When Sandy Koufax first re-appeared in a Dodger uniform, joining the team as a low-keyed organisation pitching coach in spring 1979, Thomas Boswell profiled him for a Washington Post Sunday magazine feature. He’d dropped out of sight just to live life several years after leaving a gig with NBC’s old Game of the Week, returning almost as quietly as he’d slipped away.
The return, and Koufax’s introspection, led Boswell to conclude, “Koufax has seen through the veil of his game. A sport can be extremely difficult without being extremely important. Baseball could fascinate him, but not control him.” This week, the still-young man who may yet prove the second-youngest Hall of Famer to retire at or near his peak gave a similar impression.
Just as with Koufax over half a century ago, you can pull a pocketful of definitions out when Buster Posey’s name is mentioned. They can begin with knowing both, generations apart, played only twelve seasons of major league baseball until walking away before the game could walk, push, or shove them away.
You can pull out all the individual honours (from a Most Valuable Player award to two Comeback Player of the Year awards), three World Series championships, catching a perfect game and a few mere no-hitters. But you can also join Posey’s hand to Koufax’s for having the heart, soul, and presence of mind to pass it on before it was passed on for them.
As a pitcher, Koufax is frozen in time, the thirty-year-old lefthander still at the mountaintop, leaving the game before the extreme pain through which he pitched could throw him into a ghastly decline. As a catcher, Posey is liable to be frozen likewise, a 34-year-old still within his peak, leaving the game before the extreme pain through which he caught and hit could do the same thing.
These two fundamentally decent men put baseball away in order to rediscover things called living.
For Koufax, who played the game as a low-keyed bachelor, it was a time to get to know more about and live as the quiet man with more individual interests and self-education than many who played the game with and even after him. For Posey, it’s time to get to know more about his family and about the family guy he’s always been anyway.
When Posey made official Thursday what was first reported Wednesday, he didn’t so much reveal it as remind us of it.
His wife, Kristen, sat next to him at the podium. Their sixteen-month-old adopted twin daughters, Livvi and Ada, accompanied the couple’s ten-year-old fraternal twins, daughter Addison and son Lee.
His former manager, Bruce Bochy, accompanied the family to Oracle Park for the press conference. “He gets it. He gets it,” said the skipper with whom Posey and their Giants won those three World Series in 2010, 2012, and 2014. “The game, the pitching side, everything. He was just born to play baseball.” But Posey gets an awful lot more than just the depth of his game.
“First of all,” he began, “I’d like to thank the woman sitting up here with me today . . . You know better than anybody how hard, sometimes, I would take not performing the way I wanted to. But your love and perspective about what was truly important helped me through those times . . . I’m so excited to continue sharing life with you and watching our kids grow.”
“He was there,” wrote Andrew Baggarly, the Giants writer for The Athletic who broke the story of Posey’s retirement, “to let go of a baseball life, to move forward with the next phase and to fully wrap arms around the only role that he ever allowed to define him: husband, father, family man.”
Like Koufax in 1966, it turned out Posey went to spring training 2021 intending it to be his final season, come what may. What came was staggering enough.
Koufax led his 1966 Dodgers to a World Series and won a third major league-version Cy Young Award. Posey helped lead this year’s Giants to a 107-win season; he posted his highest single-season slugging percentage since his MVP season; he was ten defensive runs saved above his league’s average for catchers; he landed that second Comeback Player award.
Koufax walked away from a six-figure income that was baseball’s highest for any player at the time. Posey left a $22 million option for 2022 that nobody believed the Giants would reject. There was a $3 million buyout in his contract, but Baggarly says Posey and the Giants are negotiating how to turn that into an as-yet determined role in the organisation itself.
The Georgia guy who grew up rooting for the Braves but plighted his baseball troth to the Giants wants to keep it that way, even as he returns to Georgia for a spell to re-connect with his roots.
As a catcher, Posey retired the way he wanted to retire, as a Giant. As a man, he wants to remain a Giant one way or another without putting his family behind him. Baseball’s arguable best all-around catcher of the 21st Century’s second decade, too, saw through baseball’s veil and accepted what he saw without regret.
When he thanked his parents at Thursday’s announcement, Posey made a point of saying they’d given him “the foundation of knowing that baseball is a vessel that can be used to create wonderful memories and impact people’s lives, but ultimately it’s not what defines you.”
Koufax told Boswell of playing the game, “You are part of an entertainment. But you are not an entertainer. That is unnatural. But I enjoyed doing it . . . probably even more than the fans enjoyed watching. I thank them for enjoying it with me.”
Posey was at once part and parcel of maybe the single greatest decade the Giants have known since moving to San Francisco in the first place and unable to call himself the common element. “To me,” he said, “this is what encapsulates baseball. “It’s a lot more than just winning or losing games, although the wins do feel a lot better.”
It’s about the time spent with family, the countless nights and days, pulling for your team, riding the emotions of the highs, riding the emotions of the lows, and ultimately enjoying the people you’re with along the way and making great memories together. I’m so very humbled to play a part in some of those memories.
If Posey like Koufax walks away as much because the pain of his profession within a profession—the hip, back, knee, ankle injuries, the concussions—makes that profession impossible to practise properly anymore, he had a Koufaxian way or referencing it.
“I don’t regret one minute of the last twelve years,” Koufax said at his retirement press conference, “but I might regret one season too many.”
“It was just getting to the point where things that I was enjoying were not as joyful anymore,” Posey said. And that was it.
“Thursday’s gathering was not about adulation,” Baggarly wrote. “Posey didn’t need anyone to give him his flowers. His ego didn’t demand it. It felt more like a graduation of sorts, an acknowledgment that one part of his life was ending and an eagerness to embrace the fullness of his family. It’s someone else’s turn to slap the lectern at City Hall and say, ‘Let’s go win it again next year’.”
What remains—beyond a wish of Godspeed to Posey, his wife, his children—is a brief fantasy. The fantasy of a fully-matured Sandy Koufax going into that once-familiar windup, broad leg kick, and elegant, forward-snapping delivery, throwing one of his elusive fastballs or voluptuous curve balls to Buster Posey behind the plate.
Even Giant fans who’d rather be dead than Dodgers, even Dodger fans who’d rather be dead than Giants, might agree that these two inviolable men, knowing better than most of their contemporaries where they belonged in the game, knowing sooner than most when the game no longer belonged to them, would make a transcendent battery.