Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 14, 2011

Jorge, In Twilight

Time. It is the implacable and ultimately unbeatable enemy of every athlete, in every sport. Its inexorable march slows the ability to react, diminishes eye-hand coordination, steals a step from even the fastest, and increases the chance of injury. Time plays no favorites, working its bitter will on superstars and journeymen alike. Yet how it does so is not always predictable. Most often it is a gradual decline, a slow eroding of skills, performance, and statistics. Sometimes though, time can strike with brutal swiftness, turning a great player into little more than a memory even as fans watch in horror and in sadness.

For a decade and a half in the Bronx, Jorge Posada has been a stalwart for the Yankees and a favorite of their fans. Picked by New York in the middle rounds of the 1990 amateur draft, Posada, like teammates Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, has played his entire career for the Yankees’ organization. After working his way through their farm system, his first appearance with the big club was for a single game in 1995. Called upon to pinch-run for Wade Boggs, Posada jogged in from the bullpen even as long-time public address announcer Bob Sheppard mispronounced his name as “Posado.” Ever a gentleman, Sheppard later appeared at the rookie’s locker to apologize. But ever since Posada has been “Sado” to his teammates.

It was two years later when Posada finally made the Yankees’ roster on a full-time basis, when he served as backup catcher to Joe Girardi in 1997. Beginning the following year the two split the duties behind home plate, and when Girardi moved on to the Cubs in 1999, Posada became New York’s starting backstop, a role he filled with distinction until the start of this season.

Posada has four World Series rings. He is a five-time All Star and a five-time winner of the Silver Slugger Award, given annually to the top rated offensive player at each position. A switch hitter with power from both sides of the plate, he has hit twenty or more home runs in eight different seasons. In 2003 he put 30 balls into the seats, joining Yogi Berra as the only Yankees catchers to hit that many homers in a season. His best overall year at the plate was 2007, when he batted .338, with 42 doubles, 20 home runs, and 90 runs batted in. He’s the only major league catcher in the entire history of the Great Game to put up such numbers in a single year.

Behind the plate Posada handled the stream of pitchers that late owner George Steinbrenner loved to either sign as free agents or trade for to bolster the Yankees starting rotation; from successful ones like Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina and most recently CC Sabathia, to those that were less so like Randy Johnson and those that were downright awful like Kevin Brown. But his first catching assignment was to serve as the personal backstop for another home-grown member and future star of the Yankees, left-hander Andy Pettitte. In his prime he was always solid and in a few years outstanding defensively, though there is no question that both the management and the fans of the Yankees valued him more for his offense.

But this season time suddenly came calling on Jorge Posada; and all of those previous accomplishments, all of the echoes of thousands of fans shouting the well-worn “Hip! Hip! Jorge!” cheer could do nothing to hold it at bay. It began, perhaps, in the off-season, when Posada underwent surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee. Taking no chances, Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman signed free agent Russell Martin to be the Yankees every day catcher, and informed Posada that he would be the full-time designated hitter.

While Posada accepted the move, it had to be extraordinarily difficult. The catcher is the field general for the defense, managing not just his pitcher but also all of the other position players. He and his battery mate are the only two players involved not just in every play, but in every single pitch through all nine innings. Over those innings, the battery mate is likely to change, perhaps several times, leaving the catcher alone as the one player on the field most involved for the entire game. To go from that level of utter involvement to being asked to bat every third inning or so is a jarring transition.

From the start of the Yankees season, it was a transition for Posada that did not go well. He slumped early at the plate, and since his only role was at the plate there was nothing to compensate for his inability to hit. Six weeks into the season, as the Yankees faced their arch-rivals from Boston, Posada was batting well below .200. Former mentor and now manager Girardi penciled him in batting 9th on the lineup card, and the proud Posada reacted badly. He asked to be excused from the game, and Girardi obliged. There was a brief dustup, with Posada ultimately apologizing to the team for his actions.

That was followed by a rebound in June, when Posada hit .382, raising his season average some fifty points to .236. But time would not be denied, and the 39-year old once more found himself floundering at the plate. Finally, one week ago, Girardi made the inevitable announcement. With his .230 batting average, Posada would no longer be the team’s every day designated hitter. Since he is in the final season of his current contract, Girardi’s statement signaled all but officially that Posada’s career with the Yankees is coming to a close.

On Saturday Posada was back in the lineup for the first time in a week, batting 8th as the DH. Greeted warmly as always in his first at-bat in the bottom of the second, Posada responded with a single that drove in two runs to put New York ahead of visiting Tampa Bay. Three innings later he came to the plate with the score now 3-0 and the bases loaded. With the count two balls and no strikes, Posada turned on a fastball from reliever Brandon Gomes and sent a towering shot into the right field seats. It was the tenth grand slam of his career, passing Yogi Berra and Mickey Mantle on the Yankees’ all-time list. It was also the fifth time that he had driven in six runs in a game, and the first such effort in five years.

In that singular moment when Derek Jeter pushed Jorge Posada back up the dugout steps to answer the delirious fans’ demand for a curtain call, it would be easy to imagine that time had been rebuffed. Easy, and of course, wrong; for the effects of time are cumulative, and not measured by any single moment. A proud Jorge Posada has suggested several times this season that he would be open to signing with some other team next year, if that’s what it would take to continue his career. Even with his sorry numbers, it’s entirely possible that some other A.L. franchise would take a chance on him as a designated hitter.

We see it all the time, and it’s never pretty. The athlete who has stayed too long, scuffling at best, embarrassing himself at worst. One would surely hope that Jorge Posada enjoyed the deserved adulation he received on Saturday. One would just as surely hope that sometime this off-season, after some quiet moments of reflection, he will accept the reality that time has come calling, and retire as a Yankee.

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Responses

  1. This post was a very nice tribute to Posada. But could you clarify what you mean by his 2007 season being “the only catcher…to put up such numbers in a single year?”
    Ten years earlier, in 1997, Mike Piazza hit .362 with 40 homers, 124 RBI, 32 doubles, 201 hits, and 104 runs scored. He also led the N.L. with an OPS+ of 185. That may have been the greatest single season by a catcher in the history of baseball.
    But as I said, this was a very nicely written, informative post.
    Thanks, Bill

    • Bill, Thanks for your kind words, as always. I agree that Piazza’s year likely set the offensive gold standard for catchers. Our preferred sport is of course the most statistic-centric of them all. I should have made clear that in 2007 Posada’s numbers were the only ones ever to combine to cross several specific threshholds all at once; .330 or better BA, 90 or more RBI, 20 or more HR, and 40 or more doubles. The last is not a small deal, given that backstops tend not to be the most fleet of foot.

      Thanks again,
      M-


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