Commentary

Will Rivera feel same pull as Pettitte?

Andy was sure about his retirement, until he wasn't. Mo says he'll know when to go.

Updated: March 18, 2012, 11:28 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

TAMPA, Fla. -- If you can't take Andy Pettitte at his word, whose word can you trust?

I mean, Pettitte is everything we want our professional athletes to be -- honest, hardworking, humble and, from the part we can see anyway, morally upright -- and yet, it was just a couple of weeks ago that he looked a group of Yankees writers, many of whom he has known since the start of his major league career, dead in the eye and denied he was thinking about coming back.

[+] EnlargeMariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte
Noah K. Murray/The Star-Ledger/US PresswireWill the same force that drew Andy Pettitte back to baseball work its magic on Mariano Rivera?

And on Tuesday, he will be back, in uniform, on the active roster and aiming to pitch again in a major league ballgame by May.

This is not to imply that Pettitte is a liar -- quite the opposite, since I believe he meant it when he said it was "tearing him up" not to tell the truth when he was in Yankees camp back in February -- only to point out how strong the lure of this game is, especially when you have no reason to believe you can't still do it the way you always have.

What was that great line Jim Bouton had in one of his books about the difficulty of walking away from a career in professional baseball? It went something like, "All the time you thought you were gripping the baseball, when in fact, it was the other way around."

Clearly, the game continued to grip Pettitte throughout his one-year absence, which can no longer be called a retirement, but a sabbatical.

It remains to be seen whether Pettitte can regain the form he had when he went on the disabled list with a groin pull midway through the 2010 season, but that is not the only question his stunning decision to attempt a comeback raises.

It also makes you wonder about the other impending retirement in Yankeeland and whether that one will stick.

I mean, if you can't take Mariano Rivera at his word ... well, you get the idea.

Rivera, of course, has not formally announced that he will in fact retire when his contract runs out at the end of this season. But the smart money, and a careful parsing of his cryptic statements so far this spring, certainly seems to indicate he will.

And you can almost predict what the reasons will be: He's done everything he wanted to do in the game. He's made plenty of money. And most of all, he wants to spend more time with his family, which includes three teenage sons.

These are the same reasons we heard from Pettitte 17 months ago. They were good reasons then, and they will be good reasons when Mo uses them.

But will they be good enough to ward off the relentless grip of the game that will pull on Rivera every bit as hard as it pulled on Pettitte?

In a lot of ways, it will be easier for Rivera to come back -- or should I say, harder for him to resist the temptation to return -- than it was for Pettitte.

As a starting pitcher, Pettitte will need to work harder to get in shape. He will need to throw more pitches, work more innings, do more running and conditioning than a relief pitcher would, and much more than a closer would.

And it must not be forgotten that the last time Pettitte attempted to pitch a full season -- when he was two years younger than he is now, in great physical shape and enjoying the best start of his career -- he still barely made it past the All-Star break before going down with the injury that cost him two months on the DL.

He cited the difficulties of rehabbing that injury as another reason for his retirement and dreaded having to do it all over again in another spring training.

And still, he came back. The pull is that strong.

So why should we believe Rivera when he says, as I believe he will, that 2012 is going to be his last season in the major leagues?

Compared to Pettitte, Rivera's workload is about as heavy as Tony Soprano's day at the Bada-Bing Club.

His career accomplishments and standing with the front office and his teammates allow him to arrive in camp when he wants and pretty much set his own training schedule. He never has to make a spring training road trip, although he will this year when the Yankees travel -- by plane, not bus -- to Miami to help the Marlins open their new ballpark April 1.

His typical spring consists of about eight innings pitched, the third of which he threw in Saturday's 6-3 win over the Astros. It lasted all of eight pitches, and if you blinked, you missed it.

And it should be noted that as excellent as Petttitte has been throughout his career, he never on his best day was as good at his job as Rivera is at his.

It might be easy for Mo to walk away from a gig like that -- he repeated Saturday that he was "1,000 percent sure" of his decision, although he still won't say what it is -- but it is sure to be incredibly difficult for him to stay away.

"It's definitely hard to go away," he said. "It runs in your blood and your system."

He spoke of how the desire to play never leaves the great ones, not even decades after they've played their last game. "You talk to Yogi [Berra], and all he talks about is the game, the game, the game," Rivera said. "That drive, that desire, doesn't go away. It will never go away."

It is what made him Yogi Berra and it is what makes Derek Jeter the player he continues to be three months shy of his 38th birthday and it is what made Andy Pettitte, who until a couple of months ago was living his new dream, want to give the old dream one more shot.

Which of us would be silly enough to believe the same thing won't happen with Rivera?

"I want to know that I made the right decision, and when I make the right decision, I don't want to come back," Rivera said. "I don't want to say, 'I should have done it or I should have stayed.' Before Andy came back, I pretty much knew he was itching to come back. But when I say that, I'm going to be 1,000 percent sure it's the right decision that I made. I want to make sure that doesn't happen to me."

When Mariano Rivera finally announces his decision, I'm certain you can take him at his word that he means it.

But don't be so sure that a year later, the grip of the baseball won't draw him back to the game he thought he was done with.

Andy Pettitte was 1,000 percent sure of his decision, too. Until the day he wasn't.

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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