Pettitte is first of Yanks' Core Four to retire

Andy Pettitte was part of five World Series championship teams with the Yankees

During a single month almost 16 years ago, the course of the New York Yankees was forever changed. In a fallow era for the Bombers, when the more murderous rows were publicly held between the man in the owner’s office and those in his clubhouse, along came three young men who put the Yankees back on the field, in body and soul.

Andy Pettitte(notes), Mariano Rivera(notes) and Derek Jeter(notes) arrived in the spring of 1995, followed several months later by Jorge Posada(notes). From them, championships came, dignity came, and an organization was reborn.

Now in the twilights of their careers, and champions again only two seasons past, the first among them to arrive almost a generation ago also will be the first to go.

Pettitte, 38 and still holding the city’s hopes for more parades in his left hand, has retired.

A 240-game winner and a charter member of what became known as the Core Four, he notified the Yankees of his decision Wednesday night and on Thursday was traveling to New York for a farewell press conference Friday morning. He leaves at least $12 million on the table, the amount the Yankees would have paid to stabilize their rotation.

His departure – off last season’s 11-3 record and 3.28 ERA – was not at all a surprise. From his home in Deer Park, Texas, he’d told the Yankees for months they probably shouldn’t bother hanging a uniform in his locker. Yet, with a starting rotation wispier than the emanations from a manhole cover, club executives had hoped the call of spring training would bring from Pettitte consideration for a 17th season.

Pettitte had waffled before. And there was talk he’d skip the drudgery of spring training and return in mid-season, just as his friend Roger Clemens had. Perhaps, the Yankees believed, Pettitte would return if only to push his career statistics closer to the standards held by the Hall of Fame, where one day Rivera and Jeter are certain to go.

Most important, they needed him every fifth day for 2011. When they failed to sign Cliff Lee(notes), the Yankees were left with an ace (CC Sabathia(notes)), a No. 2 (Phil Hughes(notes)) who won 18 games but only once has thrown more than 90 big league innings, a No. 3 (A.J. Burnett(notes)) who is paid like a No. 1 but pitched like a No. 5, and a cast of unknown quantities, beginning with 24-year-old right-hander Ivan Nova(notes) and running through the likes of retreads Bartolo Colon(notes) and Freddy Garcia(notes).

Even had Pettitte returned, the Yankees had fallen behind rotations in Boston and Tampa Bay. Now that gap widens, and if the Yankees had counted on making up the difference in run support, the Red Sox – having acquired Carl Crawford(notes) and Adrian Gonzalez(notes) in a dizzying December week – countered that as well.

Of course, Pettitte can’t be held accountable for that. For years he’s spoken of the hardship of leaving his wife and four children for spring training, the summers he’s missed at home. It’s not his fault the market bore only one top-end pitcher (Lee), or that the Yankees resisted the high price of Zack Greinke(notes).

Pettitte has always been a good man, as sincere as one can be in the tumult of the big city, and as tough a competitor as anyone who’d walked into that stadium. Posada calls him the best big-game pitcher he’s caught, a sentiment backed by Pettitte’s 19-10 record and 3.83 ERA in the postseason, along with the five rings Pettitte will take with him into retirement.

While the steroid era findings of George Mitchell produced mostly outrage, that Pettitte was accused of using human growth hormone brought mostly sadness. Not Andy, people sighed. Anybody but our Andy. Of course, he admitted to using HGH, because unlike hundreds of other users, Pettitte would not live with the lie.

And perhaps that too had a part in this. When his old buddy Clemens goes to federal trial this summer for allegedly lying to Congress, Pettitte will be an important witness for the government. With Clemens on one side, Brian McNamee on the other and Pettitte in the middle as perhaps the swing witness, there could be no winners, not even our Andy.

Ultimately, however, Pettitte will be remembered for what he did for an organization, with some help from his friends. And what he did for a city. And for staring over the top of his glove, steam coming in puffs from his mouth, in a game the Yankees absolutely had to win.