Saturday, March 03, 2007

Pettitte is Torre's security blanket

Saturday, March 3, 2007


ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- In his 59th year in baseball, there isn't much that shocks Don Zimmer anymore.

Ask him about Andy Pettitte coming back to the Yankees after three years in Houston, and Zimmer leans forward in the Devil Rays' dugout, presses down on his ever-present fungo bat and shoots from the lip.

"The only thing that has surprised me is that [Roger] Clemens hasn't come back with him yet."

Tampa Bay Devil Rays senior advisor Don Zimmer, left, talks with New York Yankees great Yogi Berra prior to a spring training game.

Al Lang Field had the air of familiarity Friday afternoon; Zimmer chatting with Joe Torre, Yogi Berra and more old New York friends, and Pettitte taking the ball in a New York uniform.

There was even a loud ovation for Pettitte as he was introduced. Pettitte took his warm-ups as the fans cheered, and never glanced at anything but catcher Wil Nieves' glove. The batters he faced went by in a blur -- six up, six down, three groundouts, two flies, one strikeout.

Two innings were the whole day's work in Pettitte's spring re-debut as a Yankee. If he's Torre's opening-day starter, Pettitte probably will want to stay around for all nine -- just like old times.

"Nobody stared a hole through me like he did when I went to take him out of games," Torre said before the Yankees' 3-1 victory over the Devil Rays. "He was always surprised when we'd go to get him. That's where his mind's at. He knows what responsibility is."

There's plenty more responsibility heaped now on Pettitte, the de facto ace of Torre's staff. At press time, Clemens hadn't yet strolled into Torre's office asking for a uniform. And it's been years since David Cone or David Wells were preceding Pettitte in a playoff series.

Across those Octobers, starting in 1996, Pettitte earned Torre's most precious honor -- trust -- more than any starting pitcher. Some things haven't changed.

"[Pettitte] was a guy that you counted on all the time, even though you always mentioned somebody else's name first," Torre said. "I think people associate his presence with what we did when he was here."

What the Yankees did was win pennants, six of them in eight seasons. Pettitte pitched the last World Series game the Yankees played in. He won another pennant in Houston, with Clemens, in 2005.

"I didn't think my arm would allow me to pitch past the '06 season," Pettitte said. At age 34, "in my mind, I was ready for [retirement]."

Torre and Pettitte's wife, Laura, felt differently.

"I think he was sort of caught off-guard with our interest to begin with," said Torre, who phoned Pettitte "four or five times" to sell him on a comeback and "talk about what's best for him."

Laura Pettitte already was telling her husband that he had too much life in his arm to quit at 34. And she was right.

Pettitte's elbow, surgically repaired during 2004, barked a bit late last season. But by November, Pettitte felt strong tossing the ball around with his four kids, ages 6 through 12.

On Friday, Pettitte's angular delivery produced plenty of his trademark cutters. He even surprised himself with several excellent change-ups, including one that froze Jorge Cantu on a called third strike.

"If I could harness that for the year, I'd be all right," he said. Torre is counting on it.

"The one thing Andy did every year was get better," Torre said. There were times during Pettitte's 14-13 season (4.20 ERA) last year when he'd speak with Torre and say, "Skip, I feel so good, but the results are so bad."

But at year's end, Pettitte had pitched more than 200 innings for the second straight season -- a sign of Pettitte's responsibility to his team.

"There's never an ounce of quit in him," Torre said. In return for Torre's trust again, Pettitte renewed an old promise, too.

"I came in here and wanted everybody to know that this is my team," Pettitte said.


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