Glory Days

Jorge Posada, The Most Prideful Yankee

There is a certain morality to being a New York Yankee. It extends deeper than the clean-shaven, well-dressed, eloquent-tongued facade we see in public; deeper even than the ubiquitous spectre of history guiding all that we see. To be a true Yankee takes more than these surface attributes. It requires a deep respect for the difficult game of baseball; a fiery pride in ones identity, ones city, ones craft. A natural, innate desire to win.

History is littered with men, such as the fine Derek Jeter, who’ve personified the traditional Yankee idea, but few have embodied with greater honour those sacrosanct Yankee ideals as Jorge Posada, the tough-as-nails, switch-hitting catcher who bestrode the Bronx for nearly two decades, demanding and delivering persistent success. Number 20 was different. He was the quintessential Yankee.

I most remember his aura. He seemed to be operating on a different, higher plane to everybody else, accorded the courtesy and respect of an all-time great. At 6-foot-2, Jorge was far from small, but his baseball intelligence, his thrilling sagacious knowingness, helped him appear larger than life. When watching Posada, one always felt that he understood baseball better than anybody; that he was somehow immune to its notorious ability to make people fail. A wise man, he nonetheless appreciated that baseball can be the most difficult of games and, accordingly, set about playing it with maximum effort, ultimate pride and a relentless intensity.

I fondly recall Posada’s compact, studious swing, which made baseballs spring and leap through the air; his indomitable defence, preventing runs and saving games; his subtle striking of equipoise between calling an objective game and handling a pitching staff with the dexterity of an accomplished leader. Jorge had it all, and he was a pleasure to watch.

A converted second baseman, the potent Puerto Rican became an exceptional catcher, the like of which we’re unlikely to see again. Posada made five All-Star teams, earned five Silver Slugger Awards as the best offensive player at this position, and, just like the archetypal Yankee, won four World Series championships. A lifetime .273 hitter, Jorge also clubbed 275 home runs, drove in 1,065 runs and smacked 379 doubles during his illustrious, 17-year career, spent entirely in Pinstripes.

Only five catchers in baseball history have managed at least 1,500 hits, 350 doubles, 275 homers and 1,000 RBI: Johnny Bench, Gary Carter, Carlton Fisk, Ivan Rodriguez and Jorge Posada.

An integral part of the Core Four of homegrown superstars who carried New York to a modern dynasty, Posada hit 20 or more home runs eight times, cracked 20 or more doubles eleven times, and, in 2007, hit .338/.426/.543 at the age of 35. In a historical sense, he belongs to the hallowed lineage of Yankee catchers, which extends from Bill Dickey, through Elston Howard and Yogi Berra, and onto Thurman Munson. However, along with the aforementioned Rodriguez, Mike Piazza and Jason Varitek, Jorge also redefined what it meant to be a catcher in the contemporary age; these play-calling, standard-bearing, offensive juggernauts representing a departure from tradition and writing their own compendium to a special epoch in the games history.

There are those who called Posada a “hot head” during his pomp; those who misinterpreted his intensity as typical Yankee arrogance. However, these views are wide of the mark. Admittedly, Jorge had his fair share of tussles and bouts of verbal sparring, more often than not with Pedro Martinez, but it’s important to ask why? A majority of Posada’s more animated moments were derived of a unique willingness to uphold the sanctity of baseball, and a thorough craving to win games. To criticise his approach, his fiery and competitive emotion, is to excoriate the very make-up that made him so great, so classy, so enjoyable to watch. Jorge Posada played with a volcano in his belly, and I really like that.

So did Yankee scout Leon Wurth, who discovered Posada as a raw teenager toiling on the Calhoun Community College team in 1990. The Puerto Rican son of a Cuban father and Dominican mother, Jorge overcame a lot just to earn that shot in Decatur, Alabama. His SAT scores were too low to enrol in any four-year college programme. He encountered racial prejudice from classmates at the one school that gave him a chance. He didn’t quite fit in. Yet, on the ball field, the bat was brilliant, the arm amazing, the mentality marvellous. Even then, Posada played hard, with emotion spewing out of every pore. Wurth though him a potential Yankee, and convinced beleaguered general manager Pete Peterson to select Posada in the 24th round of the 1990 MLB Draft. In retrospect, the $30,000 signing bonus the Yankees granted Jorge amounted to a shrewd down payment on a future empire.

If Jeter was the signatory flag atop the modern Yankee fortress, Mariano Rivera was the protective moat and impenetrable wall. If Bernie Williams was the decorative interior adding layer-upon-layer of sweet niceties, Andy Pettite was the draw bridge making dreams accessible. Jorge Posada? He was the bedrock, the fire providing warmth and solace, the cement between the bricks.

It takes time for cement to set. Accordingly, Posada didn’t so much rifle through the Yankee depth chart as slowly crawl along, tip-toeing into contention, learning from the best, and, ultimately, ascending to ultimate power. In 1995, he caught one regular season game and pinch-hit in the American League Division Series. In ’96, he saw action in eight September games and was a non-roster bystander as New York powered past the Braves for World Championship number twenty-three. In ’97, Posada succeeded Jim Leyritz as the backup to Joe Girardi, a fitting Yankee himself.

