By Paul Knepper
Andy Pettitte was a tremendous competitor. He was a winner. And he was a cheater.
Before he even made an official announcement that he’d hung up his pinstripes for the last time, sports journalists began penning their Andy Pettitte tribute pieces. Interestingly, most relegated his use of performance-enhancing drugs to a mere anecdote, a blip on a potential Hall of Fame resume. Not me. Andy Pettitte means too much to me.
Soon after the Yankees called up the young Texan in 1995 I could see there was something special about him, the way he battled on the mound when he didn’t have his best stuff. Even more than Jimmy Leyritz’s game-tying home run in Game Four of the ’96 World Series it was Pettitte’s brilliant performance against the Braves in Game Five which kicked off a new Yankee dynasty. The 24-year-old out-dueled John Smoltz, one of the greatest clutch pitchers of his generation, 1-0 to give the Yankees a 3-2 series lead. Jimmy Key finished off the Braves in Game Six.
Thirteen years later, during his second stint in Pinstripes the crafty lefty won the clinching game in all three of the Yankees playoff series, securing their first championship in nine years. He closed out the Phillies in Game Six of the World Series, pitching on three days rest for the first time in his career, at age 37.
In between those magical moments were countless other memorable performances by #46. There was also the Mitchell Report. Released in December 2007, it accused Pettitte of using the performance-enhancing drug human growth hormone (HGH) in 2002. The Yankees’ hurler verified the claim two days later, stating that he used it not to gain a competitive advantage, but to allow himself to heal more quickly so he could help his teammates. One year later, in an affidavit to Congress he confessed to also using the drug in 2004.
Pettitte’s admission was a tipping point in the steroid scandal. Up until then performance-enhancing drugs were believed to be confined to jacked up sluggers, fringe players trying to make it in the league and a few other random offenders. It was several bad apples, not the whole bunch.
Pettitte was different. He was a member of the “Core Four”. Along with Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera, he formed the backbone of the Yankee teams of the 1990s and 2000s. The true-blooded Bombers were a source of pride for Yankee fans. Having come up through the system they provided validation for championship teams replete with free agent mercenaries.
However, the importance of the Core Four expanded beyond the Bronx. For better or worse, through greed and glory, the Yankees are America’s team. Their 27 championships far exceed that of any other team. The pinstripes are iconic, as are the names, Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle and Berra. The Yankees’ history is the history of baseball. That’s held true over the past fifteen years, during which the Yanks have appeared in seven Fall Classics, winning five of them.
The Core Four also reminded fans of a bygone era. In an age of constant player movement, they were teammates for sixteen seasons (minus Pettitte’s three year stint in Houston). They played the game the way it’s supposed to be played, with quiet dignity, leaving everything on the field and never stirring up controversy off of it. Every baseball fan admired the way they raised their level of play in the postseason.
Pettitte’s southern drawl and aww shucks demeanor was particularly endearing. He cried when asked if he’d miss the New York fans after signing with the Astros following the 2003 season. He seemed like one of us.
As much as Jeter or Rivera, he was synonymous with the postseason, winning 19 postseason games, more than any pitcher in history. The image of him staring into the catcher’s mitt, brim pulled down low, glove spread out beneath his eyes, could easily be the World Series logo.
So when Pettitte admitted to using HGH it caused baseball fans to reevaluate their position on performance-enhancing drugs. Some concluded that it’s not a big deal because everybody was using them. There was an even playing field. Others took a hypocritical stance, refusing to endorse Barry Bonds or Mark McGwire for the Hall of Fame, while giving Pettitte a pass, for any number of reasons. Then there were those for whom Pettitte’s admission was a crushing blow to their concept of morality and fair play in the game they loved.
I fall into the last category. I wish I didn’t. Perhaps I’m being overly dramatic, self-righteous or simply naïve, but baseball hasn’t been the same for me since.
I still love Andy Pettitte. I always will. He provided me with too many great memories not to. And I still admire the way he competed on the mound and carried himself off of it. It’s because I hold him in such high regard that I lost respect for the game.
If Andy Pettitte is a cheater, then Major League Baseball is rotten to the core.