Ex-Yanks on Pettitte: It's tough to know just when to go

Andy Pettitte watching pitchers while at spring training. Andy Pettitte watching pitchers while at spring training. (Feb. 27, 2012) Photo Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams, Jr.

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TAMPA, Fla.

Reggie Jackson once nearly came out of retirement, as Andy Pettitte formally will do Tuesday when he returns to Yankees camp. It was midseason 1988, the Yankees felt they needed a boost and Jackson was just about persuaded to give it a try for one more October.

"I would have done it," he said in the Yankees' clubhouse the other day, "but there would have been so much attention on me going to the minors in Columbus that I didn't want to go."

Besides, he had grown more comfortable as an ex-player than he had been as a player. "I was mentally gone,'' he said. "I didn't believe it was because my physical skills had eroded. They had, but I could have helped somebody. The media demands, along with the physical demand of getting ready, was too much. And the game was changing. With all those things together, it was time for me to retire."

The point is, it is different for every player. In a way, though, it also is the same. The decision about when it is time to go, and to stay gone, is intense and complicated. It also stays with you for a long time.

So Jackson and the other former Yankees greats who are in camp as special instructors all can identify with Pettitte, who signed a minor-league contract Friday and is scheduled to throw his first bullpen session as a former ex-player Tuesday.

They know that Pettitte has done deep soul-searching that involves weighing the privilege, the joy and the riches that go with being a major-leaguer against the physical toll and the urge to have a regular family life. Said Jackson, "Mariano is handling it now, and Derek is dealing with the end of his career. He's handling it in his own way."

One thing is sure. No one begrudges Pettitte the right to change his mind and absolutely no one in Yankees camp blames him for wanting to try again.

Make them tear uniform off

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"You know what? When it's time, the game will leave you behind. You don't have to leave the game behind," said Hall of Famer Goose Gossage, who is here working with Yankees pitchers. "Chuck Tanner told me this my first time in the big leagues. He came up to me and got right in my face and said, 'You make them tear this stinking uniform off.' And I did."

Yankees instructors know that Pettitte is among the lucky ones: He went out on his own terms rather than being released or uninvited. He pitched well in 2010, which is a major part of why he and the team believe he can come all the way back.

In 1987, his curtain-call season with the A's, Jackson wasn't the dominant slugger he had been. But he did hit 15 homers in 336 at-bats, and that was enough to make him leave with a good feeling. "I had appreciated the gift I had. I appreciated the opportunity to change my life, to change my whole family's life," he said. "I looked at it as an unbelievable present I had been given. I didn't have any negativity."

Closure does not come so easily to everyone. Joe Girardi was unsure about retiring in 2003 at age 38. "You know, I actually prayed about it. I asked God to make it evident to me,'' he said. Two injured discs and two locked vertebrae later, the former catcher said, "It was real evident I couldn't stay healthy.''

Bernie Williams, another spring training instructor, never officially retired. "Well, he thinks he did," Derek Jeter joked. Jeter added that he could not see himself returning after a year off, as Pettitte is doing. "Pitchers are different," the captain said.

Pitchers not only are different from hitters, they are distinct from each other, especially in deciding when it's time to move on. "When I said I was done, I was done," Ron Guidry said, thinking back to 1988, when he was 38. "When I got home, I said this is what I want to do, and I meant it." So he never had a hint of a thought of a comeback? "Not once," he said. "But not everybody thinks the way I do."

Gossage went 3-0 with one save for Seattle in 1994 at 43 and still wanted to keep going. "I got caught in that strike," he said, indicating that "guys on the bubble" did not get calls the following spring after the work stoppage. "When that happened,'' he said, "I just saluted the game and said thank you very much."

His advice to Pettitte and anyone else at or near the end is not to be so hasty. "Sure, everybody would rather go out on top. But I would rather fail and fall on my face and make an ass out of myself than not exhaust every effort to play the game as long as I could play," he said.

Gossage said he does not know the family circumstances that caused Pettitte to retire after 2010 but in general, he said, "Let me tell you, you've got the rest of your life to spend with your kids. And we get to spend a ton more time than any other working person. We've got four months off with them, we've got half a season with them.''

Mind vs. body

David Wells was encouraged by the strong September he had for the Dodgers in 2007 at 44. "My body was telling me, 'Hey dude, depart.' But my mind was saying I've still got a lot in the tank," he said. Ballclubs tended to agree with his body, and no one offered him even a minor-league deal for '08. "That's when I knew it was time," he said.

He was so miserable that he went to Arizona just to be near ballplayers and camps, and got up at 5 every day to do a sports talk radio show there. That feeling was in his mind when he recently advised Rivera to keep pitching, telling him, "Let them rip the jersey off your back."

On Tuesday, Pettitte will put his No. 46 back on, and he will not have to explain why to alumni and fellow players.

Teammate Eric Chavez has worked like crazy to recover from two back surgeries so he could stave off retirement. "I heard something this morning that said, 'You will always regret quitting early but you'll never regret trying to play a little longer,' " Chavez said. "Andy still feels like he's got some innings in him, so why not come back? He's healthy, his family is in the right place. Why not?''

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