Andy back from ‘vacation’
A year ago, no one with the Yankees or anywhere else could have convinced Andy Pettitte to keep on pitching. He was certain following an injury-disturbed second half of the 2010 season that it was time to hang up his glove and spikes.
The Yankees were hoping against hope that Pettitte would think it over, particularly after Cliff Lee rejected their seven-year, free-agent offer and signed instead with the Phillies. This left a gaping hole in the rotation, one that the fit Pettitte would have easily filled.
But no. Family came first, an honorable position. Andy wanted to go home to Deer Park, Texas, for good and watch his children grow up. The Yankees would have to make do with aging cast-offs Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon to fill the gap in the starting unit.
There would be no turnaround for Pettitte that might have mirrored pal Roger Clemens’ famous about-face when he retired from the Yankees after the 2003 World Series only to rejoin his left-handed partner in Houston where Andy landed after filing for free agency. For their part, Garcia and Colon accomplished more than anything the Yankees expected last year, but any chance that Pettitte could change his mind remained in the Yankees’ thinking.
The decision announced Thursday by Pettitte that he would accept a minor-league deal from the Yankees for non-guaranteed money of $2.5 million came as a shock to most Yankees fans (it certainly did me), but there have been indications that the big lefty was leaning in that direction for some time.
Pettitte was essentially fighting his emotions. Yankees general manager Brian Cashman confirmed that he had discussed a contract with Pettitte last December. Still no go was Andy’s reply. But when he put that uniform on again last month as a spring-training instructor, well, he was a goner.
Back up close to the game, Pettitte’s competitive instincts were aroused. It is a big step for him but a relatively small risk for the Yankees. For them, it is completely a win-win situation. There is no doubt that Pettitte is still in outstanding physical shape. Now he needs the time to get back into pitching shape.
The timetable for a Pettitte return would likely be early May, by which time the Yankees could use a boost in the rotation. Let’s face it; every year something happens that makes a club wish it had someone of Pettitte’s caliber in reserve. Take last season, for example, when Phil Hughes’ arm went soft, and Colon helped save the first half for the Yankees.
Make no mistake; what Pettitte is attempting is not easy. Hall of Fame second baseman Ryne Sandberg may be the best example of what taking a year away from the game can do. Due to personal reasons, Ryno sat out the 1995 season after 14 years with the Cubs and returned in 1996 at age 36 to bat .244 with 25 home runs and 92 RBI, surprisingly good numbers for a player who had been away from the game for a whole season. But an off year in ’97 (12 homers and 64 RBI in 447 at-bats) was a signal to him that he was no longer the same player and he retired.
It was not uncommon during World War II for players to un-retire and return to the major-league rosters decimated by the draft, the most notable of whom was Hall of Fame first baseman Jimmie Foxx, who was little more than a glorified pinch hitter for the Cubs and Phillies.
Yogi Berra tried to come back as a player with the Mets in 1965, the year after he had managed the Yankees into the World Series and was fired after they lost to the Cardinals. Yogi admitted to manager Casey Stengel that he could not catch up with the fastball anymore and retired after four games and nine at-bats to become the Mets’ full-time first base coach.
What Yankees fans remember is that the last time they saw Pettitte he was still effective at getting out batters. His problem was trying to avoid groin and back flare-ups that are part of the aging process. One of the most popular players in recent Yankees history will try to reverse that process, and it will be fun for the rest of us to see if he can do it.