Posada learnt a lot from Girardi, who mentored him not only in the finer technicalities of big league catching, but also in the more sequestered minutiae of leading the most storied sports franchise in the world’s pre-eminent city. The duo shared playing time over the subsequent three years, with Posada, already distinguished as a magnificent receiver and improving all the while at the plate, gradually eating into Girardi’s status as lead backstop. In 1998, Jorge hit .268 with 17 home runs, 23 doubles and 63 RBI as the Yankees won another ring. That year, he caught most of the major games, including David Wells’ perfect game and the clinching World Series contest.

Posada saw more playing time in ’99 as the Bombers successfully defended their crown. When Girardi departed via free agency immediately after the season, Jorge assumed sole possession of the mantle. Rather than wilting in the spotlight or buckling under the pressure, he came out fighting like the true warrior within. The 2000 season, his first as an everyday player, was an undeniable success; Posada belting 28 dingers, driving 35 doubles, driving in 86 runs and slashing .287/.417/.527 in 151 games.

That year’s World Series was arguably the most absorbing of all-time. Of course, the Yankees took part, satisfying their natural birthright. The crosstown Mets stood in opposition. A Subway Series. The 96th Fall Classic. A titanic duel between Pettitte and Leiter, Clemens and Hampton, Posada and Piazza. A joust for the heart of a city, the acknowledgement of a nation. A fight to consolidate records, affirm reputations, and capture favour in the future race to evaluate epochs.

The Yankees won in five, hoisting a third straight title and a fourth title in five seasons. Posada was on the field to celebrate the final out, consumed in a maelstrom of joyous Yankees. With his third ring in four full big league seasons, he etched his name into the record books. He still had eleven years of productive baseball left ahead of him.

During those years, Posada confirmed his credentials as a certifiable star. Each year, he hit more and with more power. Each year, he became increasingly polished with the glove. Each year, he inched forward in the Yankee hierarchy until, by the late 2000s, he was, alongside Jeter, the commander in chief. Posada set the tone and moderated the behaviour of rosters packed with big names and still bigger egos. On teams including Jason Giambi, Alex Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield and many other magnets of controversy and attention, Jorge stood forth, with immense self-confidence and determination. As he saw it, nobody was larger than the ballclub. Nobody.

Posada always demanded the very best of everything, from himself and from others. The best attitude. The best approach. The best comportment. Similarly, he yearned for continual improvement. Hence five straight years of improved RBI totals, from 57 in 1999 to 101 in 2003, a year in which he finished third in American League MVP voting, behind only A-Rod and Carlos Delgado. Hence a twelve-year stretch between 2000-2011 whereby Jorge Posada compiled more RBI and home runs than any other catcher in the game. Hence a remarkable 2007 campaign when, aged 35, he became the only catcher in history to hit at least .330 with at least 40 doubles, 20 homers and 90 RBI.

Hence a phenomenal career likely to reverberate through the annals of Cooperstown before long.

Posada belongs to a pantheon of all-time great catchers. He hit more homers than Campanella; scored more runs than Hartnett; and got on base more than Berra. In every way, he belongs to that legendary realm. Yet, it’s his standing in Yankee lore than makes Jorge truly immortal. In most every statistical category for Yankee catchers, he ranks in the top five and, when the other four guys are Yogi, Bill, Thurman and Elston…well, that speaks for itself.

Thus, when, in 2009, the Yankees moved across 161st Street into their new, $1.5bn monument of a ballpark, Posada served as an invaluable conduit, a funnel through which all the accumulated tradition and heritage trickled from the old to the new. With heart, passion and sterling Yankee rectitude, he helped gather all the memories, package all the boxes, load all the feeling and transplant it a couple hundred yards across the road. For a fawning fanbase misty-eyed at the loss of their fabled citadel, Jorge Posada was a saviour. At the new Stadium, the padded seats and additional leg room would take some getting used. Fans cherished old Yankee Stadium as a tattered family heirloom, and the newer model at first seemed somewhat clinical and corporate. But, in Posada and Jeter and Rivera and Pettitte, the denizens of New York had a group of familiar sons in whom to believe and on whom to rest.

Jorge got right to work replanting the seed of Yankee Mystique, launching the first regular season home run in the new ballpark. All summer long, he played with a fervour, as if determined to illustrate for a new generation, with names like Teixeira, Cano and Gardner, exactly how to be a New York Yankee.

In the waning days of George M Steinbrenner III, the ballclub to which he gave so much, and for which he built a stadium right at the cutting edge of modern architecture, delivered one of its most accomplished seasons of all-time. The 2009 Yankees won 103 regular season games, powered past the Twins and Angels to score their 40th American League pennant, and proceeded to trump the Phillies in the Fall Classic, christening the new ballpark with the 27th World Championship in franchise history. Posada had his fourth ring.

The obsequious catcher played two more years, managing despite cranky knees and tight hamstrings to add yet more to his glowing legacy. In June 2010, he became the first Yankee since Dickey to launch grand slams in consecutive games. A few weeks later, he recorded the 1,000th RBI of his career, against the Kansas City Royals. Only eleven other Yankees have reached that plateau: Gehrig, Ruth, DiMaggio, Mantle, Berra, Jeter, Williams, Dickey, Lazzeri and Mattingly. Seven wound up in the Hall of Fame, with another undoubtedly on the way.

Jorge will be eligible for Hall of Fame election in 2017, having retired aged thirty-nine following the 2011 season. Mariano and Andy will be eligible in 2019; Derek in 2020. It would be the most fitting token of gratitude if Posada was there to welcome them, support them, and guide them in Cooperstown as he did in the Bronx.

Jorge Posada, the 52nd New York Yankee in the Hall of Fame.

You know it makes sense.

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