• Sal Maiorana

Nervous for the home opener? Not young Andy Pettitte

NEW YORK (April 9, 1996) – Joe Torre’s plan was to have veteran Jimmy Key pitch the home opener at Yankee Stadium against Kansas City, but a week’s worth of miserable weather that had already forced three postponements had his rotation all twisted about.

Was this a concern to Torre, now that he would be sending out 23-year-old lefty Andy Pettitte against the Royals?

“I have no qualms about putting him out there in front of 50,000 people in the most famous ballpark in America,” said Torre on the off day before he would be taking the famous field as Yankee manager for the first time. “Andy has done so many good things already. He was our best pitcher in spring training, and he had a strong outing in his first start in Cleveland. It really comes down to, ‘What could be better for us?’”

Clearly, Pettitte’s 12-9 rookie season had impressed Torre from afar, even more so as he dug into the specifics while studying everyone on the ballclub he was inheriting from Buck Showalter.

And after watching Pettitte sail through the spring, then shut down the Indians in his first start a week earlier on a 35-degree day at Jacobs Field, holding the defending AL champs to one run and six hits in six-plus innings, Torre had every confidence Pettitte would succeed.

So did Pettitte.

“I’m excited,” Pettitte said beforehand of the assignment which would make him the youngest Yankee to start a home opener since 22-year-old Hippo Vaughn in 1910 when the team was known as the Hilltoppers and was playing its home games at Hilltop Park in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan. “I really didn’t realize it was that big a deal.”

And then he pitched the same way he felt – calm and cool, and man, was it cool. He allowed three runs on six hits and two walks while striking out six in 6 1/3 innings as the Yankees rolled to a 7-3 victory which got them back to .500 at 3-3 after they had been swept three straight in Texas.

Temperatures were in the low 30s, snow was in the air at various points, and Paul O’Neill remarked, “I’ve played in cold, but never in snow to the point where you couldn’t see the ball. I tried to keep moving and get my mind off it. It was definitely more fun on the bench than in the outfield. I like to look around and look at the fans. When I saw Santa Claus in the first row, I knew this would be a strange day.”

“The picture of the day was probably Mariano Rivera in the bullpen,” said reliever Steve Howe. “He had 12 layers of clothes on, a parka, mittens, and was probably still the coldest guy in the park.”

Pettitte shook it off and had the Royals off balance from the start.

“It wasn’t that bad as long as I was blowing on my hands,” said Pettitte. “I was even blowing on the ball, trying to get moisture on the ball. It was fine until the last few innings when I felt my fingers getting really cold.”

He gave up two singles in the fifth and would have escaped if Derek Jeter and Mariano Duncan had been able to turn an inning-ending double play. That run tied the game at 1-1, but New York went ahead for good 4-1 in the bottom of the fifth on O’Neill’s two-run single and an RBI single by Jim Leyritz.

In the seventh Pettitte allowed a single to Bob Hamelin and a one-out walk to Johnny Damon, so Torre summoned Bob Wickman who promptly gave up a walk and a two-run single to Joe Nunnally.

Howe left Rivera shivering in the bullpen to put out the fire, keeping the Yankees ahead 4-3, and New York then dropped the hammer with a three-run response in the bottom of the seventh, the big hit a two-run single by Duncan.

Asked about his nerves, Pettitte said, “It wasn’t bad at all. I even told my wife before we went to bed Monday night, I really don’t think it’s going to bother me. And it didn’t. I’m sure when I look back at the end of the season this will be special. But heck, I look at this as another start."

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