Yankees' Posada hangs it up after stellar but underappreciated career
The great modern Yankees teams played with such equanimity and honor that Oakland general manager Billy Beane once said it was as if they beat you wearing tuxedos. This aura of cold-blooded assurance came largely from the miens of Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, who seemed to come through at every postseason turn and be not the least bit surprised that they did. Their manager, Joe Torre, gave voice to such calm.
Underneath this famously placid exterior, however, raged a furnace of competitive spirit. Paul O'Neill, largely through the beatings he administered to helmets and water coolers, became a symbol for this kind of fire. Right there with him -- and perhaps even more so given his responsibilities of tending to the pitching staff -- was Jorge Posada. It was Posada as much as anyone who was the emotional leader of those Yankees.
Next season will be the first for the Yankees since 1994 without Posada, who, unwanted by New York, plans to walk away from the game after a brilliant AL Division Series last year rather than attempt to hang on with another club. Somehow, despite a borderline Hall of Fame career and four championship rings in pinstripes, Posada will retire as an underrated player.
Posada often jumped into the grill of teammates and he knew how to police the clubhouse and dugout. He would pump up Roger Clemens, who thrived on hearing how good his stuff was even when Posada knew it wasn't; he knew how to handle David Wells, and he would famously fight Orlando Hernandez over pitch selection. Teammates once had to separate them in the trainer's room just before a start. It was Posada who helped instigate that famous 2003 ALCS brawl with Boston, yelling at Pedro Martinez from the dugout after Martinez whizzed a pitch behind the head of Karim Garcia. Posada backed down from no one. He was ferocious when he was in the lineup, and miserable when he wasn't.
It was a fierce combination of hard-headed determination and baseball smarts -- more so than athletic tools -- that made for a prolific career, a career no one could see coming when the Yankees drafted him in the 24th round in 1990 as a second baseman. A year later they moved him to catcher, one of the most unlikely position switches known to baseball. Posada reached the big leagues with his good buddy Jeter in 1995, though with considerably less fanfare and expectations.
Back then, the two of them would commute from a hotel in New Jersey to Yankee Stadium in a Dodge Neon.
"It said 'Neon' on the steering wheel," Posada recalled. "And if you touched it, touched the 'O' just like this [barely], and it would hit the horn. 'Eh-eh.' Just like that. Just touch it. So Derek and I would be back and forth in the Neon. And [outfielder] Gerald Williams was there. But in '95 we were watching most of the games. We didn't have a chance to play."
It was like the Beatles back in Liverpool before things went crazy, this friendship that grew among Jeter, Posada, Rivera and Andy Pettitte, the Core Four, the most famous, longest-running quartet of teammates in pro sports.
Posada had no speed and no natural receiving skills behind the plate, but he worked diligently to become a linchpin on championship teams. He apprenticed under Joe Girardi and didn't start 100 games behind the plate until he was 28 years old. Beginning that season, 2000, and through his last season, Posada was the best offensive catcher in baseball for more than a decade, racking up more home runs, RBI and runs than any other catcher.
Because of that late start and the shadows created by the brilliance of teammates, Posada leaves a legacy that is rather underrated. Among all catchers since 1901, Posada ranks third in walks (936), seventh in doubles (379), sixth in OPS (. 848), eighth in OBP (. 374) and home runs (275), ninth in slugging (. 474) and 11th in RBI (1065). He was named to five All-Star teams and won five Silver Sluggers.
Posada's OPS+ is 121. Only seven other catchers retired with a better OPS+ with at least 5,000 at-bats: Mike Piazza, Mickey Cochrane, Bill Dickey, Johnny Bench, Ernie Lombardi, Gabby Hartnett and Yogi Berra. At the very least, Posada deserves strong Hall of Fame consideration.
Numbers, though, never defined Posada quite well enough. If somebody needed to play bad cop in the Yankees clubhouse, it would be Posada. It was how Posada played that defined him: with intense emotion. How do you put a number on a will to win?
Beane said he still remembers Jeter beating out a ground ball to shortstop in a blowout game in 1998, the year the Yankees won 114 games.
"Posada," Beane said, "was the same way. In their heyday, and even when they already had their championships and their money, they played hard all the time."
Posada just didn't look like one of those tuxedo kinds of Yankees. With his helmet a toxic cleanup site of festering pine tar, with the old school way he rubbed his bare hands in dirt before gripping a bat, and that heavy-legged gallop of a gait with a lousy ratio of effort to speed, Posada was as blue collar as a grease mechanic in coveralls.
It seems fitting that the two greatest signatures moments of Posada's career were overshadowed by other events. In Game 3 of the 2001 ALDS, with the back-to-back champion Yankees about to get swept by Oakland, Posada accounted for the only run of the game with a home run off Barry Zito. But the game is forever known for The Flip Play because of the deux ex machina heroics of Jeter, who nabbed Jeremy Giambi at the plate after fielding an errant outfield play. Posada, as Torre would point out, deserved credit for holding his position and not vacating the plate once he saw the outfield throw go astray.
Two years later, in ALCS Game 7, it was a two-strike bloop double by Posada that tied Martinez and the Red Sox in the bottom of the eighth inning. The lasting image is Posada, fists clenched, his body taut with emotion atop second base, yelling at full throat at having conquered his nemesis, Martinez, in such a clutch spot. Of course, that game is better remembered, depending on your rooting interests, as the Grady Little Game or the Aaron Boone Game.
One other gem in the scrapbook: Posada hit the first home run in the new Yankee Stadium, an honor made all the more distinguishable because the original building was christened with a home run by Babe Ruth.
It was a big, sprawling career for the former second baseman who made it to the big leagues with a Dodge Neon and underwhelming portfolio. He played past his 40th birthday, and was the Yankees' best hitter in his final postseason series, reminiscent of Don Mattingly going out in the 1995 ALDS with pride and resolve intact.
Greatness never was expected for Posada the way it was early on for Jeter, Rivera and Pettitte, but Posada made his own greatness. Even more importantly, he established a foundation to raise awareness and huge sums of money for craniosynostosis, a condition in which the infant skull begins to fuse prematurely. His son, Jorge Luis, 12, suffers from the condition and has endured multiple surgeries, including one as recently as last year. The Posadas hope it will be his last. And if that alone is his legacy -- that Posada had the will to make this world better for others, not just for his team -- then statistics and Hall of Fame voting are even more inadequate at defining him.