Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Jorge Rides Off Into The Sunset

Tuesday morning, Jorge Posada said goodbye to the New York Yankees organization. A "family" that he had been a part of for 17 years in the Major Leagues and 21 years since he was drafted in the 24th round of the 1990 amateur draft out of Colegio Alejandrino (Guaynabo, PR) High School.

After initially playing 2nd base, Posada was converted to catcher, a switch that may potentially land him in the Baseball Hall of Fame. That debate will be talked about over the next five years until Posada first appears on the Hall of Fame ballot and for years beyond. But what Posada meant to the Yankees wasn't just about his own personal statistics. It was his love for the game, his drive to win, and his leadership in the Yankees clubhouse that made him special to the fans and the organization.

All those sentiments were echoed at Yankee Stadium yesterday, when Posada, his wife Laura and children Jorge Jr. and Paulina met with members of the media to officially announce his retirement. Among those in attendance were former teammates and close friends Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, along with CC Sabathia, retired teammates (John Flaherty), former coaches (Willie Randolph), his last manager (Joe Girardi), and of course, members of the Steinbrenner family and Yankee Stadium front office and other employees. Posada thanked everyone in attendance, those who meant the most during his career, and most of all his family, calling wife Laura, "His rock".

He became very emotional, switching to his native Spanish, to talk about his parents, and was choked up discussing his relationship with Jeter, Rivera, and Andy Pettitte, all of whom grew up together in the Yankees' organization. He thanked the two Major League managers who watched over him in all but one season (1995 and Buck Showalter), Joe Girardi and Joe Torre, the latter to whom he referred to as a father figure. He reiterated that he only wanted to wear the Yankees pinstripes in his career and had told his agents not to bother pursuing any deals with other teams for the 2012 season.

He told reporters how he would quote Joe DiMaggio, "I want to thank the good Lord for making me a Yankee" each time he entered Yankee Stadium. He recalled some of his finest moments- catching David Wells' perfect game- and talked openly and honestly about the many bad nights as well. Those spent in the minors when he was making the transition to catcher and those nights in the Majors when he felt like a failure beyond the plate. But Posada swung a steady bat throughout his career and his catching improved, in large part thanks to work with Gary Tuck, as the years went by. (I'll skip talking about his poor base running.)

There were, of course, tributes to Posada, including a video montage of Yankees fans thanking Posada for his career contributions and his time in pinstripes. Diane Munson, widow of the Yankees last great catcher Thurman Munson, spoke glowingly of Posada and his family. She told those in attendance that it was "Jorge who got me back to baseball." When Thurman had died, Mrs. Munson had lost her passion for baseball, but after meeting and getting to know Posada, that passion had returned. She felt privileged to have "Loved two catchers" in her life. When the two had first met, Posada told of his admiration for Munson and showed her the quote ("Batting fourth and being in the lineup is important, but I think the stuff I do behind the plate is more important.") that he kept taped to the wall of his locker.

The Posadas have also done tremendous work with their foundation for children afflicted with Craneosinostosis and their families. Jorge Jr. has gone trough several surgeries due to the condition and if not for the work of the Jorge Posada Foundation many families might still feel alone and uninformed in their fight against the congenital disorder. One such family is Lisa Niederer and her husband, and their son Brett, who was diagnosed with Craneosinostosis when he was 2 1/2. That's about a year later than the disease should be diagnosed, Lisa pointed out. Lisa, with Brett at her side, spoke glowingly of the Posada Foundation and how it helped turn their lives around upon learning of its existence during the 2002 All-Star game. In fact, Lisa now mentors other families in her work with the foundation.

Posada's Yankee career began in the Major Leagues in 1995, as a pinch-runner no less. Posada spent the next few years being groomed to take over for Joe Girardi. Five World Series rings would be captured over his career, the last coming in 2009 when he played for Girardi, and was reunited with Andy Pettitte, who along with Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter, was on all five title teams.

But 2011 was a challenge, by far the toughest season of Posada's career. (Not counting when he had to balance playing with Jorge Jr.'s surgeries.) He was told prior to Spring Training that he would not be catching at all during the upcoming season. He was to be the team's full-time DH, a role he was not accustomed to, and it showed. He struggled at the plate, lost at-bats to others and was eventually benched. For the most part he handled it professionally, especially since he knew he wasn't hitting. But on May 14, all that changed.

Posada arrived at the ballpark to find out he was not in that day's lineup despite the fact a right-hander was on the mound and Posada was getting all of his at-bats from the left side of the plate. He was unhappy and approached Girardi at 6 p.m. to ask out of the lineup. Posada's wife, Laura, took to social media to tell everyone that her husband had a stiff back. Things were then inflammed when GM Brian Cashman told the media that Posada had asked out of the lineup and no physical issue was mentioned.

Girardi publicly backed his player, telling the media that sometimes a player needs a break during stressful times. Posada, meanwhile, went along with his wife's explanation and told reporteres that his back had acted up on him. Not too many believed him. His struggles continued throughout the season, but when the Yankees needed him most, Posada came through. There was the game against the Angels in September when he was forced to go behind the plate for the first time all season. Howie Kendrick immediately tried to steal second base and was thrown out by the proud Posada. He also had several big hits down the stretch as the Yankees held off Tampa Bay to win the AL East. Posada finished off his career by batting .429 and posting a 1.150 OPS in a first round loss to the Detroit Tigers in the post-season. Posada had trouble talking to reporters after the deciding game five, and had to choke back tears. He knew his time with the Yankees and in baseball was likely over.

A new, undecided chapter now begins in Posada's life. He'll spend summers with his children for the first time. Perhaps some time in the future he'll want to coach or manage, and it would not be surprising to see him back as a Spring Training instructor down in Tampa. For now, he walks away on his own terms and no player can ask for more than that. For the rest of us, one final "Hip Hip Jorge" and may the Hall of Fame debate continue.

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