When Gil McDougald, the jack-of-all-trades infielder for the 1950s Yankees, died toward the end of 2010, I couldn’t resist finishing my tribute to him by citing a memorable observation from Bill James, who recalled McDougald’s being picked by the embryonic Los Angeles Angels as part of their expansion draft class:
When the Angels acquired the rights to draft McDougald for their inaugural, expansion roster, and offered him the highest salary he might yet earn as a player, McDougald balked. Even though they planned to make him a regular; even though they would play their first American League season in a bandbox park (Wrigley Field, formerly the home of the minor league Los Angeles Angels) that might have enabled him to hit the long ball the way he never could (112 lifetime, 83 on the road, a mere 29 in Yankee Stadium) in The ‘Stripes.
“The effect of this,” Bill James would observe in retrospect, “combined with a twenty percent increase in his playing time, would have vaulted his home run total to unimaginable levels. I am confident that McDougald would have at least doubled his previous career high in home runs, which was 14. But then Gil McDougald wasn’t born to be a star. He was born to be a Yankee.”
Jorge Posada has probably been a little more of a star than McDougald was. He’s certainly been far more the face-front, heart-on-sleeve type than was the quiet McDougald. But Posada’s formal retirement announcement a few days ago secures him in McDougald’s company regardless. Posada, too, was born to be a Yankee. Which may have been a big reason why his 2011 season, in which his decline far more than any suspected of Derek Jeter was so publicly wrenching.
It’s not unfair to say Posada approached the end kicking and screaming. It was one thing for the veteran to chafe against the Yankee brass decision to take him out from behind the plate; it was one thing for him to chafe and bench himself when manager Joe Girardi decided to bat him ninth against the Red Sox on a key Saturday night. But it was something else to assimilate and accept regardless what was once the unthinkable. Posada told his wife, somewhere during 2011′s wrench, that he was playing his final season. He instructed his agents not to field any offers that might come in the offseason.
And yet he wept openly and ended a group interview when asked at season’s end whether it was the end, at last. Whatever he had in his heart, Posada just couldn’t yet say it aloud.
The greats do not always retire when the proverbial writing hits the proverbial wall. Willie Mays, who lingered because he needed the money desperately enough (a bitter divorce and a few dubious investments does that to you) but couldn’t face the end of the great love of his life, had to be dragged kicking and screaming to retirement, too. Few were more poignant in parting than Mays, though, by then a Met spare part in the city from which he’d first seduced a country: [I]t is sad to hear you cheer for me and not be able to do anything about it . . . I look at the kids over here, the way they’re playing, the way they’re fighting for themselves, and it tells me one thing: Willie, say goodbye to America.
Sandy Koufax didn’t have to be dragged that way. He wasn’t at the top of his beanhill in 1966, he was somewhere about ten dimensions beyond it. And yet he pulled the plug on his career at that staggering height, at age 30, because the idea of prospectively crippling himself, or continuing to pitch only under a medical regimen anyone would call beyond insanity, finally escorted him to a sober actuality. Acknowledging that he’d have spent whatever he could to repair his damaged left arm, quiet and composed as always but obviously fighting an overwhelming sorrow, Koufax called it a career in a Los Angeles hotel press conference: I don’t regret one moment of the past twelve years, but I might regret one year too many.
Mickey Mantle might have regretted at least four. His long-battered, long-diseased legs betrayed him long before he finally said goodbye. Mantle hung in for about four seasons more than he could play realistically—realistically defined as anything remotely close to his once-formidable self—simply because he, too, needed the money . . . and the Yankees needed him, almost desperately. Aging dramatically following their 1964 World Series loss, with a badly parched farm system, sinking into what proved a decade of mediocrity, the Yankees needed any and every crowd-puller they could muster. Mantle stayed the course until he could no longer will himself. The last time around the park, he said in June 1969, when the Yankees honoured his retirement (and retired his uniform number). That gave me goose pimples. But I didn’t cry. I felt like it. Maybe tonight when I go to bed, I’ll think about it. I wish that could happen to every man in America. Over two and a half decades later, ravaged by time, drink, self-destruction, and cancer, Mantle’s death did just that.
Mike Schmidt sort of split the difference between Koufax, Mays, and Mantle. Sort of. I could ask the Phillies to keep me on to add to my statistics, said the greatest third baseman ever to play the game, but my love for the game won’t let me do that. The thing is—Schmidt said it in May 1989, smack dab in the middle of a season, when he still looked sleek at 39, and when he was still among the National League’s RBI leaders and on pace for a hundred, but it tore him that he couldn’t hit his weight even if his now-periodic homers were still conversation pieces. He was willing to take himself out of the lineup and the Show itself simply because the idea that he could no longer produce properly was abhorrent to him.
