade a player a year too early than a year too late. The opposite is true of retirement. Just ask Andy Pettitte, who will grind his cleats into a wide welcome mat on the pitcher’s mound. As always, his timing couldn’t be better.

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