Taking Off the Pinstripes

Friday, February 4th - with the retirement of Andy Pettitte - was officially the end of an era for myself and an entire generation of Yankees fans.

When I was 16-years-old, the New York Yankees hadn't won a World Series since 1978 - a full two years before I was even born. For most of my life up to that point the Yankees were a laughing-stock. They were peppered with players who would fill a book of Who's Who In Mediocrity. Steve Balboni, Alvaro Espinoza, Kevin Maas, Danny Tartabull, Mel Hall, Matt Nokes, Melido Perez, Mike Gallego, Pat Kelly, Steve Howe.... Well, I could go on and on here, but the point is that outside of Don Mattingly - and for a few seasons, Dave Winfield - there just wasn't a whole lot to cheer for.

Things began to change for the better in '93.

The strike that ended the '94 season was particularly crushing for me because the Yanks - it seemed - were FINALLY going to make the playoffs.

Then in 1995 it all fell into place as the Yanks took advantage of the new Wild Card addition to the playoff structure. Don Mattingly had finally made it to the Playoffs. Ah yes, and goddamn the Seattle Mariners. Goddamn Seattle, period.

Andy Pettitte was a rookie in '95 and was a damn good one too. He finished third in Rookie of the Year voting behind Marty Cordova & Garret Anderson. At 12-9, 1995 was the first of sixteen consecutive seasons in which Pettitte would post a .500 record or better.

In 1996 Pettitte nearly won the AL Cy Young - with a 21-8 record - as he finished a very close second to Toronto's Pat Hentgen. It was also in 1996 that the Yankees ended their 18 year World Series drought by beating the Atlanta Braves in six games.

It was during that World Series - Game 5 to be exact - that Pettitte forever earned a spot in my 'Favorites' vault. Heading into Game 5 of that World Series the Braves had every right to be confident - hell, even cocky - as they had already roughed up Pettitte in Game 1 back in the Bronx. The final score in that one was 12-1, and Pettitte had taken the brunt of the beating. So, with Pettitte heading back to the mound - this time in Atlanta - the Braves and their fans surely assumed that all was well.

Oh, how wrong that assumption turned out to be. Game 5 turned into one of the more memorable pitching duels in recent memory, and is still the greatest pitching duel I have ever seen. Andy Pettitte and John Smoltz were unstoppable. They matched zeroes for three innings. In the top of the fourth inning, Cecil Fielder drove home Charlie Hayes for what would be the game's only run, and even that run was unearned as Hayes was only on second base because of a two-base error by Braves center fielder Marquis Grissom.

John Smoltz was dominant, but Pettitte looked like a master. For 8 1/3 innings he threw sinker after sinker to a Braves lineup that was eager to repeat their Game 1 performance. Instead, they didn't collect a hit until the fifth inning when Andruw Jones singled. That baserunner was short-lived, however, as Jones fell victim to a soon-to-be famous Pettitte pick-off move.

Chipper Jones led off the 9th inning with a double, and then moved over to third base on a Fred McGriff ground out. With Pettitte looking gassed, first year manager Joe Torre brought in John Wetteland to close the game out (that was back when Mariano Rivera was still a gas-throwing set-up man). That was that.

Wetteland may have gotten the last two outs to cement the game on that night, but Pettitte's brilliant 8 1/3 innings - in which he outdueled a pitcher in the prime of his career in John Smoltz - cemented his place in the hearts of legions of Yankees fans.

That was the last game ever played at Atlanta Fulton County Stadium.

Even all these years later - with Pettitte now the owner of an unprecedented 19 playoff victories - I still recall that game whenever I think of Andy. I was 16, I was pumped up, and I was ecstatic to watch my team FINALLY win important games. When Charlie Hayes closed his glove around Mark Lemke's pop-up in foul territory for the final out of that World Series, I literally lost my mind for a few hours. I remember nothing. It's all a blur.

It's weird how things are never the same again...

Back then, the Yankees were just happy to be in the playoffs. They were led by a manager whom the New York media had dubbed 'Clueless Joe' when he was signed by the team before the season. They were a team built with cast-offs and minor league call-ups.

Now, the Yankees are damn near expected to win it all every year. They are managed by Joe Girardi after he replaced the now legendary Joe Torre before the 2008 season. They are built with All-Stars no matter where you look on the diamond. They are expected to win it all because they have done just that quite a bit in the years since that 1996 season.

Pettitte is a big reason why. He helped raise the bar. Thanks, Andy.

- JM

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