None of the greats called it a career a month before hitting 31 other than Koufax. None but Schmidt and Lou Gehrig called it a career two months into a season, when they realised they no longer had it, though for far different reasons. Few of the greats ever call it a career with Schmidt’s, Koufax’s, or Gehrig’s kind of grace under the pressure of overwhelming emotion. But even in tears Posada did just that.
Posada was a stubborn hitter, a student of the game whose brains wedded to his hands and batsmanship overcame his liabilities behind the plate, and who may yet have a future on the coaching lines or in the manager’s seat. Even his liabilities behind the plate somehow took second fiddle to his smarts. “He gave you so much in terms of his target, working the umpires, and with the level of communication that he had,” says David Wells, who pitched to Posada in two Yankee tours including a perfect game in 1998.
“To me, the pitcher has to be comfortable and in-sync with the catcher, “Wells continues. “He fought with me, worked with me, and knew the counts. If I didn’t see something that he did, I would shake off his sign, and he would just put down the same sign again. Whenever that happened, I realized that he knew something I didn’t. It speaks to the trust I had in him. He always wanted the pitcher to feel as comfortable as he could.”
Even the enemy anchor learned to respect Posada’s bristling authority. “After hundreds of head-to-head games during the regular season and the postseason, I can’t say I respect and admire anyone at our position more than I do Jorge,” says Jason Varitek, one of his Red Sox arch-rivals. “The hard work and preparation he put into catching is a huge reason he has five championships on his resume. He is a true grinder.”
Al Leiter saw Posada on both sides, as an opposing pitcher and as a batterymate. “He was always tough to face when I was pitching. He made me work hard, like when he drew a leadoff walk against me in the 2000 World Series (I still think I got him on that 3-2 pitch!),” says the former lefthander. “On the flip side, I loved having him as a teammate in 2005. He had a special drive and a special will to win, which is a throwback to the old days. You always knew what to expect with Jorge.”
Red Sox fans only thought they did. It was Posada—finishing what Hideki Matsui’s ground-rule double to right started, pushing Bernie Williams to third—who tore asunder the commitment Grady Little made to Pedro Martinez’s heart in Game Seven, 2003 American League Championship Series with a flare single to center to send them both home, tying the game that would end with the Yankee pennant, another broken Red Sox heart attached, flying into the left field seats off Aaron Boone’s first-pitch-swinging eleventh-inning bat. But it was also Posada who couldn’t make the arrest a year later, with the Red Sox three outs away from being swept out of another ALCS, when Dave Roberts, pinch-running for Kevin Millar aboard with a ninth inning-opening walk, stole second to become the eventual game-tying run, en route the unlikely Red Sox four-straight pennant usurp.
Statistically, Posada probably adds up to a borderline Hall of Famer and short enough of a no-questions-asked average one. He managed to shake off his sad 2011 regular season beginnings with a fine finish, though one that hoisted him up to a .732 OPS and kept him from batting under .235. He looked respectably enough like a champion in his final postseason appearance with a 1.150 OPS in the division series against the Tigers; he drove in no runs and struck out six times while walking four, but he went 6-for-14 with one extra base hit and scored four runs in the five games.
Further statistically, Posada in fifteen postseasons shone best in division series play. (.283 BA; .362 OBP; .428 SLG; .790 OPS.) But he tended to tail as the postseasons went on. His division series OPS of .790 is followed by his League Championship Series OPS of .742 and his World Series OPS of .667. You may cut him slack enough for the postseason grind after long regular seasons behind the dish, but Posada averaged 108 games per season overall and 125 a season after becoming a full-time player. He was somewhat less worn down for postseason play than other catchers might have been.
But nobody questioned his heart. “We feel the same way,” his longtime Yankee pal Derek Jeter—now one of the Final Two (with The Mariano) from the original Core Four of this era’s Yankee championships—said after Posada’s formal announcement. “I’m just better at hiding it. We feel the same way inside, and I think that’s why we’ve gotten along so well throughout the years. He cares about winning; he’s very passionate about improving and doing his job the best he can. But I just do a better job of hiding it.”
Posada didn’t go untouched by Jeter’s deceptively stoic style on the field or in the clubhouse himself. “I was better toward the end, I think,” he said. “I was able to control my motions a little more toward the end of my career. I grew up a little better.”
At least until 2011. A season in which he was body-slammed with the reality of the pending end. With the reality that what he was born to be, he could be no longer. And when he wept at his formal retirement announcement, not even any critics could really bear to challenge him.
“I thank the good Lord for making me a Yankee.” That remark from Joe DiMaggio, from 1949, hangs over the passway from the Yankee clubhouse to the Yankee dugout. Few since lived it as profoundly as Jorge Posada. The good Lord may have made him a Yankee, but no one made Posada such a touching Yankee emeritus except Posada himself.