TAMPA, Fla. -- Just prior to Javier Vazquez's first season in Montreal, the Expos traded their defending National League Cy Young Award winner, Pedro Martinez, to the Red Sox, robbing their rookie right-hander of the chance to rub elbows with a budding star.

Six years later, Vazquez -- by then an established Major League starter -- moved to New York for the first time. But his new team, the Yankees, decided not to re-sign free-agent lefty Andy Pettitte. And so Vazquez was again unable to pitch alongside one of his idols.

The following season, the Yankees shipped Vazquez off to Arizona, as part of a deal for Randy Johnson. The five-time Cy Young Award winner was gone before Vazquez stepped foot in the desert.

So it has gone for Vazquez throughout the first dozen years of his career, pitching on good teams and alongside good pitchers, but never hooking on with something great, something special.

Until now, he hopes.

In one corner of the home clubhouse at George M. Steinbrenner Field, Vazquez's locker stands between those of CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett -- a perennial Cy Young contender on one side, one of the game's more dynamic starters on the other.

But what most piques Vazquez's interest is the locker a bit further to his left, the one belonging to Pettitte, a five-time World Series champion.

"I've always looked up to Andy from afar," Vazquez said.

An idol, finally, within arm's reach.

Had this not been Vazquez's first day in the new digs, of course, he might have noticed that quite a few of his new teammates were the ones looking up to him. Upon noticing Vazquez off to one side of his locker, Phil Hughes stood up to introduce himself. Sabathia and Burnett made a point to say hello. Joe Girardi spoke at length of what Vazquez can provide.

"Right now, he's at the peak of his career," catcher Jorge Posada said. "We got a guy that takes a lot of pride in how he pitches. He's been throwing 200 innings for a long time."

In any other camp down the Gulf Coast of Florida, across Alligator Alley to the Atlantic or out in Arizona, the presence of Vazquez in Spring Training camp would be met by much fanfare. He was, after all, one of the NL's best pitchers last season, winning 15 games, posting a 2.87 ERA and striking out 238 batters against 44 walks in 219 1/3 innings for the Braves.

Here at Yankees camp, however, Vazquez is a mere subhead. The Bombers are the defending World Series champs, position battles are brewing for the fifth-starter role and the center-field job, and Vazquez may not even be the club's most popular acquisition -- that title may wind up going to Curtis Granderson, who has been working out at the Yankees' Minor League complex in preparation for full-squad workouts next week.

Vazquez, much like Sabathia and Burnett last year, slipped into Tampa all but unnoticed. Some of that is due to the fact that the Yankees won the World Series last year -- defending a title will always be big news. But much of it is because of what happened six years ago, when Vazquez flew down to Tampa, joining the Yankees under the weight of enormous expectations.

That year, after a sharp start, Vazquez crumbled in the second half, mustering a 6.92 ERA after the All-Star break and serving up a backbreaking grand slam to Johnny Damon in Game 7 of the 2004 American League Championship Series.

After that game, then-Yankees manager Joe Torre asked Vazquez to assess his season. Vazquez said he wished it had ended better. But Torre insisted that the key -- the important thing -- was that he grew as a pitcher.

"And that's what I did," Vazquez said. "You've got to take it as a learning experience."

Now, the Yankees are asking Vazquez not to be an ace, not to be a leader, but to be merely what he has been the past three years in Atlanta and Chicago: a very good pitcher. Whether he slots in behind Sabathia, Burnett or Pettitte hardly matters. Whether he earns accolades or posts gaudy strikeout totals is unimportant.

What matters is winning, at any cost.

"It's just the aura of playing with the Yankees, man," Vazquez said. "It's the most important franchise in baseball, maybe in the world. To get to play for a team like that, it's a great feeling."