Monday, March 19, 2012

The Return of the Hooded Hawk



In 1987, I attended my first Old-Timers' Day at Yankee Stadium -- the original, but post-renovation, Stadium.

It was a surreal experience. The Yankees lost the regular game to the Chicago White Sox, 5-2, in 15 innings, complete with organist Eddie Layton playing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" in the 7th and 14th inning stretches. Ron Guidry started, and struck out 14, but didn't get out of the 7th inning. Willie Randolph, the other remaining player from the 1977 and '78 World Championship teams, also played in the game.

But most of the other players from the Title 21 and Title 22 teams were either playing in the Old-Timers' Game, or unavailable. Lou Piniella was the Yankee manager at the time. Chris Chambliss was a Yankee coach. Bucky Dent was managing in the Yankee farm system. Mickey Rivers, Ed Figueroa and Sparky Lyle were on hand. Reggie Jackson was wrapping up his career, back in Oakland, while Goose Gossage was pitching in San Diego. Thurman Munson, of course, was dead -- but would have been only 40 years old.

From the pre-renovation period, Hall-of-Famers Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford were there, as was not-yet-Hall-of-Famer Phil Rizzuto, although Joe D wore a suit instead of a uniform. Yogi Berra was still feuding with George Steinbrenner and refused to come back. When I saw Mickey limp onto the field, it was surreal. Not that I hadn't seen Mickey before -- he came to Phil Rizzuto Day 2 years earlier, and I was there -- but that this was the first time I had ever seen a Yankee, in person, wear Number 7. I was thinking, "Hey, you can't wear that number, only Mickey Mantle can -- oh, that's right."

Weirder than seeing my childhood heroes as "Old-Timers" was seeing one of them looking like he could still play. Jim "Catfish" Hunter had retired at age 33 due to a bad shoulder. In 1987, he was 41, one of the youngest inductees in the Hall of Fame's history, and he pitched in the Old-Timers' Game. It was like he'd never left: He was painting corner, nibbling, getting guys to chase pitches as if it was his all-too-brief 1978 second-half comeback -- or his mid-1970s glory days with Oakland -- all over again.

Sadly, I never saw him pitch again. He still came to Old-Timers' Day, but the next time I went was in 1994, and he didn't pitch. Then he became the 2nd Yankee legend to develop Lou Gehrig's Disease, and died in 1999.

*

Another surreal experience came in 2009, the first Old-Timers' Day in the new Yankee Stadium. Joe D, Mickey and the Scooter, as well as Thurman and Catfish, were gone. But Yogi had come back, and Whitey was still coming, and Reggie and the Goose were now full-fledged Hall-of-Famers. And the late Seventies players I loved so much were now in their 50s and 60s, and some looked like very old men. Although, to be fair, it was said of Rivers that he always walked like an old man, but ran like a scared rabbit.

But now the Yankee stars of the 1996-2003 dynasty, some now in their 40s, were "Old-Timers," even as Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada were still playing. Aaron Small came out, he of the 10-0 record in the 2005 regular season (and 0-1 in the postseason), who was out of baseball within a year. He was 38. Younger than I was. Homer Bush was introduced. Basically a pinch-runner on the '98 World Champs, he was the other guy in the David Wells for Roger Clemens trade, and finished his career with a brief return to the Yankees in 2004. He was also 38. Shawn Chacon was introduced. Like Small, he had a good 2nd half for the Yankees in '05 but was released in '06. He had just retired. He was... 31. Nope, that's not a typographical error (or even a clean base hit): He was an "Old-Timer" at age thirty-one!

Mike Mussina started the Old-Timers' Game. He was 40, and had just retired, after his one and only 20-win season. He should have been dazzling the old men with his curveball. Instead, he had nothing. I mean he had bupkis. Guys in their 60s were hitting him as if drinking from the fountain of youth. Joe Pepitone stroked a double up the gap off him, and might have stretched it to a triple if he were a little younger than 68. (At least he was now wearing a smaller toupee that fit under his cap, instead of that giant guido hairpiece he frequently wore to Old-Timers' Days, so he was more aerodynamic.)

Boy, did Moose pick the right time to retire. Some players don't; DiMaggio did, Mantle didn't.

David Cone, then 46 and 6 years into retirement, came out to relieve Moose, and got out of the inning, looking like he'd never left the game. He -- wait for it -- pitched like it's 1999.

*

Andy Pettitte decided to retire after the 2010 season, in which he was 11-3, with an ERA of 3.28 and an ERA+ of 132 -- meaning that, at the age of 38, he was 32 percent better at preventing earned runs than the average pitcher in the major leagues.

The Yankees didn't really miss him in the 2011 regular season, winning 97 games and taking the American League Eastern Division by 6 games, with a starting rotation of CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and, depending on which of the 4 was injured at any given time, 3 out of these 4: Phil Hughes, Ivan Nova, Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia.

But in the AL Division Series against the Detroit Tigers, Garcia didn't have his best stuff in Game 2, CC didn't pitch well in Game 3, the troubled A.J. (in what turned out to be, unless he returns, his last game as a Yankee) came through big-time in Game 4 (don't be fooled: 6 of the 10 Yankee runs came after he left), and then Nova, after winning Game 1 in relief after CC got hurt, got hurt himself in Game 5, with Hughes not being much better.

We can argue that, by using 7 pitchers, including 3 starters, in Game 5, manager Joe Girardi really futzed up the Yankee staff in that series. So maybe an available Pettitte would have been misused.

But a 39-year-old Pettitte, only slightly declined from the 38-year-old version, would certainly have been a step up from what we had.

*

Now Andy has signed a minor-league contract with the Yankees. Clearly, it's not about the money: If it was, he wouldn't have put himself in a position to start the season in the minors (and he almost certainly will, because spring training is closer to its end than to its start).

With A.J. traded and Colon released, and Hiroki Kuroda and Michael Pineda brought in, if Andy does not make it all the way back to full starterhood, the rotation will be CC, and then 4 of these 5: Hughes, Nova, Garcia, Kuroda and Pineda, with Joba Chamberlain, now apparently reserved for the bullpen, as a possible emergency starter should there be multiple injuries. If Andy does get called back up to the majors, he'll have to push out one of those 5.

Andy will be 40 on June 15. Does he have anything left?

I hope so. No pitcher, except Mariano Rivera, has appeared in more games with me watching from the stands, and no pitcher, not even Mo, has thrown more pitches with me in the ballpark.

But as much as baseball is about sentiment, the New York Yankees are about winning. Clearly, the organization thinks Pettitte can still win.

The Hooded Hawk is back, and he has brought that stare. Can he bring back the form that won 240 games in the majors -- 203 for the Yankees and 37 in his brief sojourn in Houston -- plus a record 19 in postseason play (all but 1 for the Yanks)?

Stay tuned.

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