All longtime Yankee icons are equally detestable, but some are less equally detestable than others. That’s my grudging way of expressing a Mets fan’s appreciation for Andy Pettitte, the longtime Yankees icon I detested marginally less than the others, on the occasion of his departure from baseball.
This is detesting less, not not detesting. A Mets fan’s appreciation for any longtime Yankee icon is going to be pretty severely limited by overwhelming extenuating circumstances.
I detested the mere sight of Andy Pettitte on the mound almost every October because it was a reminder that October became a routinely terrible month to be a Mets fan. The simple fact that I was watching a Yankees game indicated the Mets weren’t playing anymore. Starting in 1995, when Pettitte was a rookie and the Yankees in the postseason was a novelty, it was either them or no baseball. Later on I decided no baseball was sometimes a decent alternative, but for the first few years of the last Yankee dynasty, I stared quite a lot at Pettitte pitching in October.
And Pettitte stared back. He stared back starting with the second game of the 1995 ALDS and would do the same in every second game of every ALDS in which the Yankees participated through 2003. That was his thing — the second game, the No. 2 starter. He pitched behind David Cone (three times), David Wells, Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, rancid Roger Clemens (three times) and Mike Mussina. Some teams didn’t have the opportunity to set up their pitching for the postseason. The Yankees always did. The Yankees spent every September from ’96 on arranging their rotation just so. Whoever the designated ace was in a given year, he was backed up by Andy Pettitte.
I detested Pettitte for representing that kind of consistency and the way he served as a safety valve if something went wrong in any given Game One. Yet he generally avoided being labeled the ace of the Yankee staff. Just in terms of pecking order, it was hard to severely detest the nominal second-best pitcher in a rotation.
Don’t get me wrong, though. He won enough. He won more than enough. He won more postseason games (19) than anybody in the history of baseball. Even allowing for his rookie season coinciding with the year baseball expanded its playoffs to three rounds, and even understanding that it really, really helped to pitch for a team that reached at least that first playoff round every single year (due in part to his own efforts), that’s way too impressive not to detest if you’re watching it from the wrong side of October. In five of those first eight Pettitte seasons, the Yankees graduated from the ALDS to the ALCS and, always, to the World Series. When the Yankees competed for a pennant and a title, Pettitte always pitched in those rounds, too.
You know the basics from there: four World Series championships in that era. Pettitte started six games in the World Series of 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2000, and the Yankees won five of them. The last two starts were Games One and Five of the 2000 World Series. No need to remind you what team he pitched against on those dark October nights.
There’s little to like in any of that and everything to detest.
Yet I never quite detested Andy Pettitte on the level I detested his most iconic teammates. Detested his success; detested the success it brought his employer; detested that he got to keep pitching while none of the pitchers for whom I rooted from April to September had any mound appointments come very late October…except in 2000, and we’ve covered that.
Didn’t deeply detest Pettitte himself, though, not even in the baseball-detest sense. I’ve detested loads of Yankees. I detest the Yankee uniform. I detest the Yankee stadiums. I detest everything about the Yankees. But I detested Pettitte less.
How come? Allowing myself to think about Andy Pettitte now that he says he’s no longer pitching, I come up with the following reasons in no particular order.
• He left once. He walked away in December 2003 so he could pitch close to home and spend more time with his family. Nobody in public life ever says that and means it, but Pettitte apparently did (if only for three seasons). It meant dragging Clemens out of retirement so they could give each other foot massages at Minute Maid Park, but even that lingering image was worth it given the caterwauling his departure inspired in certain precincts of New York.
• He admitted he juiced. I’m not an HGH absolutist. I believe there’s room for interpretation and forgiveness. Pettitte had a somewhat silly defense (he used, but only a little, and only to get him back from injury — not to help him pitch…which was something he was able to do because he was back from injury) but he spit it out once he was cornered by the Mitchell Report, and his career went on without incident. It surely beats the way his old compadre has attempted to finagle the issue.
