On a calm somewhat cool August Monday night in Baltimore, Andy Pettitte was dealing. No surprise there, Andy has always dominated the month of August. Going into that night (the last night of the dog day month) Andy was sporting a 4-0 record with a 2.35 ERA. In those 46.0 innings on the mound that month he had struck out 47 while only walking 12.
But this night was shaping up to be a special one -- his curveball had a 12-6 drop that a pitcher would sell his soul for. He was moving fast on the mound (faster than usual), building a rhythm that infused the Baltimore crowd. Three up and three down turned into six which turned into nine, nine turned into 12, 12 turned into 15, 15 turned into 18 thanks to an amazing play by Jerry Hairston Jr. The crowd was getting louder -- could the 37-year old Pettitte get his first Perfect Game or No-No before their eyes? The slight two-run lead meant nothing anymore. Andy was the story.
Andrew Eugene Pettitte was drafted in the 22nd Round by the New York Yankees in 1990. The homegrown Yankee came up through the farm system with the other homegrown pillars (Jeter, Rivera, Williams, Posada) of the last Yankees dynasty. Citizens of the Empire (thank you, Mr. Lucchino and the nation) watched him excel from reliable to the go-to guy. I am willing to bet any Yankees fan worth a pint of pinstripe blood would want Andy on the mound in a do or die start situation with the current rotation. The reason? He is our guy. Andy is a hard working professional gamer willing to grind and pitch until he has nothing left (a la World Series game 5 in Atlanta, 1996). Out of his 14 career years he has spent 11 with the Yankees, three with the Astros. He even took a considerable pay cut to pitch for the Yankees another season and to be a part of the new stadium.
But I'm also willing to bet (I don't gamble much) that most of the baseball world respects #46 too. The image emblazoned in the fan's heads? Andy pulling the brim of his hat down to cover his eyes, as he focuses on the catcher's glove in a big game in October. Or, maybe it is the link to Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs) and the Mitchell Report. If that's the case then the next image is Andy apologizing and admitting what he had done on the first day of spring training in 2008. He said he did it to heal faster, not to play better but to get back because the team needed him. He felt an obligation to his team, the fans, and most importantly the game. No retracted statements, just an explanation from a guy who got caught. The game has let him retain his good guy image amongst a link forever with the bad guys. No one is perfect.
18 turned into 19, 19 turned into 20. The crowd booed calls from the home plate umpire that they felt should have been strikes. The fans wanted the perfect game for Andy, for themselves. Then it happened. A routine grounder to Hairston Jr. at third base. Error. Good-bye Perfecto. Next up came a single from Markakis. Good-bye No-No.
With a shot at the perfect game, and no hitter gone, the night turned into just another game for most. What few realized in the stadium at the time was that with a win Andy would move into sole possession of the third all time spot on the Yankees wins list, with 190. Behind Hall of Famers Whitey Ford (who with 236 ranks first), followed by Red Ruffing (with 231), while Lefty Gomez with 189 would move down to fourth. That's 190 (191 now after his last start) wins where Andy wasn't perfect. Was I pulling for Andy the whole game? Did I yell out loud when Jones reached first on the error? Did I feel for Andy deep down inside? Yes. But what I realized is that I've watched Andy grow into one the best pitchers of an era and of a historic franchise. As a fan there are few things better.
He may not be perfect, but throw in Andy's years with Houston and he has 226 career wins; throw in the fact that Andy wants to pitch again next year in pinstripes, and he could end his career with a few more wins than the Chairman of the Board himself, Whitey Ford. On Friday Andy will be on the mound for another monumental occasion -- Derek Jeter becoming the number one all time hits leader for the Yankees, surpassing Lou Gehrig's hit mark of 2,721. How fitting for Big Game Andy and Derek, as these two have succeeded together since their early twenties. Both of them will forever be enshrined in the lore of Yankees tradition.
As for the Hall of Fame, we know Derek will be heading there, as for Andy it seems a little less likely. The sports writers have the final say on Andy entering Cooperstown, and his chances may be harmed based on his use of PED's -- but I would say I, the citizens of the Empire, and the rest of the baseball world have been pretty lucky to watch Mr. Pettitte.