ON ANY CRISP NIGHT HARD BY McCovey Cove, to watch the Giants and those who follow them is to be reminded of what Mencken said attracted him to San Francisco: "the subtle but unmistakable sense of escape from the United States." Or, as rocker Paul Kantner defined his home city: "49 square miles surrounded by reality."
This is an article from the July 22, 2013 issue
Giants baseball at AT&T Park is Comic-Con, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Mardi Gras and Halloween mashed into one. It is performance art not just on the field but also in the stands and the surrounding waters, where simply watching the doughty, dauntless Giants try to win their third title in four years is not an adequate enough experience. The audience participates in the show.
The home schedule is 81 party invitations, each one an opportunity to dress up (or down) to celebrate the diversity and personality that are as evident on the Giants' roster as on Market Street. Starting with Panda hats in 2010 to honor cuddly, corpulent third baseman Pablo (Kung Fu Panda) Sandoval, if not the red rally thong of first baseman Aubrey Huff, Giants fans joyfully have played upon the nicknames and characteristics of their colorful lads: the shoe-polish black beards of closers Brian Wilson and Sergio Romo, the (formerly) long locks of Tim (the Freak) Lincecum, the sobriquets of Brandon (Baby Giraffe) Belt and Angel (Crazy Horse) Pagan, the yin and yang of Zen-inspired Barry Zito and the Jack Torrance intensity of wild-eyed Hunter Pence. Not since The Usual Suspects has an ensemble cast of such quirky characters assembled to such critical praise.
For all the costumes, the hats, the watercraft and the characters, however, it is a humble, self-confessed homebody from Turkey Farm Road in Leesburg, Ga.—an idyll even further removed from the maddening San Francisco crowd than its Carson McCullers--like name implies—who is the Giants' best and most popular player. He's also the one most responsible for making this crazy quilt of a team more than just fun. Buster Posey makes it a winner, a worthy contender for a third trip to the World Series in four years, its miserable July be damned.
Gerald Dempsey Posey III may have a nickname (passed down from his dad), but nothing about it, his manner or his freshly scrubbed looks inspires the least bit of whimsy from the AT&T Park thespians, excepting the teenage girls who shout "Bust-a-pose!" when he comes to bat. Like, whatever. "The juxtaposition of Buster with those guys enhances him," Giants CEO Larry Baer says. "Buster is cut out of all-America land. What we find is the fans like all of them, but Buster is the glue."
So homespun stable is Posey that he graduated fourth in his high school class of 302 with a 3.938 GPA, aced AP calculus despite missing two weeks of his senior year to play for the USA Junior Olympic team in Taiwan, was named homecoming king, was a dean's list pre-med student in college, first asked out his future wife while taking the SAT and to this day prefers watching The Bachelorette at home with his wife over trolling San Francisco's many fine dining and drinking establishments. "I don't really get into the city much—just for the games," says Posey, who lives in the East Bay during the season, content with a neighborhood home and a backyard and grill. For the off-season, he has a home 20 minutes from Turkey Farm Road. "I think that's the way I like it, the way my wife likes it and hopefully my kids grow up liking it," he says.
The names of Frank Merriwell, Jack Armstrong and Chip Hilton mean nothing to a young sports fan today. The archetype of the clean-cut fictional athlete has disappeared, along with the attendant genre of American literature, radio and film that once flourished in the 20th century. So when Posey comes along, like something out of antiquity, the genuine earnestness of the guy becomes striking. It's as if we have entered such a Great Recession of humility that we are surprised when we encounter a hunk of it.
"Buster has the ability to understand what's truly important, and he's always had it," Zito says. "Gratitude is an amazingly valuable quality. The opposite is entitlement, and it can become very common with young players. But once you think this game owes you anything, it will kick your ass in two seconds. Buster has too much gratitude to think like that."
Posey, 26, has played in the four previous big league seasons, but in only one full one—last year. His first season of regular duty, 2010, didn't begin until he was summoned from the minors in late May, and the next one ended in late May because of a broken leg and torn ankle ligaments suffered in a gruesome collision at home plate. And yet he is the only player in history to win the Rookie of the Year Award, the Most Valuable Player Award and two World Series titles by the age of 25.
