By Jason Keidel
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Ever have a supposedly splendid player on your favorite team whom you never quite clung to?
Well, Jorge Posada is mine. And now that he’s retiring, the verbal bouquets are being airdropped on his doorstep. And to call them overstated is an understatement of the highest order.
I respect the etiquette, the noble impulse to honor the old salt, particularly a cog in a former World Series machine. Posada was a very good player on some great teams. But this tone-deaf chorus, drooling odes to an old catcher who couldn’t catch when he was young, is a grotesque exaggeration of his distinguished but hardly legendary period in pinstripes.
He was often clutch, but could never catch. Indeed, the closest Posada ever came to a Gold Glove was squatting in the dugout next to Tex. How many of you have winced while he heaved hand grenades to second base? How many times have we gasped when a low fastball skidded by him or a one-hop curve squirted under his mitt?
And Posada was hardly Mike Piazza with the stick, batting over .300 just once, driving in 100 runs just once, but striking out over 90 times in a season a whopping 12 times. Piazza reached 90 strikeouts once. Each played roughly 16 seasons, and Piazza’s career batting average was 35-points higher, had nearly 500 more hits, nearly 200 more homers, and nearly 300 more RBI. (Piazza finished his career with about 600 more plate appearances.)
We understand that the standards are relaxed for demanding positions like catcher, but either you catch like Johnny Bench or hit like Piazza. Posada did neither.
Yet over the last 72 hours I read at least five columns from otherwise logical, prominent columnists who argue that Posada is a legitimate candidate for Cooperstown. I still haven’t discovered why. Nothing he did on the field warrants the Hall of Fame.
One of the more noxious notions sprouting from the cognoscenti is that Posada’s retirement is perfect, that he not only had the prescience to leave with the right team, but at the right time. Sure. It just happened to coincide with the final year of his contract.
If Posada had any spiritual dexterity, he would have retired before last season, when he knew he wouldn’t be a regular anymore, when Jesus Montero commanded more bold ink than a normal farm hand. When the Yanks signed Russell Martin, Posada was demoted to Class A Palookaville. All the signs were there: Posada hit just .248 in 2010, with more strikeouts (99) than hits (95).
If he had a startlingly good sense of timing, Posada would have excused himself before his tightrope act on the Mendoza Line in 2011, batting a buck-ninety for so long (and finishing the season at .235, including .092 against lefties) that we all had to feel some shame for his eroding game. But alas, he had $13 million reasons to stay, and Yankee Pride wasn’t one of them.
And there’s another delicious proposition swirling in cyberspace: Posada is leaving cash, cachet, or a stack of contract offers on the table to be noble. Show me the S.W.A.T. team staked outside the Posada house, sliding offers under his door, cans of tear gas tumbling down his halls, smoking him out to sign another bloated deal. Who wants a moody graybeard who can occasionally hit in big spots, has no position to play, and runs like Wade Boggs on a wet beach?
More than anything, what bugged me about Posada was his obstinacy, his unbending conviction that he was always right. You might say it’s that kind of stubbornness that makes a player so good. Perhaps. But it doesn’t explain the infantile fit that led him to pull himself from a vital, nationally televised game against Boston because he didn’t approve of his place in the batting order.
In case you never heard it, Craig Carton turned the disaster into a fine parody, hosting a fake game show based on Posada’s historic gaffe. Making for much talk-show fodder, Posada compounded his fatal flaw with a three-pronged faux pas. It started with “I needed to clear my head,” and was followed by “My back was tight,” leading to the classic “I had to talk to my wife,” which was the third peg in the triple play of semantic blunders. Rather than tell the truth, he fumbled for excuses for the inexcusable. Silence was his best friend, but he didn’t listen.
“It’s just one game!” you shriek. “No big deal. It doesn’t erase all the good stuff he did.”
Well, if it’s not a big deal then why doesn’t anyone do it? Particularly on the Yankees, who, above any team in any sport, trades on its history and image of honor, on winning with dignity and expressing it in a quiet, corporate cadence. No, it doesn’t negate Posada’s largely noble career, but we have every right to mention it, just as Mets fans have the right to fight over Jose Reyes’ final move as a Met – pulling himself from a game rather than risk losing the batting title.
The guess here is that the public and the pundits are projecting unearned qualities on Posada because he represents the last dynasty not just in Yankees history, but baseball history. His prime was our prime, and mythology is almost as real as the game itself. And who among us wouldn’t want to revisit 1998?
But we can’t even be sure Posada cracks the top-five catchers in the history of his team, much less his sport. Start with Bill Dickey, drive left toward Yogi, hang a hard right at Elston Howard, and then park at Thurman Munson. And if I dig deep into the 20th Century landfill of Yankee catchers, into the pile of Wynegar, Cerone, and Hassey I just might find a fifth.
“He’s a member of the Core Four!” you retort.
Frankly, the beauty of that dynasty was that there was no Core Four. It’s a nouveaux handle hatched by someone with way too much time on his hands. Indeed, just the very term implies that each quarter of the quartet was equally essential, when we know that the Yankees would have won without Jorge Posada (who played just eight games in 1996, batted .268 in ’98 and .245 in ’99). Indeed, only Mariano Rivera was, is, and always will be indispensable. But facts are often blunted by hero worship.
Derek Jeter is Exhibit A. Jeter’s climb to 3,000 hits was chronicled as though mankind were landing on Mars – where they found Elvis, Jim, Jimi, and Janis recording a new album. You’d have thought no one had ever reached the mark, and that Ty Cobb, the Pope, the Dalai Lama and Barack Obama flew on Marine One, landed on the pitcher’s mound, climbed out and smooched Jeter’s ring in gratitude. The gratuitous homage was on endless loop, from vignettes to documentaries to posters to souvenirs to films to, well, anything that could be stamped and sold as an authentic spoke in the shortstop’s wheelhouse. No one doubts Jeter’s bona fides as an icon, but it’s hard to swallow such fatty, fawning tributes without getting a little indigestion.
We had a long, summer spat about Derek Jeter Dementia. I too suffered from a similar malady over Muhammad Ali. Everything “The Greatest” did was, well, the greatest. Only after meeting Joe Frazier, getting to know his manager, and opening my eyes led me to acknowledge Ali’s wretched treatment of Smokin’ Joe. (I still adore Ali, but I learned that the boxing superhero wasn’t always superhuman.)
And only in the warped altitude of Yankee Universe is a.273 hitter with 275 home runs qualified for the Hall of Fame. I’ve been a Yankees fan since 1977, so this isn’t some cloaked missive from a closet Mets fan. If Posada goes to Cooperstown, where does that leave Paul, Tino, and Bernie?
I know Posada is Jeter’s BFF, and Jeter is your BFF, so you’ll hate me for this. So be it. Sometimes, upon surveying a cocktail of characteristics, you say I just don’t like this guy. And nearly everything he does thereafter reinforces that coda.
Granted, the fusion of sports and adolescence is a perfect climate for mythmaking – particularly with baseball, where the source matter stretches back to the 1800s. But the beer goggles should come off when the Hall of Fame is mentioned.
To show I’m not entirely blinded by bias, I salute Posada for batting .429 in the 2011 ALDS. It was a proper ending to a noteworthy career. Somewhere in the endless archive of Yankee conquests, Posada should be mentioned – just far closer to the back page than the front.
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Do you disagree with Keidel and his take on Posada’s resume? Make your case in the comments below…