Andy Pettitte faces toughest choice yet

The New York Yankees don't know if Andy Pettitte will be with them next year because right now, Pettitte doesn't know the answer himself.

This is not unusual for Pettitte in the bruising aftermath of a season. This time of year -- or sometimes a little later -- he returns to his home in Deer Park, Texas, a suburb of Houston, and reacquaints himself with his wife, Laura, and their four children.

Among the topics of discussion are whether or not Daddy should again take leave of the family for nine months out of the year to continue throwing baseballs for the Yankees.

And if you think they are not sincere discussions, all you need to realize is that since 2007, Pettitte has become the Walter Alston of pitchers -- working on a series of one-year contracts that reflect his ambivalence toward the familial separation that comes along with a major league baseball career and the amount of weight he puts on the opinions of his family.

For the past four seasons, the conclusion has been to come back. But with the kids growing up -- Pettitte's oldest, Josh, is 15 and his youngest, Lexy, is 9 -- more voices must be heard, more feelings considered, more options weighed.

And as Pettitte get older and the job becomes more physically demanding, the decision becomes more difficult every year.

Generally, as the season recedes further into the distance, the holidays draw near and spring training beckons, Pettitte feels the urge to return to his second family.

But it sounds as if Pettitte will be facing his toughest choice yet this offseason.

"I'm just not sure,'' Pettitte said, in a remarkably candid interview session held at his locker last Friday, moments after the Yankees had been eliminated in the ALCS by the Texas Rangers. "The only thing I know right now is I love taking the mound every fifth day. Unfortunately there's a lot of other stuff that at this stage of my life I don't like about baseball, and obviously it has to do with my family. I don't want to make any rash decisions. I wish I knew, I really do, exactly what I was gonna do.''

For Pettitte, the 2010 season began with so much promise and ended in so much pain.

At 37 years old, he got off to the best start of his career, winning his first five decisions. At 38 (his birthday was June 15) he was the best pitcher on the staff, with an 8-1 record and a 2.46 ERA. And on July 8, he ran his record to 11-2 after throwing eight innings of five-hit, one-run, nine-strikeout ball against the Seattle Mariners.

Then, 10 days later, it was all over -- his season run aground by a small groin muscle tear suffered in the third inning of a game against the Tampa Bay Rays. The rehab was long, difficult and discouraging. Although he appeared to be recovering ahead of schedule, he suffered setbacks that wound up shelving him for two months.

And in those two months, the Yankees went from being the best team in baseball -- a juggernaut, 58-33 and three games ahead of the Rays on July 18, the day Pettitte went down -- to mediocrity, just 37-34 the rest of the way.

Obviously, Pettitte's absence wasn't the only reason for the Yankees' decline, but it may well have been the biggest reason. "Andy's loss hurt us, no doubt,'' manager Joe Girardi said in early September. "We need him to get back healthy for us to do well in the playoffs.''

Despite Pettitte's return to health -- he pitched the best game of any Yankees starter in the postseason, seven innings of two-run ball against the Rangers, only to be outdueled by Cliff Lee -- the Yankees never overcame their second-half skid.

"Obviously, it leaves a bad taste in your mouth,'' Pettitte said. "But I can't be real emotional about it right now. I have a huge decision to make. I'm just going to go home and figure out if I can make another run at this thing or not. Just see if we want to do it again for another year, and if my wife's behind it, and if we all feel good about it, you know?''

Now the question is, can the Yankees overcome the loss of Pettitte if he finally decides, as he surely will some winter, to remain in Deer Park with Laura and the kids?

"In Andy's case, it usually takes a little time,'' said GM Brian Cashman, who acknowledged he had no real feel for whether or not this is the year Pettitte will finally call it quits.

"These off days get harder and harder, traveling home every off day to try to see your family for a day, for 24 hours,'' Pettitte said. "That's a tough deal. The kids are getting to that age where I want to be home, you know?

"But I also know how important what I do is. I'm a man and this is my job. This is all I've ever known as an adult.''

Pettitte said the toll of the travel and the enforced absences had become so great that he and his family had adopted a mantra: "Let's just get through the season."

"But it's hard to get through the season," Pettitte said, "and it's a long flight back to Houston from New York just to grab a day with them.''

Two years ago, Pettitte held out until Jan. 26 before agreeing to a one-year deal for $5.5 million and incentives -- a huge pay cut from the $16 million he was paid in 2008. Last year, he was back in the fold by Dec. 9, his pay having been restored to $11.75 million after a 14-8 season in 2009.

But Pettitte insists money is not the object or the lure -- nor is the possibility that if he has another good season or two, he could have a shot at the Hall of Fame, his admission of HGH use notwithstanding.

Although his 3.88 career ERA would be the highest of any starter in the Hall, his 240-138 record is not far off from Whitey Ford's 236-106 career mark, and he's the same pitcher in the postseason as he has always been in the regular season (19-10, 3.83).

"I can tell you there's nothing more I want to achieve in this game. There's just not,'' Pettitte said. "I know now that if I'm healthy, I can pitch for a while. That's not my concern. I just want to make sure I fully exhaust myself of it. I don't want to shut it down and regret not playing. That's my biggest fear.''

His other fear is missing out on an even greater joy than winning a World Series or getting a plaque in Cooperstown. "My kids want dad home,'' he said. "And at the same time they also love to see dad go out and do what he loves to do, which is pitch. I mean, I love what I do, but it's hard on me, too.''

The one thing Pettitte is sure of is that, out of the so-called Core Four -- Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera and himself -- the other three will be playing well after he is gone.

"I think I'm gonna be the first one retired, no matter what,'' he said. "I'm pretty sure of that.''

The Yankees hope that day is coming later rather than sooner. No ambivalence there.

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

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