TAMPA, Fla. – Were the New York Yankees inclined to lavish their new billion-dollar stadium with their version of a modern-day Mount Rushmore, the four men stationed Monday under a tent – and under the gloaming that accompanies performance-enhancing drugs – may well have composed it.
To the side sat Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada and Derek Jeter, paragons, stalwarts, pinstripe lifers and, on this afternoon, intended distractions. Not that their unified presence could divert every camera trained on the front of the room where Andy Pettitte occupied the center seat.
In fact, Rivera, Posada and Jeter's appearance, a clever little ploy meant to show support for their embattled teammate, illuminated the Yankees' desperation to make the worn-off luster on their great dynasty of 10 years ago look instead like a well-hewn patina. As Pettitte spent 59 minutes admitting his guilt over using human growth hormone, talking about its repercussions, saying that he considered retirement and hoping the truth absolves him of further scrutiny – ha! – Rivera, Posada and Jeter sat in a row, and you well expected one to cover his eyes, another his ears and the third his mouth.
Rather, they were stone-faced, as though they'd been hit with buckshot of truth that, goodness, their championship teams really had been an epicenter of performance-enhancing drug use. More than 20 percent of the names that appeared in the Mitchell Report had played on the Yankees during the Joe Torre era. Pettitte and Roger Clemens and Chuck Knoblauch and Jason Giambi and Kevin Brown and Gary Sheffield and Jason Grimsley and on and on, all the way to Dan Naulty.
The Yankees were dirty. Among the dirtiest.
And not even the best Kirby vacuum, let alone a news conference, could clean that mess.
"Do I think I'm a cheater? I don't," Pettitte said. "Was it stupid? Yeah, it was stupid. Was I desperate? Yeah, I was probably desperate. I wish I would've never done this."
Pettitte's rationalization – he used HGH to recover from injuries, not to throw harder or lift more weights or gain an advantage – was specious at best. His claim that he wouldn't have used HGH had it been banned by baseball was even more dubious. Its use without a prescription was illegal by federal government standards, which, at last check, usurped those of Major League Baseball.
"When I used it in 2002, I felt like it was the right thing to do in my heart," Pettitte said. "Some people might believe that's hard to understand. … It was something that I thought about for a few days. I just thought it was the right thing to do."
The Yankees were in no mood to judge. Rivera, Posada and Jeter stood by Pettitte, even after Posada on Sunday said he believes Clemens' side of the story – he never used performance-enhancing drugs – which stands in stark contract with Pettitte's.
New York's brass, too, embraced Pettitte. He met with George, Hank and Hal Steinbrenner, apologized, asked for their forgiveness and received it. During the news conference, general manager Brian Cashman sat to Pettitte's left and manager Joe Girardi to his right, each looking inward and nodding his head, affirming Pettitte like a kid who goofed rather than a 35-year-old man who has won 201 major league games and willingly allowed another man to inject him with illicit drugs through the belly button.
Of course, the Yankees don't see it that way, the blinders a product of a sport-wide ignorance to performance-enhancing drugs ripping through baseball like crack infiltrated big cities in the '80s. The majority of the Yankees probably were clean, though a majority constitutes just 13 of 25 players, and if even one was cheating, it at least puts a scratch or dent into the shiny trophies New York so proudly displays.
Nonetheless, the Yankees brought Pettitte back for $16 million and didn't think enough of his transgressions to void the contract even though Pettitte almost surely knew of his name's inclusion in the Mitchell Report the day he signed it. Though Pettitte said he learned of it a few days before the report's release, Brian McNamee on Dec. 5 warned Jim Murray, an employee of Pettitte's agents, that he had given George Mitchell's investigators Pettitte and Clemens' names.
Pettitte signed Dec. 6.
With attention pelting him like acid rain, Pettitte said he contemplated retiring and that if the Yankees asked him to quit today, he would. Still, he arrived early Monday, threw a 35-pitch bullpen and readied himself for spring training games, which start in less than two weeks.
"I'm convinced he came back to play because he wants to," Girardi said.
Whatever his motivation – the money, the respite from sworn testimony, the desire to win the Yankees' 27th championship – Pettitte is here, and though his lawyers said he won't address any more questions about performance-enhancing drugs, they'll be tough to avoid.
Pettitte said he has not talked with Clemens since the hearing and only once in the last month. The lone subject he declined to touch was Clemens' allegation that Pettitte "misremembers" their conversation about Clemens' HGH use. Pettitte said he hopes he and Clemens can salvage their friendship, even though his testimony could cause the Justice Department to seek a perjury charge against Clemens.
"Even though the truth hurts sometimes and you don't want to share it, you have to get it out there," Pettitte said. "The truth will set you free, and I feel like I'm going to be able to sleep a lot better at night."
At the end of the inquisition, Girardi patted Pettitte on the back and Cashman tapped his chest. Pettitte stood from his seat, walked toward his teammates and hugged them. The embraces lasted, as though to pardon him from his past.
Andy Pettitte was a Yankee. For better or worse.