Commentary

Andy Pettitte turned his fire into ice

Lefty learned to control his temper, becoming one of the toughest Yankees ever

Updated: February 4, 2011, 12:16 PM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

The clock was ticking, the scout for the New York Yankees was throwing everything he had at a junior college kid named Andy Pettitte, and still the team and the prospect remained a lousy 20 grand apart.

Pettitte wanted $80,000 to sign in May 1991, and Joe Robison was told to go no higher than $60,000. They were meeting inside the Baton Rouge, La., home of Pettitte's grandmother, sitting on opposite sides of Grandma's kitchen table with the Yankees hours away from losing the rights to the pitcher they'd picked in the 22nd round of the 1990 draft.

Robison had been the baseball coach at the Air Force Academy, a major whom George Steinbrenner preferred to call a general. The major couldn't lose this fight. He called his scouting director, Bill Livesey, and told him he needed some extra cash to close the deal.

"Don't show up here if you don't get that kid signed," Livesey told him.

So Robison signed Pettitte right there at the kitchen table, just as Grandma brought the scout a cup of coffee. "You just spent your money wisely, young man," she told Robison, who in turn told her grandson that a lot of hard work and a little luck could lead to a charmed baseball life.

"Andy, when you reach 40 years old," the scout told Pettitte, "you're not going to have to do another lick of work in your life. You'll have enough money to do nothing except watch your kids grow up and go fishing."

On Thursday, the Yankees announced their man had beaten Robison's prophecy by two years. At 38, Pettitte is leaving baseball and the Bronx as not only one of the greatest Yankees.

He's retiring as one of the toughest, too.

That's a hell of a legacy, especially when one considers that Steinbrenner nearly traded Pettitte to Philadelphia during the 1999 season because he didn't think his stoic left-hander was tough enough.

Steinbrenner favored players and managers who projected fire instead of ice, and he would mistake Pettitte's neighborly demeanor as a sign of weakness. On the July night in Fenway Park when "The Boss" backed off, when Brian Cashman and Joe Torre finally convinced him it was a bad idea to deal a lefty in his prime, Pettitte allowed the competitor within to boil to the surface.

"Whatever they want to do," he sniffed at his locker. "But if they keep me around, I hope the owner wants me here, too."

[+] EnlargeAndy Pettitte
Timothy Clary/AFP/Getty ImagesPettitte will wave goodbye Friday morning after a legendary career that began with a scout's once-in-a-lifetime find.

Pettitte won seven of his final 10 decisions, went 2-0 in the playoffs and then returned in 2000 to go 21-9, including the postseason, to help the Yankees win their third consecutive title.

So no, he wasn't too timid or too soft. In Game 5 of the 1996 World Series, when John Smoltz was as great as John Smoltz has ever been, Pettitte was tough enough to be one run better.

He was strong enough to close out the 1998 World Series in San Diego while his father was recovering from double-bypass surgery back in his Texas home. He was durable enough to post double-figure victories in 15 of his 16 seasons with the Yankees and Astros. He was clutch enough to win more postseason games (19) than any man dead or alive, and to go 4-0 in his fifth and final championship run.

"Andy was always a guy who wanted to be on the winning team," said his junior college coach at San Jacinto, Wayne Graham, the man who convinced Pettitte to melt 25 pounds of baby fat off his 6-foot-5 frame and to temper his extreme emotional outbursts.

That's right -- a young Pettitte had a little John McEnroe in him, even if his future Boss, Steinbrenner, never would have believed it. Graham had played 20 games for the overwhelmed '64 Mets, spending most of his time on the bench listening to Casey Stengel's running commentary on pitching, hitting and life.

"Casey was so intuitive about people and the human dynamic," Graham said, and at San Jacinto, the former Met tried to make the same cosmic connection with his players. Early in their one season together, Graham kept seeing Pettitte slam down his glove in frustration.

"I thought Andy would be a guy who would break his hand against a dugout wall if he didn't change," Graham recalled Thursday. "Nobody wanted to win any worse than he did, and he obviously had great intensity, but I convinced him that self-control would help make him a big league pitcher."

If self-control put Pettitte in the conversation for the Hall of Fame, one reckless choice might ultimately doom his candidacy. Pettitte admitted to using human growth hormone, of course, and his explanation -- he said he was merely trying to expedite his recovery from injury -- wasn't any more redeeming than the explanations offered by other performance-enhancing cheats.

But Pettitte did confess his not-so-venial sin, and he did provide congressional testimony against his friend and mentor, Roger Clemens, that former Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia described as truthful and critical to a federal grand jury's indictment of Clemens.

Even at his lowest moment, Pettitte was hailed for his integrity and credibility.

This helps explain why millions of Yankees fans felt depressed Thursday afternoon, when losing Andy Pettitte hurt in a way that losing Cliff Lee could not.

"I really admired him," Whitey Ford said by phone. "I thought Andy was a great pitcher, and I'm sorry he had to retire."

The old scout who signed him, Joe Robison, felt the same way. He first stumbled upon Pettitte at Deer Park High School, where two dozen scouts gathered to see a right-hander named Kirk Dressendorfer, soon to be a first-round pick of the Oakland A's.

Robison noticed a tall lefty warming up in the bullpen to pitch the second game of the doubleheader. "And I knew the Yankees liked big lefties a lot more than they liked little righties," the retired Robison recalled Thursday. "At the end of the first game, I walked to the parking lot with the rest of the scouts as if I was leaving, too, but after they drove off, I went back to watch Andy."

Pettitte would win 240 games and five championships, or 237 more games and five more championships than Dressendorfer would win. Along the way, the man who nearly traded Pettitte, Boss Steinbrenner, found time to thank the scout for doubling back at Deer Park High.

"You got me a good one," Steinbrenner told Robison. "Now go find me another one."

It's going to be a while before the Yankees find another Andrew Eugene Pettitte.

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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