Pettitte's shadow looms large over Clemens, Yankees

TAMPA -- It was the day the New York Yankees reported to spring training. And the Invisible Man was, in his own way, the most prominent man in the room.

For the second day in a row.

Wednesday in Washington, in the halls of Congress, there was no more pivotal figure than Andy Pettitte, a man who wasn't there.

Thursday in Tampa wasn't much different. Andy Pettitte's locker was empty, unless you count the uniform that never left the hanger. But the man who will wear that uniform seemed to come up in every conversation.

How could he not?

Sometime in the next few days, Pettitte will pop through that locker-room door. He will look like the same guy who took the mound at Jacobs Field last October after Game 2 of the ALDS. But is he? Is he really?

How can he possibly be?

He walks back into that room as a man who has now admitted to using HGH on three different occasions -- two of those injections administered by his former trainer, the now-infamous Brian McNamee, a third administered by Pettitte's father.

But possibly of more significance, Pettitte walks back into that room as the man who could, at least theoretically, wind up sending his long-time friend and one-time idol, Roger Clemens, to jail, for perjury.

We don't know that yet, of course. But Andy Pettitte doesn't know that yet, either. What he does know is that when he told Congressional investigators everything he knew about Clemens this month, the one thing he definitely wasn't doing was exonerating a guy who was once his closest friend in uniform.

All Andy Pettitte was doing was what he had to do, telling the truth. But the ripple effects of what he did and what he said aren't going away. Not any time soon, at least.

So how could Pettitte's teammates not wonder whether he can possibly shut the emotional events of the last two months out of his consciousness, whether he can possibly find the joy, the passion, the energy that he has always brought to being a baseball player.

"I don't know how he's going to handle it," said Mike Mussina, a man who has known him for seven years. "It's going to be challenging.... However it happens, he's got to be able to go out there and pitch. He's got to find a way to deal with it."

This is what players do, obviously. All players. Their lives are like all our lives -- often complicated, often painful, often distracting. So they learn to use the baseball field as a therapeutic place, a place where they can block out the real world for a few hours a night.

Watching Barry Bonds these last few years, I often thought that was the reason he loved playing baseball more than ever -- because the batter's box had become the only remaining place on earth where he had control, where he could exert his will over everyone and everything around him.

But Andy Pettitte is a whole different form of this species. Down-to-earth. Sensitive. Always conscious of where baseball fits within the fabric of real life.

Important? Yes. But more important than family and friends and faith? No. No way. Not for this man.

So how does he bear this burden, one which will follow him around for weeks, for months, for years? How can he possibly pretend everything is just the same as it ever was?

"It's going to be tough," said Phil Hughes, standing at the locker right next to Pettitte's. "I mean, it's hard enough to play this game when you're focused on playing it."

One friend of Pettitte suggested that maybe, in a way, going through this experience could actually help him. Because he's so religious, that friend said, "he might feel cleansed" by knowing he'd finally told the truth.

Maybe, some day, that will be true. But in the short term, it seems unlikely. In the short term, how can the questions and the controversy not consume him? They are going to await him at every visiting ballpark, every waiting microphone, every twist and turn of the latest news cycle.

"It's going to be everywhere," Mussina said. "I watched [Jason] Giambi go through it a couple of years ago. It's going to be everywhere. ... It's going to be difficult. Hopefully, he can find a way to play through it and perform well."

The plan is for Pettitte to arrive Monday, answer "all" the questions then and then pull the plug on this line of questioning forever. But the modern media business doesn't work that way, especially in the media megalopolis he plays in.

Stories change. News erupts. Angles shift. New questions arise. For an earnest, caring guy like Pettitte, ignoring all of it will be tougher than it seems now. And even if he chooses not to answer, the questions themselves will be a sideshow waiting to happen.

Because he's as well-liked a human being as anyone in his clubhouse, his teammates are already trying to muster all the support they have in them.

"I'm looking forward to seeing him and giving him a hug and welcoming him back," said Joba Chamberlain.

"He's still the same guy I know, a good person," said Hughes. "That's really all I judge people on."

But being a good person won't be enough. That's the problem.

This is baseball. It's a business that revolves around production, period. Honesty is great. Character is terrific. Integrity is beautiful. But these are the New York Yankees he plays for. And they need him.

It was Pettitte's decision to come back, remember, that caused the Yankees to back off their pursuit of Johan Santana. It was Pettitte's decision to come back that allowed them to build their pitching staff with almost as big an eye on tomorrow as today.

It's the presence of Pettitte and Mussina and Chien-Ming Wang that are supposed to knit a veteran security blanket just large enough to allow the Yankees to ease Hughes, Chamberlain and Ian Kennedy into the rotation.

But what happens if Mussina has a 5.15 ERA again? What happens if Wang isn't as good as his run support sometimes made him look last year? And, especially, what happens if Pettitte comes in late, never catches up or can't keep his mind on executing the pitches that decide entire baseball seasons?

The Yankees can't afford any kind of regression from their veteran pitchers, or the whole plan unravels. So Pettitte's struggles represent more than just a compelling human story. For the team he pitches for, they represent a pivotal baseball story.

This is Andy Pettitte's 14th season in the big leagues. It's his 11th season in New York. He's heard a few questions in his time. He knows how this works. Or at least he knows how this used to work. This next chapter, though -- this is uncharted territory.

"This is a different animal from anything he's had to deal with before," Mussina said. "He's been successful his whole career. This is just a different situation.

"Do I think he can deal with it? Sure, I think he can deal with it. But until you're actually put in the situation and have to deal with it, you really don't know. We'll just have to move forward and see how it plays out."

Yeah, they'll move forward, all right. Baseball won't let them do anything else, anyway. There's no "Reverse" on this sport's transmission.

So any day now, Andy Pettitte will walk through that locker-room door. And then, for him and that team he plays for, the real drama -- and his greatest test -- begins.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," has been published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.