Tuesday, February 8th, 2011...11:22 pm
Let’s turn back the clock to March 1995 where a recently bar-mitzvahed Littyhoops is KILLING it at Yankees spring training in Fort Lauderdale (before they moved to Tampa). Cunning, savvy and fearless I was scooping up autographs like a PETA volunteer at Bonnaroo. If you’re ever in need of a baseball with the scribbled name of Tony Fernandez, Randy Velarde, Russ Springer, Pat Kelly and Hensley “Bam Bam” Meulens then I’m your guy. I knew my way around the spring training complex like a roving spring training bullpen catcher. I had locked down positioning at all the prime autograph spots (near the dugout, corner of the bullpen, outer fields, batting practice cages, parking lot, etc.)
On one of the days I somehow found myself all alone in an alleyway under the stands. I saw a young pitcher walking on the other side of the fence. I was able to get his attention, tossed my ball over the fence to him and slid my black sharpie into his hand. As he was signing the ball I mustered up the courage to say “Hey Mr. Pettitte, I really hope you get the number five spot in the rotation”. He was a bit surprised I actually knew who he was and gave me his dimpled and toothy grin and said “yeah, me too”. Excited by his coherent response and eye contact (almost unheard of in the spring training autograph game) I then told him I was a lefty. He grinned again and said “yeah, me too”. He tossed the ball back to me and went on his merry way to 240 Major League victories over the next 16 seasons.
Even without this interaction I probably would have become a big Pettitte fan. I love big time starting pitchers, especially lefties. I also love Pettitte’s sheer determination and focus when he is on the mound. Pettitte might never have been the most dominant pitcher of his day (and as Wallace Matthews wrties while Pettitte is an all-time Yankee great he doesn’t deserve a sniff at the Hall) but he was most definitely a big game pitcher. His 19 post-season victories are the most of all-time. His Game 5 duel of the 1996 World Series with John Smoltz is one of the clutchest pitching performance that I’ve watched. Any true Yankee fan has special memories of the 1996 season, one in which Pettitte was robbed of the Cy Young Award.
I followed his stats always hoping he would hit specific season and career milestones. Heck, it still irks me that he has only 4 career shutouts. In college, during the midst of Yankee’s glory, I tried to convince all my sports-encyclopedic friends that Pettitte was going to be the last pitcher to ever win 300 games. I still contend he was on pace to do it until a 2004 shoulder injury while on Houston slowed him down. The fact the Yanks pushed him away and went to Houston slowed them both down.
I was excited when Pettitte came back to the Yanks and snapped right back into his rightful spot in the rotation (and the post-season). I was disappointed when he was caught red-handed in the steroid scandal. I’m not even sure if I believed his excuse but I accepted his apology because he did it head on and with class (something not usually seen in the anabolic scene). Check out what his former teammates had to say when he announced his retirement.
But most of all I will remember what I learned from Andy. He gave a young kid (me!) the time of day for a few fleeting seconds and he won a fan for life. It makes it seem so obvious that if we all show bit of kindness here and there in everyday situations it can win us a whole lot of fans. Who doesn’t want a fan club?