Yankees Magazine: Into the fire

Just 23 on Opening Day, Andy Pettitte played a huge role in the Yankees' 1996 championship

October 24th, 2016
Pettitte was just 24 years old when the Yankees became world champions in 1996, never dreaming he would reach the top of the mountain with the club four more times during his career (Getty Images).Doug Pensinger

In just his second year in the Majors, Andy Pettitte was entrusted by first-year Yankees manager Joe Torre to be one of the leaders in his pitching rotation. In return, the young left-hander had arguably the best season of his career, going 21-8 with a 3.87 ERA and finishing second in the American League Cy Young Award voting. And his postseason was nearly as good.

Other than one disastrous World Series outing, Pettitte was undefeated in October, with his crowning moment coming in Game 5 of the 1996 World Series in Atlanta. With the Series tied two games apiece, Pettitte went toe-to-toe with Braves ace John Smoltz at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, besting the future Hall of Famer with a 1-0 victory that put the Yankees one game away from their first championship since 1978 as they headed back to Bronx.

In September, Pettitte took some time to chat with Yankees Magazine associate editor Hilary Giorgi about the magic of that season.

Coming off your rookie year in 1995, what were you expecting in 1996?

In your second year, the sophomore slump is what people worry about. The league has already seen me and now can make adjustments. I was worried about the same thing I was worried about every year -- just trying to be good. And I knew, especially in New York, there was no room for me to be developing; I had to be developed enough to pitch in winning baseball games. I had to pitch at a high level.

Between '95 and '96, the team went through a ton of changes with Torre coming in, Derek Jeter taking over at short, Mariano Rivera emerging as a force in the bullpen, and so on. What did you make of all those changes?

What I made of it, as a young player, was nothing. I had my head down, and I was worried about myself, just trying to grind. Of course, there were new people that you had to meet, but immediately we knew that we had brought in not only good players, but good team players, which was very important for us. We had a great mix of veteran and younger players that were very talented, and the young players who had talent were trying to learn how to win, so it was a great situation for me.

As one of the younger guys on the team, what were you trying to soak up from the veterans? Who was the guy that you were really looking up to and learning from?

Completely Jimmy Key. When I came up in the minor leagues, he was up in the big leagues, so he was absolutely the guy that I would look to. I would try to watch his starts. We would always have a TV playing the Big League club's games while our games were going on, and I would always sneak up in between innings and try to see if I could catch Jimmy pitching and try to see what he's doing to get guys out up there at that level. So to be able to get on that team with him, and for him to take me under his wing the way he did, was great.

You also had Joe leading you as the manager and Mel Stottlemyre as a pitching coach. How did those men help you that year?

Joe was just like another dad to all of us young players. From day one when he walked in, he said, "I know how hard this game is. I've hit .360, and I've hit .200." He had been there and done that, and he never put too much pressure on us or expected too, too much out of us. He was always positive and just patting us on the rear end whether we had a good game or a bad game. If you had a bad one, he'd say, "We'll get 'em next time." It was full support from him always, and that makes you feel really good as a player.

With Mel, he had pitched in New York, so it was wonderful for me to know that he had stood on the mound that I stood on. He had been in my shoes and knew exactly what I was doing, exactly what I was feeling. If I had a bad outing, or if I got booed off the mound at Yankee Stadium, or if I was blasted all over the back page of the newspaper, Mel had been through it all, and that made it a wonderful situation for me to have the ability to bounce stuff off of those guys.

Jim Leyritz was your personal catcher that year. How did you guys build on the relationship you had started in your rookie year?

We just got in sync together. Jimmy had a real good grasp of how I wanted to pitch a game, and we did things a little bit backward sometimes, a little bit more unorthodox. We used a lot more off-speed stuff, and we just got in a real good rhythm together. Jimmy did a great job of handling me that year, that's for sure.

Fast-forward to clinching a playoff berth; what is your feeling going into the postseason? You had pitched one game in the playoffs the year before, so you had a little bit of a taste of it. How confident were you going into that postseason?

I looked at it as, "I'm 24, and I've got all these other veteran players around me." These guys are the men, and I'm just kind of here; I wanted to try to help out and do my part. Come to find out, I had big things I needed to do in the playoffs, and Joe and Mel had an awful lot of confidence in me and thought that I could do it.

Joe ended up naming me Game 1 starter in the World Series. I had pitched the clincher in Baltimore, and normally that would mean I'd start Game 4 or Game 3 in the World Series. But we wrapped that ALCS up quick, and we had enough time where I could pitch on my fifth day again and start Game 1. Joe called me to the front of the plane when we were leaving Baltimore, and said, "Hey kid, do you want to start Game 1 of the World Series?" I was like, "Oh my goodness. Yeah, I'll start it." In my mind I was thinking he'd probably start one of these veteran guys, but shoot yeah, I'll start it.

So it was hard to believe?

It wasn't that I didn't feel I was prepared for that moment, it was just that I didn't think I would be the one who would have the chance to do that because of the veteran players on the team around us. I had a big year that year; I had won 21 games and was second in the league for Cy Young. But I still didn't look at myself as, "Oh, I'm the man. I'm the ace of this staff. I should be starting Game 1 of the playoffs." I just didn't see myself in that role yet, but the Yankees kind of put me in that role and I loved it.

Obviously Game 1 of the World Series did not go as well for you as you would've hoped.

I didn't do a great job of controlling my emotions in that game, and I put way too much pressure on myself. I took the mound thinking it was all on me, and I had to have a great outing, and I had to throw a shutout. My mind wasn't where it needed to be as far as just keeping it simple, just going out there and doing my job, keeping us in the game, just like I've always done, and giving our team a chance to win.

As things started unraveling early in the ballgame, I lost my focus even more and literally almost lost my mind from the standpoint of, I couldn't even tell you what pitches I was throwing. I was just throwing the ball with no focus or concentration, which is not like me at all, so that's how that first game went for me -- just a disaster.

How do you recover from something like that?

It was pretty easy to realize what had happened when the results turn out that terrible. A lot of it for me in Game 5 was trying to put things back in perspective and just realizing that I can only do what I can do. I can only throw the pitch, be prepared, and know what I want to do to the hitters. And after I release the ball, the results are the results. You just hope that they're good. For me, too, I just prayed super hard before Game 5 that God would allow me to just relax and control my emotions. And I believe that God helped me, gave me a great peace that night. I just trusted that whatever I do is going to be good enough because it's been good enough all year. Just give your team a chance to win, keep them in the game, and just battle.

In the end it worked out extremely well. Now you head back to Yankee Stadium with a Series lead for Game 6. What's that like?

You work so hard all year to have a chance to get to a World Series, and then to have a chance to win it, you just have a ton of confidence. I don't think there was any doubt in anyone's mind, and I know that it could have turned out terrible. We just knew that Jimmy [Key] was going to throw a good game, and I believe we just knew we were going to win that game. It had been so long since the Yankees had won a World Series, and there was so much excitement built up -- we just all had a great feeling about it.

You had front row seats to the action. What was it like on the bench during that Game 6?

There's nothing worse than sitting on the bench in a tight game or in a game like that. You want to be out there competing. So there's just knots in your stomach the whole game. Until you get that final out and you realize it's over and you got it done, that nervous energy builds up. That's how everybody was on the bench.

What's the first thing that goes through your mind in that moment when Charlie Hayes catches the final out?

Just thankful. Just thanked the Lord that I had the opportunity to be able to be part of that. A lifelong dream that you work for as a small child, you kind of think about it, as a young child you dream about it, and for it to happen, it's pretty doggone special, that's for sure.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.