• He was hilariously atrocious in Game Six of the 2001 World Series, the Fall Classic that proved baseball wasn’t always tortuous and unfair. Two innings pitched, six earned runs, the explanation later that he was tipping his pitches, all part of a soul-saving 15-2 Diamondbacks win, which set up the deliverance of Game Seven and the end of the Yankee chokehold on the sport. My favorite part, besides the result, was the excuse for blowing up under pressure, which I worked into a November 2001 song parody of which I was quite proud (set to the tune of the bravado bridge of “New York, New York” — 2:08 here): Andy Pet-TITTE/Tipped his pitches…/Jay-Wita-SICK/Us in Stitch-ES…
• He was similarly pounded in the second game of the 2002 ALDS, the marvelous four-game set against the Angels that proved the outcome of the 2001 World Series was not a fluke. Pettitte, at Yankee Stadium no less, gave up four runs in three innings, was removed before the fourth trailing 4-1, and the series was never the same thereafter.
• He was the losing pitcher to Josh Beckett in the deciding game of the 2003 World Series. Pettitte pitched well, but Beckett was untouchable. It was not only a great victory for Not The Yankees (personified for a week by the otherwise disreputable Florida Marlins) but a nice jab in the ribs of Conventional Wisdom. “Beckett can’t pitch on three days’ rest!” He did and succeeded enormously. “Pettitte will be unbeatable with everything on the line!” He wasn’t, which was quite rewarding for those of us who didn’t buy into everything we’d been told about inevitability.
• He was less heralded than a fellow 1995 lefty rookie in New York, Bill Pulsipher. Granted, the heralding did not prove accurate — Pettitte slightly outpitched Pulsipher across their respective major league careers, 259 regular-season and postseason wins combined to 13 — but I still get a kick out of my friend Joe’s preseason prediction from 1996 that Pulse would outshine the other guy and emerge as the city’s preeminent sophomore southpaw. Ah, faith…
• He brought his then seven-year-old son, Josh, into the dugout during a Yankees intrasquad game in Spring Training 2002 while Josh was wearing a Mets cap. This drove Herr Steinbrenner into a vintage rage, but Pettitte didn’t budge. Turned out the “Mets” in question were the kid’s youth league team in Texas. Josh wanted to wear his favorite cap and his dad wasn’t going to rip it off his head at anybody’s behest. The detestability factor lowered greatly after that.
• He kept the Yankees waiting almost every offseason of late, which led to a little Bronx squirming, which made for a nice sideshow. Pettitte signed four one-year contracts following his term with the Astros. Only once did it take him less than a month after declaring free agency to inevitably re-sign with the Yankees. And this year, he outdid himself, keeping the “will he or won’t he?” storyline alive into February. Well done, procrastinator provocateur!
• He started two of the greatest midseason wins in Mets history. We know Dave Mlicki triumphed in the very first Subway Series matchup on June 16, 1997, a 6-0 route-going whitewashing of the Yankees replayed every roughly every 72 hours on SNY, but it may not be instantly recalled that the losing pitcher was Andy Pettitte. He allowed three quick first-inning runs, capped by a double-steal executed to a tee by Butch Huskey (second base) and Todd Hundley (home!) and surrendered five earned runs in seven innings overall. Two years later at Shea, on July 10, 1999, Pettitte struggled through six innings (four earned runs) before handing a tenuous 5-4 lead to the Yankees bullpen. The afternoon would eventually pass from Mike Piazza (three-run homer, Mets lead 7-6) to Jorge Posada (boo-run homer, Mets trail 8-7) to Matt Franco, as in, “MATT FRANCO WITH A LINE DRIVE SINGLE TO RIGHT AND HE’S BEING MOBBED BY HIS TEAMMATES! Matt Franco, a two-run single off Mariano Rivera in the bottom of the ninth inning, and the Mets win it, nine to eight!” (Call courtesy of Gary Cohen and heaven.)
• He continually brought to mind one of my favorite Kids In The Hall sketches, the lesbian league softball game between Sappho’s Sluggers and Pandora’s Jox. Once per postseason start, at a point when Pettitte’s trademark stare from behind his glove was captured by Fox’s cameras (which was invariably), I was moved to comment to Stephanie, “Look! It’s Pandora’s Jox!” because there’s a fleeting moment in that sketch when Mark McKinney stares out from over his glove that makes me comment, “Look! It’s Andy Pettitte!” Admittedly, this is an esoteric reason to detest one Yankee icon marginally less than other Yankee icons, but it was part of the package. Compare and contrast Pettitte the Yankee with McKinney the Jox. And watch the sketch here (pause at 3:47 for full effect), because it’s more fun than stewing over what Fred Wilpon knew and when he might have known it.
• He seemed like not a bad guy and didn’t say anything overly obnoxious and there was always somebody around him who annoyed me far more. Trust me — that’s the highest praise I can offer any Yankee icon.