HOUSTON -- Andy Pettitte once messed up in a big way, and maybe in the end that will be a good thing. Maybe thousands upon thousands of young players and fans saw how much Pettitte's mistake compromised a career that could have been as pure as Mariano Rivera's, and learned from that.
Maybe the next Andy Pettitte won't take human growth hormone because he saw what happened after the first one did.
In so many ways, long before he retired for good Saturday night on a complete game out of his wildest dreams, Pettitte was the perfect professional athlete and role model. He was a 22nd-round draft choice signed at his grandmother's kitchen table by a New York Yankees scout named Joe Robison, who told his prospect the following:
"Andy, when you reach 40 years old, 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."
Some 22 years later, at age 41, Pettitte left baseball just as the scout predicted -- with more money than he could ever count. When he was done allowing one run and five hits over 116 pitches in a 2-1 homecoming victory over his former team, the Houston Astros, Pettitte walked away with 256 victories, 18 nonlosing seasons in 18 attempts, five World Series titles and the most postseason victories (19) of all time.
"Another day I'll never forget," Pettitte said.
His first complete game in seven years was a hell of a way to cap a distinguished pitching life. Astros and Yankees fans chanted his name in the ninth, and after a two-out single brought the potential winning run to the plate, Joe Girardi trotted out and offered up David Robertson as an option out of a bullpen permanently vacated by Mo.
"I can finish it," Pettitte told his manager.
"Go ahead then," Girardi responded.
The lefty never imagined he could go the distance here, not after he spent the day dealing with swirling emotions. On the drive to Minute Maid Park from his Deer Park home, Pettitte thought of Girardi catching him in the good old days. Once in the clubhouse, the starter found teammates hanging around him more than they ever did, guys just wanting to be close to him.
"It was a sad day," Pettitte said. And then the physical reality of his punishing work blitzed him late in the game, reminding Pettitte of why he was retiring in the first place. Everything was hurting, not just his left arm.
"It's a shame we've got to get old," he said.
But the most prolific postseason winner of all endured in a game Girardi said was played with playoff intensity. The manager handed his guy the lineup card in the clubhouse, and then Pettitte embraced his kids, and his wife, and then marched toward the 50 or so people cheering him from behind a railing, all of them family and friends.
Half of Deer Park followed Pettitte into the interview room, where he choked up and cried when talking about the whole night. "I wasn't even worthy to have that happen to me," Pettitte said.
He meant it, too. Much like Rivera, Pettitte was never defined as much by his statistical greatness and bank account as he was by his dignity and humility, his refusal to big-time the less accomplished in his midst.
Andy was and is good people. For 98 percent of his career, including the time he spent Thursday night comforting the weeping Rivera, assuring him everything was going to be OK, Andy Pettitte was a credit to his uniform.
The other 2 percent? His admitted HGH use over two days in 2002, and over one day in 2004? That was a painful game-changer. Performance-enhancing drug use didn't only cost Pettitte his outside chance of Hall of Fame induction; it revealed him to be a corner cutter, a cheater, everything it appeared he was not.
Pettitte said that he was merely trying to heal an elbow injury, and that he was never seeking a competitive edge. "I've never tried to do anything to cheat this game," Pettitte maintained before his last Yankee Stadium start. "I've never tried to cheat anything in my life."
But of course, Pettitte did cheat the game. Assuming he was telling the whole truth about the extent of his PED use, Pettitte cheated by taking a pharmacological shortcut in his attempt to get back on the mound.
So on the day before he played a starring role in Rivera's forever farewell, there was something fitting about Pettitte being forced to give that deposition in Brian McNamee's defamation suit against Roger Clemens. The Rocket would ultimately survive his former trainer's claims and beat the federal perjury rap after Pettitte said in a sworn statement his former teammate admitted HGH use, then decided there was a "50-50" chance he misunderstood Clemens during that alleged admission.
Only neither the Rocket nor Pettitte escaped from this ordeal unscathed. Asked recently if he had any career regrets, Pettitte tried but failed to stop himself from bringing up what he called "the HGH incident." He would say of that incident: "I hate that any young person would ever think that I was trying to do something to cheat this game or to cheat other players."
Only maybe those young people do think Pettitte cheated, and do think it hurt his otherwise dignified standing in the game, and do now feel motivated to never make the same mistake.
"If I could change anything in baseball," Rivera said Thursday, "it would be the steroid era."
Pettitte is part of that era. The day after beating Houston starter Paul Clemens (no relation), Pettitte will confront that part again when Roger Clemens, of all people, shows up to honor Mo.
But Saturday night wasn't the time to remind Pettitte that the returning Rocket was just around the bend. The big lefty had just thrown his 26th and final complete game, honoring the prophecy of an old scout delivered at Grandma's kitchen table in a different life. "For me," Pettitte said, "it's almost a fairy tale."