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The Posada Adventure How Jorge Posada went from a too slow infielder to a starring role behind the plate for the Yankees

May 07, 2001
May 07, 2001

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May 7, 2001

The Posada Adventure How Jorge Posada went from a too slow infielder to a starring role behind the plate for the Yankees

Hours after a game, the night long since dark and deep, New York
Yankees catcher Jorge Posada still sees pitches hurtling toward
his mitt, most of them flirting with either danger or a corner.
"That one was a strike!" he snaps as he runs the replay machine
in his mind. Catchers are the stationmasters of a baseball game.
They can send the game down different tracks simply by calling a
particular pitch. Action in a game begins with the catcher's
signal, a responsibility Posada doesn't easily shed. "Ahh!
Should've called the fastball!" he barks.

This is an article from the May 7, 2001 issue Original Layout

The outbursts continue with surprising frequency throughout the
night. Still, there is something even more remarkable about this
scene. Posada is asleep. "It goes on all night. All night!" says
his wife, Laura, whose own rest is repeatedly interrupted by
Jorge's self-criticism. "It's worse when the Yankees lose."

Adds Posada, "If I get up at four o'clock in the morning to go to
the bathroom, that's what I'm thinking about--catching. Sometimes
I'll take a nap in the afternoon. I swear, I'm more rested after
napping for an hour, hour and a half, than I am after a full
night of sleep. I can't let go of the game easily. I take it
home."

The Yankees have an unmatched set of Ming vases in their starting
rotation--Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Mike Mussina and Orlando
Hernandez have a combined .641 career winning percentage
(555-311), through Sunday, and $40 million annual income. Posada,
29, is the conscientious curator, cajoling, encouraging,
counseling and, all right, outright provoking his pitchers in his
waking and sleeping moments alike.

As if his stewardship weren't enough, Posada also is a keen-eyed,
switch-hitting operative at bat. In 2000 he led major league
catchers in on-base percentage (.417) while hitting more home
runs in a season (26 at the position, 28 overall) than any
Yankees catcher except Yogi Berra and being named an All-Star in
his first year as New York's every-day receiver. This year he was
off to a .289 start, with six home runs and 18 runs batted in at
week's end. "All of this is a major surprise," says his father,
also named Jorge, a scout for the Colorado Rockies. "A major
surprise."

As a 24th-round draft pick in 1990 Posada was such an uncertain
prospect that he signed with the Yankees only after his father
had extracted a promise from New York not to cut him in his first
three seasons in the farm system. Posada was a second baseman
during his first minor league season, and his successful
conversion from that position to catcher is thought by many
baseball people to be unprecedented in recent memory. As if to
heighten the difficulty of his journey, Posada survived a hideous
home plate collision in 1994 in which he broke his left leg and
dislocated his left ankle while playing for the Triple A Columbus
Clippers. He also survived a three-year apprenticeship, from '97
through '99, behind Yankees catcher Joe Girardi and a humiliating
defensive slump in '99 that prompted owner George Steinbrenner to
order him to get his eyes checked. His vision was fine.

Nothing, though, tested Posada as harshly as the events of last
Aug. 2, when he sat in his and Laura's apartment on Manhattan's
East Side, having been secretly excused by manager Joe Torre from
a game that day, while his eight-month-old son, Jorge Jr., lay on
an operating table at a nearby hospital for eight hours. To
correct a congenital condition known as craniosynostosis, in
which the plates of the skull prematurely knit and cause the
growing head to become misshapen, surgeons had to cut open Jorge
Jr.'s head from ear to ear. While hospital officials gave the
Posadas hourly updates by telephone, surgeons removed Jorge Jr.'s
skull piece by piece and placed the parts on a table like a
jigsaw puzzle. After breaking some cranial pieces apart to allow
for normal brain and head growth, they rebuilt the skull and
sewed up Jorge Jr.

As his parents stood over his bed two days later, little Jorge
opened his eyes for the first time since the operation and a day
earlier than doctors thought he would be coherent. He let out a
little grunt. He would be fine. His father, having staggered
through a 1-for-15 slump before and immediately after the
surgery, broke free with four hits that night and two home runs
the next afternoon. "I grew up real fast last year," he says.
"Baseball always was everything to me. Don't get me wrong, it's
still very important. But now I look at it in a different way.
You gain perspective."