This year he is his usual dependable self, hitting .325 with 13 home runs and 56 RBIs for a Giants team that, thanks to uncharacteristically wobbly pitching, went into the All-Star break 6½ games back in the NL West race. Over the past four seasons, the Giants are a .561 team when Posey is in the starting lineup and a .510 team when he's not—the difference between 91 and 83 wins over 162 games. This year brings more proof that he is among the most indispensable players in baseball, which explains why in March, San Francisco signed him to a groundbreaking nine-year extension worth $167 million. It is the longest contract ever given a catcher and the most money ever given a player with three years or less of service time.
Though he is among the most decorated and enriched young players ever, Posey has managed to keep such a low profile that, as Baer observes, "If Buster was walking down Madison Avenue on a busy Saturday afternoon, my guess is that one or two people might—might—recognize him."
Posey is known as a darn good baseball player and exactly what teams wish for when they pick high in the draft (the Giants chose him fifth overall in 2008): the face of the franchise in a championship era. And that's about it. Posey is not a brand. He is not a renowned pitchman. He is not a personality. "I think you're on the right track," he says. "I like to keep things pretty simple. I can go to cities and go to restaurants or the movies and occasionally I'll get recognized—but not for the most part."
Is this relative anonymity, he is asked, a good thing?
He smiles. "Oh, yes," he says. "It is a good thing."
How could someone be this accomplished this young? And how could the same person be so underexposed? To find the answer to both questions you need follow just one trail: the three quarters of a mile of dirt road known as Turkey Farm Road.
LEESBURG, POPULATION 2,896 and the county seat of Lee County ("Life Works Well Here"), covers about five square miles and two stoplights in rural southwest Georgia. No one is certain whether its namesake is Richard Henry Lee, a Virginia statesman and signer of the Declaration of Independence, or Henry Lee III, the father of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. What matters now is that Leesburg is where Buster Posey grew up from the time he was 10 years old, in 1997.
You turn off Pinewood Road to get to Turkey Farm Road. It is a dirt track that meanders and bends, first around a water collection pond created by the dusty, white kaolin once scooped out of the earth, and then through a thicket of tall pines. After nearly a mile there is a clearing, a grassy pasture of almost four acres that would take young Buster and his two younger brothers two hours to cut with a 50-foot mowing deck.
There is an old red turkey barn, a vestige of what once gave the road its name, and at the far end of the clearing sits a four-bedroom farmhouse with hardwood floors and a metal roof. To the side of the clearing a creek winds through the property with the twists and turns of a long strand of spaghetti. For a boy growing up with his mother, Traci, a teacher, his father, Demp, who runs a food distribution business, and sister Sam and brothers Jack and Jess—the four siblings were born 6½ years apart—it was 56 acres of a private heaven on earth. "We grew up on a piece of land kind of by ourselves," Posey says. "We grew up playing together. We had friends over occasionally. I think all of us were content to spend Friday night or Saturday night at home with each other. It was really a fun place to grow up."
On the property the Posey kids hunted for turkey and deer, fished for bass and brim and tended the occasional horse or cow the family kept. Nothing, though, beat playing baseball in various forms in the pasture. Demp built a backstop, and the makeshift field hosted youth league practices as well as competitive Wiffleball and tennis baseball games between the Posey siblings. What they loved best of all was playing ball on the field after a good soaking of rain—the better to slide for what seemed forever over the grass and mud.
A local girl eventually joined in on some of the fun. One day, as a junior in high school, Posey was taking the SAT test. The students were arranged in their desks by alphabetical order, which is how Posey found himself sitting in front of Kristen Powell. He remembered the cute blonde from vacation Bible school; she didn't remember him. He asked her to the prom. She accepted. "We've been together ever since," she says.
Kristen and Buster would go for runs together on Turkey Farm road, ride four-wheelers and hunt deer on the property. They married in 2009. The processional song as they left the church for the first time as man and wife was "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," played on the trumpet by a minister from Buster's youth group at the church.
