You could see the seeds of this story being planted back in the first weeks of spring training, and now, nearly two months later, Carl Pavano’s comeback is proceeding apace. In a nice bit of timing, his start on Monday -- which was genuinely good, but looked brilliant thanks to the Yankee rotation’s abysmal opening week -- fell immediately after Easter Sunday; I think you could probably find a workable metaphor in either the Resurrection or, if you prefer, the giant mythical bunny rabbit with candy.
The truth regarding Pavano’s last few seasons is elusive, and what’s more, it keeps changing. The better Pavano pitches now, the more he was a victim of bad luck; the higher his ERA this season, the more he was shamefully sitting around collecting a fat paycheck, unwilling to fight to return to the mound.
There’s nothing new about this: in sports, talent and achievement tend to morph into character. That's why Ted Williams is known as a beloved icon instead of a total dick, and Joe DiMaggio is regarded as a symbol of class and lost elegance instead of an emotionally troubled loner. I'm not saying there’s anything wrong with this – we enjoy watching great players perform, and what they’re like off the field isn’t necessarily important. We’re not looking to Carl Pavano for life lessons, we’re looking to him for quality starts. But in any case, it's probably not a good idea to make moral judgments based on WHIP.
We may never know exactly what happened with Pavano. Clearly he’s been legitimately injured, but equally clearly, his own teammates thought that he could be doing more to return; I don't know if they were right, but I can’t recall ever seeing the Yankees disparage a teammate the way they publicly and on the record called out Pavano over the last year, taping the tabloids’ “Crash Test Dummy” headlines to his locker and dismissively joking about his wrecked Porsche. The result was brutal press coverage like this Bergen Record column, which called Pavano a gutless, lying weasel, more or less in those words. At this point you almost have to hope he was avoiding the mound last season – because if he tried his hardest and was simply too hurt to pitch, he’s been treated awfully unfairly.
I definitely include myself there, by the way; I’ve made as many Pavano jokes as anyone. (So much of this could have been avoided if the Yankees had just called last spring’s injury a “strained lower back” or something, instead of “bruised buttocks.” It’s absolutely impossible to take someone seriously once they’ve missed weeks of work with bruised buttocks. I mean, it’s embarrassing even to type it). But I don’t know the whole truth, and I’ve got almost no feel for the guy’s personality. I didn't get to talk to him one on one during spring training; he held a conference in the dugout one day to talk about missing a start for his girlfriend’s medical emergency, and came off as a bit standoffish and prickly -- but then, if I were forced to talk to a large group of reporters, many of whom had openly questioned my intelligence and guts in the recent past, about something that personal, you can bet I’d be prickly too.
It’s true, however, that Pavano doesn’t come off very well in interviews. He doesn’t open up, he falls back on hollow-sounding clichés, and he can’t hide how much he wishes he were somewhere else. Michael Kay sat down with him in the dugout before opening day on YES, and, clearly trying to help him out, tossed him a softball:
Kay: What a great opportunity... everything that was kind of thrown your way over the last year or so - if you do okay on Opening Day, it's like everything else is forgiven. Do you look at it that way?
Pavano (practically rolling his eyes): No. I look at it as an opportunity to go out and help my team, put my team in the best place to win, and go from there. Whatever way everything else falls, let it fall as it may, I mean I don't have much control over that stuff. I mean it happened, as far as I'm concerned it's in the past, and I'm going to move forward.
Everyone loves a good redemption story (see: Giambi, Jason) and most Yankee fans seem ready to give the guy yet another chance, but if you’re looking for a warm, fuzzy, emotional storyline, it doesn’t look like Pavano is going to play along.
Andy Pettitte, however, is. The prodigal lefty, who followed Pavano's strong start Monday with an even stronger one last night, is spearheading the rehab of Pavano’s image, very publicly taking him under his much-loved, championship-ring-adorned wing. Howmanyarticles have you read over the last few weeks about their next-door lockers and blooming friendship? It’s been mentioned on ESPN or YES during every game either pitcher appeared in, with plenty of dugout shots of the pair deep in conversation. (I’m not actually so cynical as to suggest that this is the reason Pettitte reached out to Pavano, but, once he did, I think it’s safe to say that the Yankees wanted it to be public knowledge).
It’s working, too, at least on me. I can’t help it. Andy Pettitte – and, again, how fairly I’m not sure – symbolizes everything we loved about those late 90s dynasty teams. Andy Pettitte wouldn’t be friends with a gutless weasel! Andy Pettitte values hard work! And winning! And family values and stuff!
So yeah, what the hell, sign me up for the Carl Pavano comeback tour. I’m in. But while we should be able to evaluate his pitching pretty accurately as the season goes along, that doesn't make his character any easier to read.