TAMPA, Fla. -- A year ago at this time, Andy Pettitte was a retired ballplayer.
Now, after facing hitters for the first time this spring in a simulated game Sunday, the New York Yankees 40-year-old lefthander says the end of his career is nowhere in sight.
"I’m loving being back," Pettitte said. "I’m excited about the season and this organization and trying to help us win another championship. If I stay healthy, I feel like I can pitch for a long time. It doesn’t mean I want to, but I feel like I could."
Judging by his enthusiasm for pitching early in the morning on a back field in blustery 40-degree weather against teammates Matt Diaz, a contender for the backup outfielder job, and Francisco Arcia, a catcher who has never played above Class A ball, Pettitte wants to.
"Oh, I’m obviously all in," he said after his two-inning, 34-pitch appearance in which he broke one bat (Diaz’s), snuck a fastball past Arcia for strike three, and got a variety of harmless grounders with his sinker.
"If you can locate and change speeds," he said, "you can pitch for a long time in this league."
The Yankees are counting on Pettitte, who will turn 41 on June 15, to be the No. 3 starter in their rotation behind CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda. Pettitte was pitching exceptionally well in his comeback season last year before a line drive off the bat of Casey Kotchman broke his left fibula on June 27, knocking him out of action until September. He finished the season at 5-4 with a 2.87 ERA.
But this offseason, there was no Hamlet-like drama about whether or not Pettitte would return; he was coming back, and all he and the Yankees had to agree on were the numbers on his contract: $12 million for one year.
But the way Pettitte pitched in the early part of last season, and the way he has thrown so far this spring, makes it hard to believe that 2013 will be a one-shot deal. At an age when most pitchers are either in the broadcast booth or doing autograph shows in between rounds of golf, Pettitte is a full-time baseball player again.
When asked how long he thought Pettitte could continue to pitch at his current level, manager Joe Girardi said, "It’s so hard to say, because he’s not a guy who throws 97 (miles per hour) and you say, it’s gonna drop. He keeps himself in great shape. I don’t know if anyone would have predicted that (Mariano Rivera) would still be doing it at 43, and he’s much younger than Mo."
Pettitte is one of three key players of advanced age the Yankees will be depending heavily upon this season; aside from him and Rivera, Derek Jeter will turn 39 at the end of June.
But Girardi said he did not fear the possibility that one or all could experience a sudden decline in their skills because, he said, he thinks it would have happened by now.
"When I think of players dropping off pretty dramatically, I think of guys that are 35 or 36," he said. "If you’re going to see that dropoff, that’s the time you’re going to see it. And these guys have shown that it’s not happening. I think what you’ll see from them is more like, 'I think it’s my time,' more than a huge drop off from them."
Still, Girardi has brought along his older players -- particularly Jeter and Pettitte, who are coming off serious injuries -- unusually slowly this spring. Jeter has yet to run the bases at full speed on his surgically-repaired ankle, and there is still no timetable for Pettitte to pitch in a real game. He is likely to throw at least one more simulated game before facing hitters in other uniforms.
"Over the past few years it seems like I feel better with this," Pettitte said of pitching simulated games. "Obviously, nothing can simulate a real game, but mentally I feel like I can get in a pretty good place right here for my first time out with some good intensity when I’m out there."
Still, Pettitte said he is looking forward to pitching in real games again, although he thinks three spring starts will be enough to get him ready for the regular season.
"It’s always different down here, just because the adrenaline’s not flowing quite like it is in a regular-season start, but this is all part of the process and it’s been going really well," he said. "It’s just a matter of building my stamina up now. I feel good. I’m really looking forward to the season."
And who knows how many more after this one?