During Posey's youth, the success of the Braves turned Georgia into a baseball hotbed. High school and travel programs flourished. From 1999—four years after the Braves won the World Series—through 2004, 156 high school players from Georgia were drafted, including future big league stars Brandon Phillips, Adam Wainwright, Edwin Jackson, Jeff Francoeur, Jonathan Broxton, Brian McCann and Dexter Fowler. In 2005, Posey, a shortstop and a pitcher who threw 93 mph, was the next Georgia prospect of great renown. "One of our scouts, Chris McAlpin, told me, 'You need to see this guy,' " says Eddie Bane, the Angels' scouting director at the time. "He said, 'I don't know what [position] he is, but he can do everything.' I saw him, and he played short and hit a long home run, and the next game he pitched. And you could tell he had plenty of brain waves."
Word circulated, though, that Posey was firm on attending Florida State. The Angels decided to take a flier on Posey in the 50th round. "The reason we took him," Bane says, "was his incredible makeup. The leadership. The way he conducted himself. It's the same thing you see with the Giants. The leadership is not screaming and yelling. It just flows off him."
Says Posey, who stuck with his commitment to Florida State, "I would have signed if it was the right situation—first round. But I wouldn't have been ready. I don't see how kids do it. I really don't. You're a kid still. You're under your parents' roof and then—bam!—you're an adult. At least with college there's a transition period."
As a sophomore at Florida State, Posey moved to catcher to fill a team need. He had never played the position before. He spent the six months prior to the spring season squatting whenever he watched television, to prepare his body for the position. "I fell in love with it quick, even though I got beat up a little more than normal," Posey says. "It's hard to explain what I love about it. I think it's seeing the field. You're constantly involved in the game."
As a junior, Posey won the Golden Spikes Award as the college player of the year. John Barr, the special assistant to Giants general manager Brian Sabean, rated Posey as the best player available in the 2008 draft. He had known and liked Posey ever since he met him and his parents at a high school showcase in Florida; they happened to stay at the same hotel in neighboring rooms. There was one problem for the Giants: Four teams would pick before they did. The Rays took Tim Beckham, a high school shortstop from Georgia yet to reach the majors. The Pirates took Vanderbilt third baseman Pedro Alvarez. The Royals took high school first baseman Eric Hosmer. The Orioles took University of San Diego pitcher Brian Matusz. "What I liked about [Posey] was the way he plays the game," Barr says. "I don't want to say it comes easy, but he has such a calm demeanor. You knew he's the guy you want up there in key situations. Everybody involved with him knew that this was someone of solid character."
The Giants handed Posey $6.2 million, the largest up-front bonus in the history of the draft. Asked about what splurge purchase he made with such a windfall, Posey looks perplexed. He pauses for a moment and decides, "I, uh, I don't think there was one...."
Well, surely the $167 million extension must have inspired something lavish, no?
"Um, we did buy an apartment in Arizona, one we're outgrowing already," he says.
"Here's when I knew he was special," says Shawon Dunston, a special instructor for the Giants and the top pick in the 1982 draft. "His first spring training—and this is after he signs for six million dollars!—he shows up in the players' parking lot with a rental car. When I saw that I went, 'The Giants drafted the right guy.' Buster has an old soul. He's just different."
POSEY IS A CAREER .316 HITTER who hits as if he is fishing for brim in the creek on Turkey Farm Road. He is patient and quiet. Since the end of his sophomore year at Florida State he has waited for the pitch with his bat nearly flat, or almost parallel to the ground. "It's to remind me to be flat through the zone," he says. "It's a comfort thing. Most hitters who are successful have that long, flat path through the zone."
The flat swing path keeps the barrel of his bat through the zone longer than most hitters, which promotes consistent contact. Last season Posey and Aramis Ramirez of the Brewers were the only NL hitters to drive in 100 runs without striking out 100 times. Posey's strikeout rate is down further this year, to a career-low 11.2%. "His balance and his swing path are extraordinary," says Giants hitting coach Hensley Meulens. "But it's also because if the pitcher throws 96 on the black, he's just not going to swing at it because he knows there's nothing you can do with it. He's just really, really sure about himself."
