My quintessential Jorge Posada memory

A classic Posada moment: Part of the triumph,
but a supporting player. (Photo: Keith Allison)

Jorge Posada is not the first catcher I grew up watching. Far from it. I saw Mike Stanley have a few out-of-the-blue years of strong offense for the New York Yankees. I would go to one or two Orioles games in person with my family during the 1990s, and Chris Hoiles was generally manning the plate.

On TV, I watched Tony Pena on the Red Sox and saw a bit of Mackey Sasser’s heralded throwing struggles for the Mets. He was succeeded by the awkward but powerful Todd Hundley, whose promise and eventual power led me to read up on his ironman catcher-father, Randy Hundley. And, of course, Posada’s path to catching was blocked, at the beginning and end of his career, by Joe Girardi.

But Posada, not to discount Girardi, was the first catcher that I was able to see on TV, in person and root for. He was the catcher of my youth, which I know is irrevocably gone but which feels the need to keep reminding me. And so it has these past few days, with the long-awaited news that Posada, 40, won’t be playing baseball anywhere anymore. I have lots of Posada memories, but there’s one that reminds me that he had greatness, but always greatness overshadowed. We’ll get there in a moment.

How will we remember Posada? Asking that question inevitably leads to, “How will the Hall of Fame voters remember him?” (My quick answer: He’s borderline, probably won’t get in; neither outcome is criminal). Posada wasn’t known for his defense. But he was durable, worked hard and hit more than well enough to overcome those deficiencies. His 2003 and 2007 seasons were worthy of the MVP discussion, and he caught 183 games at ages 37 and 38 (2008-09) with above-average hitting.

Was he underappreciated? I don’t think so. But he was easy to lump in with the other stars, and didn’t find the spotlight easily. His temper often fueled him but also cost him, particularly in 2011 as his skills eroded. He had a long playoff career and some fine series (his final postseason,
the 2009 run, the 2001 ALDS and 2003 ALCS), but his postseason numbers
(.248/.358/.387) pale to his regular-season stats: (.273/.374/.474), and a couple of his best series (2006 and ’11 ALDS) were in losing causes.

He had a special place in the clubhouse, at least when viewed from the outside, because of his longevity, fire and friendship with Derek Jeter. The beat reporters will tell you Jorge carried authority within the locker room, and they knew, if only because of his honesty. But, of course, it was a special place in Jeter’s clubhouse, not Posada’s (or even the Yankees’). And because that authority was internal, we rarely saw it in person. The emotion, the passion, sure; that was often on display. But did we ever see Posada get in a teammate’s face on the field? Not that I remember. Did we want to? Perhaps, selfishly.

None of this is meant to denigrate his career, but rather to show that even if he were a supporting character, he was about the finest one could hope for. There are many great Posada moments, but the one I’ll focus on is Aug. 18, 2007, which I attended amid perhaps Posada’s finest season.

Aug. 18, 2007

0818yankee041
I did not take enough photos that day, clearly.
But this was the view we had (zoomed in a bit)
of every at-bat, including the menacing
Gary Sheffield about to fall to Mariano Rivera.

Per usual during the Yankee Stadium II era, I was bumming a ticket of my friend Mike and his parents in the upper deck directly behind home plate — prime panoramic seating that no longer exists in the new stadium.

Jorge Posada would have been the best player on the field if not for Alex Rodriguez, having his third MVP season. There was also Derek Jeter, robbed of the MVP the year before and hitting over .320 coming in. On the Detroit Tigers, Magglio Ordonez was having an absurd year, hitting over .350 while walking consistently. He’d win the batting title at .363. Gary Sheffield had returned to New York after a disruptive exit.
Meanwhile, Roger Clemens, the ageless wonder, had returned from retirement, broken Suzyn Waldman’s mind, and pitched passable ball while making, oh, a million bucks per start.

Obviously, seeing Clemens was huge — it had been six years since I viewed him in person, and that he had nothing left was clear. For a 45-year-old, he was great. For a major league pitcher, he had average stuff and control, with only guile and a world-class split-fingered fastball to save him. I knew I’d likely never see him live again, so I soaked it up.

Posada, on the other hand, was having the season of his life: hitting over .330 with power while still walking a lot. I saw the numbers, watched him on TV, but couldn’t quite believe that this increased production was due to anything but luck. Aug. 18, 2007, went a long way toward changing my mind.

First at-bat: Home run. Crushed it. Second at-bat: Line out to second, but the type that makes you glad players have gloves. He was dead on with his swing. Third at-bat: Single pulled to left, advances go-ahead run, later scores. Fourth at-bat: Another single pulled to left. Three hits, three pitchers, four balls hit hard. It was as if he put the ball into play, it was going to be a hit or take great defense to shut him down. His absurd .386 batting average on balls in play suddenly wasn’t a mirage; this was a great athlete during a sustained peak. The advanced stats, shaky as they are from 2007, seem to bear out what I saw on TV and in person: You couldn’t throw a fastball by him, and you couldn’t make him chase. Add in a patient hitter, and you’re in trouble as a pitcher.

I’ve always remembered that game as “The game where Posada was awesome.” But, of course, the spotlight  after that game was on Roger Clemens, on Gary Sheffield, on Kyle Farnsworth(!). The MVP was going to A-Rod. The star was Jeter. The clutch guy was Rivera. The heat was on Torre. Posada just kept hitting, and hitting, and catching damn near every day. Usually good, sometimes great, always in the service of a higher cause and more famous teammates.

Dependability. You don’t miss it until it’s gone.