Andy Pettitte called it an unfinished career this past week, returning to the Yankees on a minor-league contract after missing one season in self-enforced retirement. While Pettitte didn’t perfect unretirement—that’s Brett Favre—he is the most recent player to retire and then think better of it after the fact. He is also far from the first to do so.

You don’t have to go back very far into the pages of baseball history to find other examples. Barely opening the book is enough. This very offseason, Manny Ramirez decided that, at age 40, if he could get that pesky 100-game PED suspension knocked down by 50 games, he’d take a minor-league deal from the going-nowhere A’s. Oakland GM Billy Beane said of the Ramirez deal, “There's little to no commitment. It would be foolish not to [sign him]." Manny has made over $200 million in his career, but he’s willing to endure a 50-game suspension and take a minor-league deal with a losing club to come out of retirement.

The most famous baseball example of unretirement is that of Roger Clemens. For Clemens, deciding whether to continue his career became an annual soap opera from 2003 through 2008. The first retirement came in 2003, but he didn’t make it through the offseason. In 2004, Clemens decided to pitch for the Houston Astros, a decision that helped influence a certain other pitcher to leave the Yankees for Houston that year. (That move might take more persuading in 2012.) In 2006, Clemens opted to throw only part of a season, and finally, after the 2006 season, he retired (again). But surprise! He changed his mind (again) in May of 2007, returning to the Yankees for a final partial season. Since then, age, ego, and PED accusations have robbed us of another episode of As The Roger Turns, though there is always hope that they’ll make a movie version.

Clemens wasn’t the only Hall of Fame quality pitcher to change his mind about calling it a career, though. In 1984, after 19 years in the big leagues, underwear model and Orioles great Jim Palmer retired from baseball. Six years later, in 1990, he was elected to the Hall of Fame. The next year, at the age of 45, Palmer tried to come out of retirement.

Getting rocked in a spring training game helped him realize that his retirement was no longer voluntary, but still, think about that. Six seasons after retirement, Palmer, a multi-Cy Young Award-winning Hall of Famer and World Series champion, still wanted to pitch. Giving up what you do, whether it involves science, business, writing jokes about baseball on the internet, or playing a sport professionally, becomes more difficult the longer you do it. Well, if you’re good at it, that is. If you’re not good at it, quitting comes easier. (Upon reflection, that previous sentence isn’t quite correct. I’ve played baseball in an adult league for years, and nobody would confuse me for someone with actual skill. But as of yet, that hasn’t stopped me.)

Wanting to play is understandable on numerous levels. What other career will these guys be able to get that will yield the same fame, glamour, money, prestige, and sense of self-worth as another year in baseball will? Making a perfect latte, getting that deal done, or finishing that article may be great, but it probably doesn’t get the adrenaline going like hitting a homer in front of 40,000 spectators.

It’s more than that, really. After he’s been doing it for decades, baseball becomes ingrained in how a player perceives himself. It’s how he identifies himself to the world. Turning that off like a faucet has to be difficult. There’s a reason so many athletes cry when they announce their retirement: they are shutting a door they’ve worked all their lives to keep ajar. Unless that door is shut for them, i.e. permanently, the opportunity to come back will sit smoldering like an ember in the back of an ex-player’s mind, waiting for just the right breeze to blow and ignite it. In Pettitte’s case, that breeze blew.

At the start of spring training, both Jason Varitek and Tim Wakefield retired. Though the opportunity to play a minor role for a different team existed, after spending 15 and 17 years respectively with Boston, both decided it was the Red Sox or retirement. As there was no spot available on Boston’s roster, they both chose retirement. It’s an admirable thought, as these things go, but I wouldn’t be surprised if either or both were back in uniform before the season ends.

The reason Pettitte returned to the Yankees is clear, if you think about it for half a second: he hates his family. I’m kidding, of course—it’s because he loves baseball. Even more than that though, Andy Pettitte is baseball. Or maybe more accurately, baseball is Andy Pettitte.

Pettitte has been playing baseball since he was—and I’m only guessing here—in utero. No matter how wonderful your family is, giving up your longtime occupation can’t be easy, especially if you aren’t forced to do it. I haven’t spoken to him (thanks, stupid court order!), but I’m guessing Pettitte thinks of himself as a baseball player before anything else. That isn’t a slight toward his family, his faith, or anything else, but when you spend the vast majority of your waking hours working on one aspect of your life for the majority of your four decades, conceiving of yourself in another way is probably next to impossible.

Unlike Palmer was when he tried to return, Pettitte is probably still very good at baseball. In 2010, Pettitte’s last season, he posted a 132 ERA+, the fourth best of his 17-year career. He did it the way he always has: by inducing weak contact, keeping the ball in the yard, and controlling the running game with his balk pick-off move.

Since Pettitte’s return, there has been the predictable hand wringing about what changing his mind will do to his legacy. A player’s legacy seems to me to be the province of sports writers, not sports players. Not that athletes aren’t interested in how they are perceived or how they will be perceived after their careers are over, but some of this dissection smacks of searching for a story. When you don’t have anything to say beyond “that’s great, congratulations,” you sometimes have to concoct a slightly longer storyline. In fairness, “that’s great, congratulations” is only three words, and most editors wouldn’t count that as a weekly column. I speak from experience, as my column “All done now” was rejected just last week.

Players retire for many reasons. Injury. Age. Skill depreciation. A combination of all the above. But Andy Pettitte didn’t have any of those problems. He isn’t young, but he undoubtedly has more baseball left in his body. From a fan’s perspective, his return is a happy occurrence. When good players leave the game, they leave it lessened, if only by a bit. Pettitte’s return lets us watch one of the better pitchers of the last few decades a few more times before his departure is dictated to him. Selfishly, I’m in no rush for that moment to come. Pettitte isn’t, either.

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"You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time" -- Jim Bouton, the last line of "Ball Four."

There was a marvelous Frank Deford piece on All Things Considered back several years ago about old athletes and why it is so difficult to quit. His thesis was that athletic skill doesn't just "go away." Rather, elite athletes retain the ability to play at an elite level--but that as they age those elite levels events become more and more rare. But, still, they exist and the athlete thinks "I still have it, I can still do it, see I JUST DID."
That's interesting. I'm sure there are spikes in ability depending on the day. That thesis sounds quite possible.
Not that I'm suggesting it applies in Pettitte's case. But, the, ummm, 'women' draw voluntarily-retired players back into the carnival.
For a musical take on this subject, see Rush's "Losing It" from the Signals album: "Harder still to watch it die than never to have known it."