Everything about Posey, from the way he hits to the way he conducts interviews, conveys a quiet, flat certitude. He can remember the exact moment when such equanimity began. "I was seven years old and pitching," he says, "and giving up a few hits and walks. I remember my dad coming out to the mound to tell me that no matter if you were pitching your best game or whether it was your worst, nobody should be able to tell the difference by looking at you. That stuck with me. The older I've gotten and the more I've played, I realize there is a time for emotion, but you have to pick and choose those times."
Last year, for instance, Posey broke out rare fist pumps to celebrate two of the biggest hits of the Giants' postseason: a grand slam in the Division Series clincher over the Reds and a two-run homer in the World Series clincher over the Tigers.
In 2010, Posey hit .305, won the Rookie of the Year Award and became the first rookie catcher to hit cleanup in a postseason game as the Giants won their first World Series since moving to San Francisco in 1958. Last year he hit .336 and became the first catcher to win the batting title, the MVP and the World Series in the same season. In between, Posey suffered a broken leg on May 25, 2011, when Scott Cousins of the Marlins barreled into him on a play at the plate. The Giants sank to 86 wins in that Posey-deprived season. After Posey was hurt, distraught fans flooded the Giants' offices with cards, flowers and offers to run errands or babysit for the Poseys—Kristen was six months pregnant with twins at the time of Buster's injury.
"The perfect metaphor was when he won the MVP last year," Baer says. "He was at the learning center where his mother teaches, for a $10-a-plate fund-raising dinner. The guy just won the MVP! The easiest way to think about what he means to us is to take him out [of the lineup]. You unplug him, as you saw in 2011, and we're just different."
After the MVP and the second world title, the endorsement offers poured in to Posey's agent, Jeff Berry. And Posey rejected just about all of them. He did shoot a commercial for a video game. He does endorse a nutritional drink, an athletic apparel company and Bay Area car dealers, but that's about it.
"I don't ever want to do something that will compromise my preparation for the team," Posey says. "And the more stuff you do, the more time you take away from your family."
Last year Posey did become the first major league player to release a self-branded mobile app, an Angry Birds--type flick game in which players try to hit home runs to win the currency of virtual sunflower seeds. The game is modeled on the arc of Posey's own life. Level 1, for instance, is "Summertime in Georgia," replete with a wooden sign pointing to Turkey Farm Rd., where your preteen Buster cartoon avatar starts out trying to belt Wiffle balls and tennis balls over the turkey barn. You can advance to high school ball, college ball and ultimately to the major leagues.
It turns out that Frank Merriwell, Jack Armstrong and Chip Hilton are not totally dead; their spirit lives on in a new platform, a mobile app, and in a new character, a cartoon boy named Buster.
One day last month, five hours before the Giants were to play in Oakland, Posey sat in the dugout of an empty O.co Coliseum and reflected on living the life he always wanted. The air was ripe with the sweet aroma of freshly cut grass, and sunlight glistened off the seat backs of the bowl as if off a roiled sea. In a gray T-shirt and black shorts, he had decided to run seven or eight sprints because, well, because he sensed his body was telling him seven or eight sprints sufficed today. What was it about baseball, he was asked, that brings him joy?
"That's a funny question, because I was just thinking today as I was driving here how fortunate I am that this is my job," he said. "I don't know if there's any one thing I can point to. It's everything. I enjoy being in the clubhouse with the guys. I enjoy batting practice before the games. I enjoy the atmosphere. I like all of it.
"There's a big difference between San Francisco and where I grew up, and yet in some ways as a baseball player it's similar because it's such a close-knit group."
Simplicity brings him contentment. In the mad fun house of AT&T Park, Posey has found some of the essence of what he cherished with his family through the Georgia pines and down a dirt road. He has all that he could want right there.
By the end of 2012, his age-25 season, Buster Posey already had two World Series rings, a batting title and Rookie of the Year and league MVP awards. Does that kind of early career résumé remind you of anyone? Here's how Posey stacks up against a certain Yankees captain through age 25.
Rookie of the Year, 2010
2 World Series rings
NL batting title, 2012
1 All-Star selection
Rookie of the Year, 1996
3 World Series rings
2 All-Star selections