Commentary

Clemens reason for Pettitte's pause?

Yankees lefty still waffling about next season as The Rocket's perjury trial looms

Updated: January 8, 2011, 3:01 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

Nearly four years after he cashed his last Yankees paycheck, $18 million for a half-season's work and a 6-6 record, it is possible that Roger Clemens is still exacting a heavy price from the team.

[+] EnlargeRoger Clemens & Andy Pettitte
AP Photo/Kathy WillensPettitte and Clemens used to be very close, but not anymore.

We are now barely a month away from the beginning of spring training and Andy Pettitte has still not decided whether he wants to pitch in 2011.

On Thursday, he told a New York Post reporter who showed up on his doorstep in Deer Park, Texas, the same thing he told reporters in the clubhouse in Arlington the night the Yankees were eliminated by the Texas Rangers, the same thing he has been telling the Yankees during their infrequent conversations this offseason: that he hasn't made a decision.

All season long, I believed his reason -- a desire to spend time at home with his young but growing family, a desire I can relate to with two children of my own. But now, as Pettitte continues to dither on what he really wants to do, the thought occurs that there might be another factor at work.

Clearly, it's not a matter of ability -- Pettitte's 11-2 record up to the point of his groin injury in July that robbed him of two months of the season proves he can still pitch, and probably better than anyone in the Yankees' rotation not named Carsten Charles.

And it's not a matter of money -- right now, the Yankees' payroll sits at a treacherously low $170 million and with Cliff Lee out of the picture, you know that $30 million of Boss Bucks is just burning a hole in Brian Cashman's pocket.

So either Pettitte wants to pitch, or he doesn't.

What's taking him so long to decide?

Well, maybe it is what is waiting for him in July, a hot seat on the witness stand in the upcoming federal perjury trial against Clemens. Pettitte is expected to be the government's star witness against his former teammate and buddy, and in fact, might be the only man standing between The Rocket and a jail cell.

Clemens, of course, is a slimy character. His accuser, Brian McNamee, is every bit as slimy with a background that is maybe even more shady. No matter how strong the evidence or how many dirty syringes McNamee saved in a soda can in his basement, his and Clemens' testimony will probably cancel one another out just on the sleaze factor alone.

That leaves Pettitte, and his word, as the swing vote -- and you know Clemens' attorney, Rusty Hardin, is going after Pettitte in the only areas he can in order to discredit his testimony. He is going to do his level best to crush Pettitte's reputation for honesty and sincerity and religious convictions. Simply put, he is likely to try to paint Pettitte as a lying hypocrite whose word cannot and should not be trusted.

The cross-examination could get embarrassing and highly personal.

And in a situation like that, pitching for the New York Yankees every five days and facing a ravenous media horde on a daily basis is not exactly where anyone in his or her right mind would want to be.

In that context, Pettitte's indecision becomes not only clear, but quite understandable. When Pettitte says he hasn't decided, it seems to mean that he really wants to pitch, but something is keeping him from committing himself to it.

True, there have been other offseasons in which he waited until well into January to decide -- one season, he announced his decision on Jan. 26 -- but never one in which this kind of thing was looming over his head.

Facing reporters to answer questions regarding his HGH use in a news conference in spring training was like an appearance on "The View'' compared with being grilled by a defense attorney trying to keep a client out of jail.

My guess is the fear of that is keeping Pettitte on the shelf so far this winter -- and if so, then Clemens is about to drag down his old team once again.

This, of course, is as much the Yankees' fault as it is Clemens' -- for forging an unholy alliance with a player almost universally despised in their clubhouse before he joined them, for indulging his "special desires,'' for allowing him to write his own rules. Clemens pitched well in his first stint with the Yankees, but the negative things he brought along with him negate many of his accomplishments.

He embarrassed the team by throwing a broken bat at Mike Piazza, forcing Joe Torre into the impossible position of having to defend the indefensible. He forced them to hire McNamee, who brought his own variety of shame and dishonor to the club.

Clemens, too, strung the Yankees along on what seemed like an annual Hamlet routine of to pitch or not to pitch, one year even going so far as to accept thousands of dollars worth of ''retirement gifts'' -- only to resurface the next year as a member of the Houston Astros. He neither returned the gifts nor showed an ounce of embarrassment.

But his crowning achievement came in 2007, when he played the Yankees for an $18 million contract -- more like $28 million if projected over a full season -- sat out until June, and then delivered a .forgettable 500 season. That was followed by his star turn in the Mitchell report, his shameful performance before Congress in which he introduced the word "misremembered'' to the sports lexicon, and then he slunk off, many of us thought, forever.

But now, perhaps he is rearing his ugly head again. Now, he may be one of the reasons -- not the only one, of course -- why the Yankees head into spring training with a pitching rotation that is decidedly third-best in the division. Perhaps he is the reason Pettitte is so reluctant to do what it appears he really would like to do for one more season.

As a man who has ties to both the Yankees and Pettitte told me Friday, "He's afraid of a lot of things right now. People have told him he's going to be a major distraction this year. He knows his name is going to be dragged through the mud and he knows that when you're a Yankee, there's nowhere to hide.''

Maybe Pettitte is hoping Clemens will come to his senses and cop a plea before his case ever gets to trail. Maybe he is waiting to see if U.S. district judge Reggie Walton, who has already pushed back the start date from April to July, will delay the trial further, to October or November.

Or maybe he really is wrestling with the issues he discussed all season, the struggle between wanting to continue doing what he does so well and wanting to enjoy his family while they are still around to be enjoyed.

But if that was the whole story, you would think he would have made his decision by now.

Something is keeping Andy Pettitte from issuing the final verdict on his 2011 intentions.

Perhaps it's the prospect of having to testify against Roger Clemens and stand up to what could be a public humiliation, both in the courtroom and in the clubhouse.

If that's the case, then once again The Rocket will have cost his former team a whole lot more than just money.

Wallace Matthews covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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