Whoa means no for Pettitte's Hall shot

There's a difference between being an all-time great Yankee and an all-time great, and a difference between being a hall of fame guy and a Hall of Famer.

In both cases, Andy Pettitte was definitely the former but not quite the latter.

And despite the disappointment and frustration many Yankees fans no doubt feel today, he did many of us with Hall of Fame votes a huge favor by choosing to retire when he did, before his career numbers might improve to the point that they might have tempted many of us to put aside our aversion to enshrining players who used illegal performance-enhancers.

Pettitte deserves every honor the Yankees choose to give him, the retired number and the plaque in Monument Park, the huge ovation on Old-Timers' Day and the exalted position of throwing out the ceremonial first pitch before important games, especially in the postseason, when Pettitte was always at his very best.

And really, there aren't enough good things you can say about Pettitte the man, or at least the version of the man he chose to display in the Yankees' clubhouse for 13 of the past 16 baseball seasons.

Unlike many of his teammates, including some of the most venerated players in recent Yankees history, Pettitte was always accommodating, always polite, always, somehow, human, and humanity is a quality that is in much shorter supply in major league clubhouses than many fans would imagine.

"It's mind-boggling to me," he said in answer to a question at the Yankee Stadium news conference Friday morning, regarding why he thought he has been forgiven by the fans and the media for his part in baseball's performance-enhancing drug crisis when so many others have been permanently ostracized.

"I wish I had an answer for you. I've tried to handle things the way I thought I should, and I try to be genuine, and I think people think that I'm fairly genuine."

But it's more than that. Three years ago, I asked Pettitte probably the toughest question I've ever asked anyone, at the spring training news conference at which he addressed his having been named in the Mitchell report for human growth hormone use: "Do you consider yourself a cheater?"

You can only imagine what the reaction would have been if that question had been asked of any number of other athletes in the same situation. But Pettitte calmly and without anger explained his rationale for having used HGH -- he did it, he claimed, to speed up his recovery from an elbow injury so he could return to helping his team.

Whether you buy that explanation or not -- and frankly, I didn't -- you couldn't help but admire the civility and grace with which he dealt with what could have been a very tense moment for everyone.

But that's not where it ends. The next day, I ran into Pettitte outside the clubhouse. I wasn't sure what kind of reaction to expect, although I was pretty sure it would be cordial at least. It turned out to be shocking.

"I want to thank you for asking that question yesterday," Pettitte said. "Because it gave me a chance to tell my side of the story."

So, naturally, I have positive feelings about Pettitte as a person and as a player.

Had Pettitte continued to pitch and added, say, another year or two of good numbers to his already impressive résumé, would those positive feelings have complicated my decision when it came time to mark my Hall of Fame ballot? After all, I have resolved not to vote for players who were proven to have taken illegal PEDs.

Thankfully, it's not something I'll have to wrestle with in Pettitte's case.

Pettitte's career totals -- 240-138, 3.88 ERA, 19 postseason wins, five World Series rings -- are by any yardstick outstanding. Simply put, he was an excellent pitcher.

But the difference between excellence and greatness is similar to the difference between Pettitte and, say, Whitey Ford or Sandy Koufax. And the Hall of Fame is supposed to reward greatness, not mere excellence. (Just for the record, I did not have a Hall of Fame vote when Don Sutton went in.)

Pettitte was undeniably excellent but falls short of true greatness. I'm sure that in five years, I'll rethink this question, and I fully understand that some future generation might look back at the era in which steroids and other PEDs were banned with the same incredulity with which we view Prohibition.

But right now, Pettitte looks to me to be just a cut below Cooperstown caliber even without factoring in the HGH dilemma.

As good as he was, he led the league in only one important category one time, when he won 21 games in 1996. No one is calling him the best left-hander of his era, nor at any time in his career was he considered the best lefty in baseball.

His career ERA would be the highest of any pitcher in Cooperstown, and there is little doubt that having spent so much of his career with the Yankees significantly boosted his numbers, due to both uncommonly high run support and the looming presence of Mariano Rivera, who saved 68 of Pettitte's 240 victories, the most effective starter-closer combination in baseball history.

Even Pettitte's impressive postseason totals became possible only because the team he played for was always in the playoffs. As Pettitte himself pointed out, his career postseason record, 19-10 with a 3.83 ERA, is nearly identical to his average regular season (17-10, 3.88).

In fact, the best description of Andy Pettitte the pitcher came from Andy Pettitte, retired citizen.

"I think I've never been an overpowering pitcher," he said. "I've always given up a lot of hits, and when you add in a walk here or there, you usually have baserunners out there and you have to grind your way through it, find a way to make a pitch in a big situation, mentally try to get your focus where it needs to be and figure out what you need to do to be successful."

Similarly, his definition of a Hall of Famer is better than any one I could give you. "There's several players I've played with who I know are for-sure Hall of Famers," Pettitte said. "They've made it look so easy for so many years. This game has never been easy for me. I've never considered myself a Hall of Famer. I feel honored that people are talking about it, but I consider myself more of a grinder."

An extraordinary grinder, to be sure, but a grinder just the same. And a superb guy, but one who made a mistake that grievously compromises several of the criteria for entry into the Hall, the ones that deal with sportsmanship, character and integrity as those relate to performance on the field.

Thanks for the memories, Andy, and for all those years of excellent pitching and even better comportment.

And especially, thanks for getting out now, before you made the question of whether you belong in Cooperstown not just a head-scratcher, but a gut-wrencher.