Friday, April 20, 2007

George Vecsey: Something Old, Something New and Some Things Pettitte

Published: April 20, 2007

The New York Times

The games have blurred for Andy Pettitte. He vaguely remembers taking the mound for the first time at Fenway Park, hearing the taunts in that unusual New England accent, sometime in 1995, his rookie season with the Yankees.

The rivalry with the Red Sox was mostly historic back then, but now it has intensified into the best rivalry in American sports. Will it ever seem old? Probably only if one or both of these cable-enriched franchises fade, quite unexpectedly.

Right now the Yankees are going into Boston with huge momentum after Alex Rodriguez hit a three-run homer in the ninth yesterday to beat Cleveland, 8-6. A-Rod is on such a tear that he is transforming the Yankees into a team different from anything we have witnessed in the Joe Torre era as manager.

Torre volunteered yesterday that he had never had a player with the talent of Rodriguez, who has two game-winning homers among his 10 home runs so far in April. This is not the same team Pettitte left after the 2003 season.

The Yankees’ prodigal left-hander — the beloved adopted son to thousands of Yankeecentric mothers in the New York area — Pettitte will continue his return to the fold tonight when he makes a start in quivering, historic Fenway.

Pettitte will start the first game of the season between these teams that will play 19 times, grappling for position in the postseason. Yesterday he recalled the last time he was in Fenway, during the 2003 postseason: “Zimmer out on the field with Pedro.”

He smiled. Everybody smiles at the memory of crusty old Don Zimmer rushing onto the field and being deflected by Pedro Martínez, defending his turf. That strange sight may never be equaled, but when these teams meet, there’s always something.

“I’m looking forward to it,” said Pettitte, who said he had not discussed the intervening three years with any of his old mates from the championship years. He obviously knows the Sox finally won a World Series in 2004.

Life has moved on, or should have, said Torre, who loves going to Fenway despite the quaint things shouted at him, but contends that Red Sox fans still seem angry over something or other. Torre seems to be suggesting that Boston fans chill out, now that the pressure is off. Or maybe he is needling them.

Pettitte remembers the taunts from his rookie season, although he was hazy about his first games there. I looked them up on that wonderful research asset, and discovered that he made his first appearance out of the bullpen on May 13, after Bob Wickman was removed by Buck Showalter in the third inning. Pettitte gave up two hits and no runs, striking out four, against a lineup that included Mo Vaughn, Jose Canseco and Mike Greenwell.

“It’s coming back to me now,” Pettitte said.

I also jogged his memory about his first start in Fenway, on Aug. 16, 1995, when he lasted six innings, giving up six hits and four runs, with Wickman losing in relief this time.

Aside from the Zim-Pedro sumo wrestling match in 2003, the one game Pettitte does recall in Fenway came late in the 1996 season, when Roger Clemens, whom he admired as a fellow Houstonian, made what would be his last start for the Red Sox — at least up to now.

“I think I won,” Pettitte said, “and I remember Roger wishing us luck in the postseason.”

In fact, Pettitte pitched only two innings in a tuneup, as Clemens lost for the 13th time in 23 decisions. The Sox soon made the evaluation that Clemens was over the hill and let him escape to Toronto, the start of his hegira that includes New York and Houston, with maybe another adventure this summer.

Maybe Clemens is messing with our minds. Or perhaps he will take big money from the Mets, the Red Sox or the Yankees to power somebody’s pennant drive. If Roger is not coming, Robinson Canó, batting .268, might like to regain his old uniform, No. 22, currently in protective custody as a recruiting gesture toward Clemens.

With other veteran pitchers injured, Pettitte is playing the role of Roger Clemens in this performance, holding the Yankees’ staff together. He has started three games and even pitched an inning of relief, for a record of 1-0 with an earned run average of 1.50. Pettitte is the ace.

Yesterday Torre admitted that when he first sized up Pettitte in 1996, he saw a large, quiet man sitting in the trainer’s room, staring into space.

“This guy is scared,” Torre remembered thinking.

That impression did not last long, after Pettitte let out the occasional primal scream that told the manager he cared — cared deeply. Then Pettitte pitched eight and a third scoreless innings as the Yankees won the fifth game of the 1996 World Series. Torre refers to that game more frequently than any other he has managed in his 11-plus years with the Yankees.

When Pettitte played in Houston for three years, Torre never stopped talking about him — and talking to him — in one of the warmer player-manager relationships of this generation. Now Torre has Pettitte back, on a Yankee team roaring into Fenway with A-Rod on a surge unlike anything Torre has ever witnessed in the Bronx.


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