TAMPA, Fla. -- The later it got, the better Andy Pettitte always pitched. He was a star during the regular season but was a special standout in the fall, when titles were won. Now he has decided to try to excel later than ever, a year after his retirement.
Pettitte is making a comeback, signing a minor-league contract with the Yankees on Friday in a move that stunned just about everyone except a few people on and around the team. He declared that his left arm, which won a major league-record 19 postseason games, is sound. And his arm isn't even the half of it.
"I just kind of follow what my heart is telling me to do, man," he said after signing a one-year deal worth $2.5 million two weeks after he was in camp as a special instructor alongside alumni such as Ron Guidry and Goose Gossage. "I'm going to trust that I know in my heart that I'm doing the right thing, and I'm hoping and praying that this is going to be great."
When he formally retired at Yankee Stadium in February 2011 after a strong 2010 season and an even stronger postseason, he said he felt it was time to be the man of the house for his wife and four children. On Friday afternoon, though, he said, "As a man, I want to go to work. My work is baseball."
Joe Girardi, his former catcher and former and future manager, said, "He loves the game. I mean, he really loves the game, and he loves the Yankees."
Pettitte expects to join the team Tuesday and begin a personal spring training regimen that could have him pitching in the big leagues by May -- little more than a month before his 40th birthday -- if all goes well.
The pitcher has the strong endorsement of Yankees players ("Swish just called me and he was screaming on the phone," he said, referring to Nick Swisher) and the blessing of his family ("They weren't all that thrilled about me retiring last year").
His signing gives the Yankees the one thing they lacked: a dynamic, big-name, proven addition. But he also brings big questions, such as how much of the old Pettitte he can summon after all that inactivity and what this will do to an overcrowded starting rotation, which already had six candidates for five spots.
"Does it complicate things if we have a healthy Andy Pettitte with what we have -- and we like what we have. Yes. But does it make us better, does it give us deeper and stronger choices? Yes," said general manager Brian Cashman, who had been secretly discussing the comeback since December. "There's no downside. How do you not take advantage of the opportunity he's presenting us?"
Phil Hughes, one of the pitchers trying for one of those spots, said, "It's great. I love Andy, he's awesome. Andy has been here before, I've been in this position before. What's going to happen is going to happen."
Pettitte said the seed was planted when an interviewer raised the specter of a comeback, mentioning that Cashman had said he would be open to it.
The pitcher, a member of the famed Core Four (along with Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada), called the general manager and began working out. Still, he didn't give a full commitment. So the Yankees signed Hiroki Kuroda and traded for Michael Pineda, then called Pettitte and told him it was time to shut it down. They had no room for him and couldn't afford his projected $10-million salary.
But by then Pettitte had become hooked on exercising and pitching. He contacted Cashman and Hal Steinbrenner, agreeing to a clandestine workout at George M. Steinbrenner Field at 7:30 a.m. Tuesday -- 111/2 hours before a game against Boston.
"Once I stood on that mound," Pettitte recalled Friday, "it was like I never left."
It probably will seem that way in the clubhouse, too. "I told him to come back," said CC Sabathia, who started the Yankees' 4-3, 10-inning win against the Nationals on Friday. "When you can still pitch as well as he can, I think it makes it hard to stay home."
In Pettitte's mind, now he really will be coming home.
"A healthy Andy Pettitte is extremely effective," Cashman said. "I know Andy knows his body, but at the same time, he hasn't been through something like this so we have to put him through a full spring training."
Pettitte had been invited to camp as an instructor and was in Tampa on Feb. 27. He had a long, private discussion with Mariano Rivera and at the time it was assumed that they might have been discussing whether Rivera will retire after this season.
At the time, standing behind the batting cage, he told reporters, "It's just good to be down here, man," said Pettitte, who retired following the 2010 season. "I just enjoy seeing the guys. I've been away from it, so it's just good to see everybody."
"It's kind of strange, especially just to now be sitting in there with Gator [Ron Guidry] and talking about being a full-time dad, being home all the time with your kids and having a 17-year-old son," Pettitte said then. "Just talking about wanting to strangle them sometimes."
He did mention a comeback, saying that he believed he could get himself back in shape, but he added that he liked coaching his sons' basketball and baseball teams.