Born in Santurce, Puerto Rico, Posada played shortstop in high
school, where he also dabbled in basketball, track, volleyball
and, on one occasion, umpiring girls' softball. ("I thought the
pitcher was cute," he says.) The Yankees drafted him out of high
school, but his father wanted him to go Stateside to improve his
skills and get an education before he turned pro. Jorge's hopes
of attending a four-year school ended when he failed to score
high enough on the SAT. Fred Frickie, the baseball coach at
Calhoun Community College in Decatur, Ala., offered him a
scholarship, sight unseen, on the advice of other coaches.
Posada, who knew nothing about the school, accepted. "After my
first night there I said to myself, What the hell am I doing
here?" he says. "I called home and cried. My mother cried, but
she told me I had to be strong. That first year I got into fights
every week. There was some racism. I didn't speak much English,
and guys made fun of me, this Puerto Rican drafted by the
Yankees. I didn't like what they were saying, so I'd fight."

Leon Wurth, the scout who would eventually sign Posada, first saw
him play in a 1990 game at Volunteer State, a junior college in
Gallatin, Tenn. He liked his bat and his arm. "I didn't think he
projected to be a major league shortstop, but I saw the tools and
thought he could find a place," Wurth says. "One thing I saw in
him was his energy and his enthusiasm on the field. I marked down
Jorge as having a good attitude, and I thought that would serve
him well. Looking back I realize I was wrong. His attitude is
great. He's overcome a lot of things to be an All-Star
catcher--switching from the infield, breaking his leg--and you
don't do that without hard work."

The Yankees drafted Posada again in the summer of 1990, but he
decided to play another season at Calhoun. After his sophomore
season he was with a summer league team in Alabama when Wurth
asked him to catch one game. "He didn't flinch back there," Wurth
says. One week before Posada would have gone back into the draft,
the Yankees assured his father that they would not cut young
Jorge in the next three years, and he signed for about $30,000.

Posada hit .235 at Class A Oneonta in 1991 and led New York-Penn
League second basemen in double plays. It was after that season,
in the Fall Instructional League, that the Yankees moved him to
catcher, mostly because he lacked a middle infielder's speed. "If
I hadn't been switched, I'd probably be working some job in
Puerto Rico right now," Posada says. "I'd have been one of those
guys who was out of baseball after two or three years."

Posada needed seasoning--he turned 26 in his first full year in
the big leagues, 1997, and even then appeared in only 60
games--but other organizations noticed his skills. The Seattle
Mariners asked for Posada in a trade as far back as '95, in the
five-player deal in which New York obtained first baseman Tino
Martinez. The Montreal Expos twice tried to get him in '97 while
shopping Mike Lansing and Pedro Martinez. The Texas Rangers asked
for him in 1998 while exploring the possibility of trading Ivan
Rodriguez. The Florida Marlins asked for Posada twice that year
while attempting to deal first Mike Piazza and later Luis
Castillo. The Yankees refused to trade him.

"He's a high on-base percentage guy [his combined career on-base
and slugging percentages, .839, exceeds Ivan Rodriguez's .822],
and I always liked having lefthanded bats in Yankee Stadium,"
says Yankees scout Gene Michael. "I thought he could have been
the regular catcher earlier, but the pitchers expressed a desire
to pitch to Joe Girardi. They just didn't know Jorge."

Then, in something of a graduation ceremony, Torre started
Posada, not Girardi, with Clemens pitching in the clinching game
of the 1999 World Series, a 4-1 victory over the Atlanta Braves
in which Clemens threw 7 2/3 innings of one-run ball. "We had no
doubts Jorge was ready," general manager Brian Cashman says.

Posada's expert caretaking of the Yankees' pitchers is all the
more remarkable, given that he began in pro ball as an infielder.
"I've talked about it with other scouts, and nobody can come up
with another catcher who started out as a middle infielder,"
Wurth says.

Says Clemens, "Whether I call 80 percent of the game or he calls
80 percent, we work real well together. Some games I don't have
good life on my fastball, and I want him to tell me that. Some
guys will say it's good when it's not. But Jorge will say, 'It's
going to be a scuffle today. Stay with me.'"

With Pettitte, Posada must be a conciliator. "His problem is he's
a perfectionist," Posada says of Pettitte, who will scold himself
aloud on the mound for poor pitches--the cue for Posada to visit
the mound to deliver a reassuring message.

