Pettitte brings big leagues to baseball-loving Rochester
A Sunday afternoon in May at a minor league ballpark likely held no distinction for Andy Pettitte. Just a stop on the road to the big leagues, it couldn’t have been much different than any other whistlestop bandbox in any American mid-size city.
For the 13,854 packed into beautiful Frontier Field, in the High Falls neighborhood of downtown Rochester, Sunday was pretty special. In the 16-year history of the ballpark, that has seen concerts and competitions, major leaguers–both of the the rehabbing and demoted variety–and, for one summer, the visiting Baltimore Orioles, no single ballplayer has provoked such excitement.
For the crowd and the 240-game winner, the outcome was trivial. Pettitte threw his predetermined 90 pitches, which took him through five innings. The defense behind him was shaky, which is par for the course in the minor leagues, and some big league outs fell for hits, leading to three earned runs for the lefty’s likely final tuneup before he heads to the Bronx. But Pettitte was healthy, the sun was out, and the excitement radiating throughout the stadium was palpable.
Rochester knows its baseball. Once named Baseball City, USA, the Flower City reveres its local sandlot legends as much as its industrial ones. Mr. Baseball, former world champion manager Joe Altobelli, is a beloved and frequent presence at Frontier Field. The Ripken (yes, those Ripkens) family, with ties to the Rochester region since the 1970s, has a place in the city’s heart. And the Rochester Red Wings themselves are community-owned, with local shareholders owning pieces of the franchise to ensure that the organization never leaves the city.
So it was unsurprising when grandstand and suite tickets to Sunday’s game sold out within four hours of the ticket office opening, with lines snaking around the parking lot. And with good reason. The big lefty is embarking on his 17th season in major league baseball. He owns the record for most postseasons wins, has a career 3.88 ERA, notched three All Star Game berths, and made four Cy Young leaderboard appearances. Andy Pettitte is contemporary baseball royalty.
Fans clamored for tickets all weekend, with the Red Wings playing diligent host by providing updates on availability to the major news outlets, as well as social media. Rochester’s Democrat & Chronicle devoted the front page of its sports section to the lefty’s arrival. Though Pettitte would be pitching for the Empire State Yankees, this was the Red Wings’ coup–and the team didn’t disappoint.
Though capacity is still under 14,000, the atmosphere at Frontier on Sunday was big-league. Vendors circled the outdoor concourse, hawking programs and commemorative t-shirts as fans poured through the gates. Fans chattered with total strangers in the stands and along the field about Pettitte and baseball, sharing stories of games long past and musing on games yet to come. Though the garb held a decidedly Yankee flavor, other teams were represented throughout the crowd, joining like-minded fans in silent solidarity.
As game time neared, the crowd around the third-base dugout grew to four and five deep, phones and cameras trained on the clubhouse entrance. And when Pettitte emerged, clad in a warmup jacket and boasting his familiar stride, anticipation boiled over into exhilaration. Without self-consciousness, the city that hasn’t had a major league sports team since the 1950s welcomed the four-time champion like an old friend. There was no need for Pettitte to be lights-out, and no season on the brink. He was pitching, he was in pinstripes, and he was there.
Sunday afternoon was time frozen for the 13,854–a suspended moment when Frontier Field became the bigs. Pettitte wasn’t on a dutiful mission back to the Bronx, but putting on a show for the ballpark and the city. And when he completed his tour, and emerged briefly after the chants of “An-dy Pett-itte” swelled to unignorable levels, the lefty belonged to Rochester. If only for a few hours.