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02/04/11 10:06 AM EST

Pettitte's reliability, honesty always respected

Year after year, left-hander came through in biggest games

It was three years ago, in Florida. I was riding back to my hotel when my cell phone sang out a favorite James Brown song, and even though I didn't recognize the number, I answered it.

"Peter?" asked the voice. "This is Andy Pettitte."

I knew that Pettitte had arrived at Spring Training that morning and held a news conference at the Yankees' facility in Tampa, then called Legends Field. He'd admitted that, as reported in The Los Angeles Times in 2006 and in the Mitchell Report in '07, that he had used performance-enhancing drugs.

"Peter, I need to say something to you," Pettitte continued. "Look, you've been good to me from the time I arrived in the big leagues. You've always treated me with respect. I know how much you care about and love the game. I called to apologize because I let the game down. I let you down. I did what I did, and I am sorry."

I don't know how many people Andy Pettitte similarly called, probably many. He didn't hand out a press statement. He didn't have his agents, Randy and Alan Hendricks, call on his behalf. He took the time to make the personal apology.

There are many fault layers to the guilt and causes of what will forever be known as The Steroid Era. We likely will never know whether Pettitte used PEDs a couple of times or more extensively -- more allegations may be secreted in the Roger Clemens case. But at this point, Andy Pettitte is a former player, and five years from now, when his Hall of Fame credentials are debated, the voting may still include a society that believes that anyone connected to, suspected of or having the appearance of usage is automatically ineligible for induction in Cooperstown.

But that is a debate for later, when Pettitte's name first appears on the BBWAA ballot. If indeed Pettitte never pitches again, he leaves the game better than when he found it upon his arrival in the Major Leagues in April 1995, the post-strike season. He is a genuinely good person -- private, sincere, soft-spoken but direct. He carried himself down the street as he stood atop the mound, shoulders squared, chest out, perfect posture.

"His teammates know what he will give them," manager Joe Girardi said this past October before Game 3 of the American League Championship Series against the Rangers. "They know with Andy, they have a chance to win. He is still what he's always been -- reliable."

Pettitte gave up two runs in the first inning and finished seven innings without giving up any more runs. The Yankees had a chance to win. Problem was, Cliff Lee threw eight shutout innings, allowing two hits, so Pettitte left trailing, 2-0. It remained 2-0 until the ninth, when the Yankees' bullpen imploded and gave up six runs.

For 16 seasons with the Yankees and Astros, Andy Pettitte was someone they could lean on. He won 21 games in 1996 and 2003, and his second-place finish in '96 was the only time he was in the top three in Cy Young Award voting. However, in 13 of those 16 seasons, he started 31 or more games, and because he was the ever-reliable Andy Pettitte, he pitched in eight World Series for the Yankees and Astros and won 19 postseason games, more than anyone in history.

Did he get 5 1/2 runs a start because he pitched for very good teams in New York and Houston? Of course. But did he help make those teams really good? Yes. This is not the time for a Jack Morris-Bert Blyleven mud fight, but 240-138 is really good, as is 19-10 in the postseason, when there are no Thursday matinees against the Royals.

OK, his 3.88 ERA would be the highest of anyone in the Hall, and blogger Aaron Gleeman pointed out Thursday that Chuck Finley topped Pettitte in innings (3,197 1/3-3,055 1/3) and ERA (3.85-3.88). Pettitte gave up more hits than innings pitched. He also beat John Smoltz, 1-0, in Game 5 of the 1996 World Series, which essentially won the Series (again, no mud fights here, because Smoltz was on the mound in the famous Game 7 duel with Morris in 1991).

Still, Pettitte pitched in New York and was so respected and liked that he was able to stand up after the Mitchell Report and remain an iconic figure. From the time he arrived, he, Mariano Rivera, Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter and later Jorge Posada gave the Yankees a dignity befitting the pinstripes. The additions of outsiders like Paul O'Neill, Scott Brosius, et al, made the Yankees not only a World Series champion four times in five years, but champions who people across the country respected and admired. They were, along with Cal Ripken Jr. in 1995 and the McGwire/Sosa Festival of '98, part of the healing process that rebuilt the game and the business. Those Yankees helped grow the baseball-revenue business, because, let's face it, baseball is a more profitable business when the Yankees are constants on national television.

General manager Brian Cashman and manager Joe Torre understood what Pettitte meant to the fabric of those Yankees teams, which is why at one point they adamantly talked George Steinbrenner out of trading him to the Phillies. Cashman and Girardi know what it means that Pettitte is no longer part of their 2011 plans. The rotation right now is CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Phil Hughes and TBD, which makes the Rafael Soriano signing an important piece of the immediate puzzle and the Cashman farm system a reserve that can eventually get them a starting pitcher, no matter if the market of potentially available starters right now is smaller than Bartolo Colon's waistline.

They're not going to get Felix Hernandez or Josh Johnson. Can they acquire someone as good as a 38-year old Pettitte? Probably, but at the cost of two or three valued pieces.

And they're not likely to be able to trade for anyone who walks through the clubhouse door the days he starts and evoke the respect of his peers as Pettitte did for all those years. The man admitted guilt, as charged, but in the end, he walks away with the knowledge that he was respected for his reliability as a pitcher and as a teammate, and no statistical analysis or science can quantify Andy Pettitte's personal reliability.

Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and an analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.