Friday, February 4, 2011

Core no more: Andy Pettitte calls it a career

If you're like me, watching Andy Pettitte sitting in front of the media to announce his retirement on Friday had the effect of your mind blowing out of the back of your skull.

Part of me will always see Pettitte and think of the 24-year-old kid who helped return the franchise to glory back in 1996. I'm 30 years old, which makes Pettitte the first great Yankee that I feel like I saw all the way through.

I grew up idolizing Don Mattingly, but he was already in his late-twenties and an established star by the time I truly started following baseball. With Pettitte, it was different. He entered the farm system in 1991, right around the time my parents got me a subscription to the team-published Yankees Magazine for Christmas.

I remember sifting through a relentless number of ads from Nobody Beats the Wiz, Citibank, and Hitachi to read about the prospects in the system, among them a left-hander who was dominating the minor leagues the way the franchise thought Brien Taylor would.

By the time Pettitte reached the Yankees in '95, he had run up an impressive 51-22 mark in various levels of the system. Pettitte knew how to win even when he didn't know what he was doing yet. He won 21 games in his first full season in 1996, and had he never played another year, he had already created a legacy with his unforgettable 8 1/3-inning performance in Game 5 of the World Series against the Braves.

Pettitte compiled some impressive numbers over 16 seasons, statistics worthy of Cooperstown consideration. He retires at 240-138 with a 3.88 ERA over 3,055.1 innings. He won 14 or more games 12 times and never posted a losing season. He has a Major League-record 19 victories in the postseason, including six wins in clinching scenarios, also a record. He owns five World Series rings, the most for a Yankee starter since Whitey Ford.

It's easy to forget parts of Pettitte's career that don't fit True Yankee™ criteria. He authored one of the worst starts in Yankees postseason history in Game 6 of the 2001 World Series. He left town for three years to pitch for the Houston Astros. And there was the HGH admission in 2007, a black mark that may ultimately keep him out of the Hall of Fame.

But we never held any of Pettitte's faults against him, mainly because he took ownership of his mistakes. He made no excuses following his disaster in Arizona, even as we learned he had been inadvertently tipping his pitches. He left for Houston in 2004 to be closer to his family, and his respectful exit from New York left the door open for his return three years later.

As for the PED admission? Pettitte provided the template for which all busted users should follow. Own up to it, explain why you did it ... and move on. His buddy Roger should have taken notes.

Pettitte said on Friday that Cliff Lee's decision to sign with the Phillies made him feel like he had "an obligation" to come back. Ultimately, he decided his time had come, however, and you have to respect a guy who retires one year too soon rather than one year too late.

Pettitte heads off into the sunset, reducing the Core Four to the decidedly less-catchy Core Three. Jorge Posada will probably be next to go, and maybe now he'll finally begin to receive the level of admiration he deserves. Pettitte's importance to the team has always been understood, which is why his exit already has fans trying to figure out what it means for the 2011 Yankees.

Not here, though. Today is all about No. 46, a player who always made following the Yankees better. I'm proud to say I got to see him all the way through.

Dan Hanzus writes three columns a week on his New York Yankees site, River & Sunset. He can be reached at Follow Dan on Twitter @danhanzus.

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