Commentary

Pettitte's comeback risky ... for him

Just because Yanks lefty says he's not afraid to fail doesn't mean he won't

Updated: March 17, 2012, 1:03 PM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

Professional sport is its own addictive drug. This is why Peyton Manning endures surgery after surgery to quite literally put his neck on the line and why Andy Pettitte -- by all accounts a God-fearing family man -- is back at the ballpark for something he cannot find inside his church or home.

You remember what Michael Jordan's father once said about his son's prodigious appetite for games of chance, right? Michael, James Jordan said, "doesn't have a gambling problem. He has a competition problem."

They all do. Even the good guys like Pettitte, the ones who always come across as earnest and grounded and fully aware that no Game 7 is really a sudden-death event.

Pettitte had ended his New York Yankees career after the 2010 season the way every championship athlete should end it. He had five World Series titles to his name, and following years of low-maintenance, high-caliber work, he'd maintained his popularity despite his admission of human growth hormone use. He was relatively healthy, still a productive winner on the field, and eager to spend the rest of his life with his wife and four kids.

Andy Pettitte
AP Photo/Gail BurtonAndy Pettitte, like many elite athletes before him, couldn't resist the life of a big league ballplayer.

But after only one season away, Pettitte couldn't resist the lure of the competition and clubhouse camaraderie, the life of a big league ballplayer. On Tuesday he found himself throwing a covert bullpen session for Yankees officials in Tampa, Fla., and on Friday he found himself with a contract that will return him to the Bronx sometime before his 40th birthday in June.

Pettitte so badly wanted back in, he signed a minor league deal for $2.5 million, or about $10 million less than he deserved.

And yet this is a major risk the left-hander is taking, a gamble that could go the wrong way. Pettitte had wrapped up his distinguished career with an 11-3 record in the regular season and two good starts in the postseason. He wasn't a broken-down Joe Namath with the Rams or a washed-up Willie Mays with the Mets. In fact, Pettitte turned down a ton of money to return to a team that desperately needed him the moment Cliff Lee said no.

Pettitte was in the clear. He'd survived the midcareer exit for a Houston homecoming. He'd survived the HGH thing because he was Andy Pettitte, because he always acted like someone who'd stop in the dead of night to help you replace a flat tire.

Everyone believed Pettitte, even the feds who were chasing down Roger Clemens. Tom Davis, the top Republican on the House committee that investigated the use of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball, said Pettitte's testimony was critical to the federal grand jury's decision to indict Clemens on perjury charges.

"Andy didn't want to testify against his friend," Davis would say. "But when he raised his right hand, he told the truth. It would've been different without him."

The 2011 Yankees were different without him, of course, on the field and off. So the general manager, Brian Cashman, offered Pettitte another eight-figure salary in December, when the retiree wasn't ready to commit to a comeback. But after the Yankees acquired Michael Pineda and Hiroki Kuroda, Pettitte had something of an epiphany.

"My desire to work was back," he said.

He was around the Yankees a bit this spring, throwing BP and doing whatever guest instructors do. On Saturday, Pettitte showed up at a Yankees-Braves game in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., and told longtime executive Gene Michael that he'd just attended a church function nearby.

"I was kidding him, too, asking him, 'Are you sniffing around and thinking of pitching again?'" Michael recalled by phone. "Andy just sort of smiled and didn't say much. We were just making conversation, and I didn't think anything about it until a couple of days later."

As it turned out, Michael was among the Yankees officials who watched Pettitte throw Tuesday morning. "He looked good," Michael said. "He's in good shape, not in playing shape. Threw nicely, didn't have any pain, and he felt loose.

"It's going to take a while, but I think Andy will get there. He really knows how to put together a game, and nobody does that better than him. As long as he stays away from the nagging injuries that hurt him in the past, he'll be fine."

But again, Pettitte is turning 40, an age that serves as an engraved invitation to nagging injuries. Beyond that, the Yankees have seven starting pitchers for five spots. As soon as Pettitte is strong enough to claim one of those spots in May, Cashman and Joe Girardi will point him to the mound. He's Andy Pettitte, after all, and Phil Hughes and Freddy Garcia will have to understand.

Only here's the risky proposition: What if age and rust conspire against Pettitte, and force his employers to demote him to the bullpen by late summer or force them to leave him off the postseason roster in the fall?

In this realistic scenario, Pettitte's second retirement -- this one for keeps -- won't feel half as perfect as the one he announced 13 months ago.

"I don't think I'm going to fail," Pettitte said, "but I'm not scared to come back."

Cashman's Yankees have little to lose here, not with a no-frills, no-incentives contract that could yield them a reliable Game 3 starter in the division series. The pitcher is the vulnerable party in this deal, the one with some exposure.

Pettitte prayed on this decision, and it was endorsed by his wife and family and teammates. Pettitte said he believes he will return as a winning pitcher but admitted: "I'm embarrassed to be coming back."

He never wanted to cause a fuss, and he knew his comeback would do just that. Pettitte said it was "awesome being home" and coaching his kids and watching them play ball, but that he couldn't resist the desire in his heart to pitch one more time.

Pettitte shouldn't be embarrassed by that, not when so many star athletes before him surrendered to the same temptation and calling. Peyton. Jordan. Clemens. Brett Favre. The list goes on and on and on. The great ones usually come back as long as someone will give them a jersey and the ball.

"It's a great life," said Gene Michael, himself a former shortstop. "It's a tough life to give up."

So Pettitte didn't give it up. He returned for the adrenaline rush of competition under the brightest lights, a drug more potent than any PED. And Andy being Andy, he's surely telling the truth when he says he isn't afraid to fail.

But that doesn't mean he won't.

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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