Mussina, the new Yankee, is a bit of a mystery to Posada. "Mike
doesn't say much," he says, "so I'm still trying to read him. But
he's easy to catch because he can throw any pitch in any count
for a strike."

Posada's relationship with Hernandez is easily the most
flammable. They regularly argue in the dugout and on the mound.
"It's like we're going to fight sometimes," Posada says.

In a typical exchange between the duo, Posada once put down one
finger for a fastball. Hernandez shook him off. Posada put down
two fingers for a curveball. Hernandez shook him off. Posada put
down three fingers for a slider. Hernandez shook him off. Posada
put down four fingers for a changeup. Hernandez shook him off.
Out of pitches and patience, Posada stormed out to the mound.
"What the hell do you want to throw?" he remembers having asked
Hernandez in Spanish.

"Fastball," Hernandez replied.

"That's what I called for first!" Posada said.

"I know," Hernandez said. "I just wanted to make the batter
think."

"What do you want to be, a psychologist or a pitcher? Just throw
the ball!" Posada yelled and then wheeled around and headed back
to the plate.

"I like it when we go at it," Hernandez said last week. "In
fact, I was saying to him five minutes ago that we haven't been
fighting enough lately. We need to start yelling at each other
again."

Laura, Jorge and Jorge Jr. arrive at a Manhattan restaurant for
lunch, Jorge toting the diaper bag. Jorge saw Laura at a party in
Puerto Rico after the 1997 season and told a friend, "If I ever
get to go out with her, this is the girl I'm going to marry."
Soon they did go out, and a thought struck Jorge: This girl looks
familiar. The softball pitcher!

"Eight years [after high school], and he knew my uniform number,
the color of our uniform, how I wore my socks and my hair,
everything," Laura says.

Laura, a law student at the time, decided she wasn't interested
in dating someone who was about to leave for a nine-month
baseball season. Right about then, in January 1998, Jorge kissed
her for the first time. "I'll see you tomorrow," she said,
swooning. They were married three years later.

Jorge Jr. has a checkup scheduled for August, one year after his
surgery. Doctors will determine then if he should undergo
another, similar operation. "In the mirror," Jorge says, "you
can still see his head is a little uneven. I want him to be
exactly right." Last fall Posada established his own charitable
foundation, which devotes most of its resources to
craniosynostosis. "Sometimes I can't believe how everything has
worked out for me," he says.

His world can't be perfect. It is, after all, a catcher's world.
There are too many pitches that go awry, too many wrong signals.
Just the previous night Seattle's Edgar Martinez had beaten
Mussina and the Yankees with a tiebreaking, two-run double in the
seventh inning. "A changeup," Posada says. "He hadn't seen that
pitch the entire game. The whole game! We throw him one, and he's
all over it."

Posada shakes his head. He has a look on his face that makes you
certain he had been talking about that pitch all night.

COLOR PHOTO: WALTER IOOSS JR. [T of C] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY WALTER IOOSS JR.COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO GOOD FIELD, GOOD HIT Posada is esteemed both for his slugging at the plate and his steady performance behind it.COLOR PHOTO: RON FREHM/AP [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY WALTER IOOSS JR. THAT'S MY BABY With Little Jorge recovered from skull surgery, Papa Jorge says, "Sometimes I can't believe how everything has worked out for me."

Hard Acts to Follow

If Jorge Posada continues to put up numbers like those he
amassed in his first four full seasons, he'll earn the right to
be mentioned in the same breath as his illustrious predecessors
behind the plate for the Yankees, whose statistics for their
first four full seasons also are shown below. --David Sabino

FIRST FOUR
FULL AT HOME
PLAYER SEASONS GAMES BATS AVERAGE RUNS RBIS

Bill Dickey 1929-32 477 1,713 .325 36 292
Yogi Berra 1947-50 475 1,774 .300 73 367
Elston Howard 1955-58 408 1,301 .281 34 187
Thurman Munson 1970-73 544 1,934 .284 43 215
Jorge Posada 1997-2000 434 1,430 .266 63 231

SLUGGING WORLD SERIES
[PLAYER] PERCENTAGE CHAMPIONSHIP

[Bill Dickey] .473 1
[Yogi Berra] .497 3
[Elston Howard] .425 2
[Thurmon Munson] .410 0
[Jorge Posada] .465 3

Posada says that if he hadn't been moved to catcher, "I'd have
been one of those guys who was out of baseball after two or three
years."