January 2012

Posada leaves quite a legacy

Here is how some of the people who crossed Jorge Posada’s path feel about the former Yankees catcher who made his retirement as a baseball player official Tuesday:

Bernie Williams: “I want to congratulate ‘Jorgito’ on an outstanding career. He was one of the greatest catchers of his era, and one of the best Puerto Rican players to ever play the game. He was a great teammate, is a great friend and human being, and will always be a great Yankee. I was honored to take the field with him every day for so many years, and I cherish all the memories we have together, topped off by those World Series championships. Frankly, I can’t believe that ‘Jorgito’ is actually announcing his retirement before I do. Seriously, I wish him, Laura, and the kids happiness and success in their future. He will be missed by the Yankees family, all of his teammates, coaches, and most of all, the great Yankee fans.”

Andy Pettitte: “Jorge was obviously one of the heart and soul pieces of all those championships with us. Everyone brings their own style to the table but Jorge played with so much fire and intensity, and you have to have all the different mixes of personalities on a team to be able to win the way we did. The intensity that he brought on a daily basis to the field was just amazing to watch. He was one of the greatest teammates I’ve ever played with and a great friend and a great person. The fans loved Jorge because of the passion he played with. He didn’t try to hide it, and he didn’t make up excuses. He’s a stand-up guy, and if he wasn’t able to get it done, he would say ‘I didn’t get it done.’ He handled all the victories and all the success with class and never made excuses for anything. Fans love that. They love to see you be real and passionate. When you’re like that in New York, you’re going to be loved, that’s for sure.”

Tino Martinez: “Jorge was one of the cornerstones of all those championship teams, handling the pitching staff all those years. The way he prepared every single day assured that he became the best player he could possibly be. He’s going to go down as one of the greatest all-time Yankees. It’s very rare that somebody comes up through the minor league system with the Yankees and plays 17 years with the club. He did it the right way as a true professional, a great teammate and a great baseball player.”

Yogi Berra: “Jorge is a good kid, and he had a wonderful career. He has always been one of the toughest and most passionate guys on the club. The Yankees don’t win those championships without him.”

Alex Rodriguez: “Jorge has bled the pinstripes for a long, long time, and he played with a passion that certainly rubbed off on his teammates. To play the number of games that he did, at the level he did, year in and year out, at the toughest position on the field, is a credit to his commitment to his craft. He left everything out on the field, and that’s what made him special.”

Gene Michael: “I remember when we switched Jorge in the minors from second base to catcher. I always got reports of his improvement. Jorge was a worker – someone who was always in shape and who you didn’t have to worry about. Even from the beginning, I loved how selective he was at the plate, his power, his strong arm and the fact that he was a switch-hitter. In my tenure as general manager [from Aug. 1990 through Oct. 1995], I never talked about him in a trade. In the big leagues, he provided big time offensive production, and you never had to platoon him. He was tough, durable and the little things just didn’t bother him. He was a lot like Thurman [Munson] in that way.”

Gene Monahan: “Jorge Posada is far beyond your true, loyal Yankee. Jorge lives this team, organization and city. A family man unmatched, his love for family and team is shown every single day, and I’ve been there every step of the way to witness and testify to it. Jorgie’s sense of humor with his teammates and especially with me, in spite of countless painful days, has always been refreshing and energizing. He always helped us to excel, succeed and enjoy the game the way it’s supposed to be. His career blessed us. On Opening Day 2010, it was Jorge Posada who singlehandedly took his team and the entire Yankee Stadium crowd to a place that was humbling beyond expression, when he lovingly honored me. Every day for the remainder of my life, I will remember and reflect on his love, as he brought it out from our team and our fans. There is no real way to adequately express the emotion of that moment and what it meant to me.”

Joe Torre: “Jorge Posada has been a winner during the season, the postseason and in the clubhouse. He is a loyal and devoted Yankee and is a champion in the game of life. I will always treasure the time I spent with him.”

David Wells: “Jorge was exceptional behind the plate. He gave you so much in terms of his target, working the umpires, and with the level of communication that he had. To me, the pitcher has to be comfortable and in-sync with the catcher. 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. That’s why in my mind, he was the greatest catcher.”

Mike Piazza: “I’d like to congratulate Jorge on a fantastic career. As two catchers playing in New York at the same time, I was able to get to know him over the years and appreciate everything he brought to the table. He was a general behind the plate and delivered in the clutch when it mattered most. I wish him well on his retirement.”

Jason Varitek: “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. 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.”

Arlene Howard (widow of Elston): “Jorge has carried on the tradition of great Yankees catchers most notably Bill Dickey, Yogi Berra, Elston Howard and Thurman Munson. Jorge has lived up to the tradition of great Yankees catchers.”

Paul O’Neill: “Jorge was one of my most favorite teammates of all time. He was into winning. He was mentally tough, physically tough, and he was never scared. It means a lot that he is retiring as a Yankee. As the seasons go on, I think people will realize how important he was to the team, and how big a role he played in the Yankees’ success over the years. He was a great teammate and a fun guy off the field. I had a lot of fun with Jorge. I have all the respect in the world for him. He is going to be considered for the Hall of Fame, and any time people talk about you that way, it tells you what type of player you are.”

Al Leiter: “Jorge was an unbelievable competitor, one of the fiercest competitors I’ve seen in a long time. 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!]. 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. He wasn’t flashy. He was just immensely talented and a great leader.”

John Flaherty: “Jorge was the ultimate teammate, someone who always put the team before himself. He wasn’t a vocal leader; rather, he let his actions speak for themselves. It was an honor sharing the Yankees clubhouse with him, and my time with him was made even more special since we were both catchers. He handled himself with such class on the field and in the clubhouse. When I think of what the New York Yankees represent, I think of Jorge. Class. Humility. Tough as nails. Fierce competitor. That’s Jorge Posada.”

Derek Jeter: “I know how he feels, I know how much he cares. That’s what people are going to miss. I think that’s what the fans are going to miss. You can’t fake it. The fans appreciated him so much because he cared about winning, he cared about doing his job.”

Mariano Rivera: “It’s hard, playing with teammates like that and they’re retiring. That’s telling you one thing: your time will come. Bernie and Andy and now Jorge. . .it was a blessing to me to play with all these men that I love.”

No turning back for hip-hip Jorge

The trade 11 days ago that took Jesus Montero out of the Yankees’ picture and off to Seattle created the idea that just maybe Jorge Posada’s career with the Yankees might not indeed be over. Perhaps the five-time All-Star catcher could just be what they needed to platoon with Andruw Jones at designated hitter, a role that Montero might have filled before he was dealt for pitcher Michael Pineda.

It was all just wishful thinking. Jorge Posada had made up his mind that 2011 would be his last season. He admitted Tuesday in a moving retirement announcement at Yankee Stadium that he made that decision during last season and shared it only with his wife, Laura, and his longtime teammate and friend, Derek Jeter.

“I knew this would be the end,” Posada said.

So all that talk about the possibility of his signing with the Rays or some other club was just that – a lot of talk. In the end, Posada wanted no part of any other organization than the Yankees, even if his final season in pinstripes was hardly warm and fuzzy. He struggled to get used to not catching on a regular basis, had an invisible year batting from the right side and endured some embarrassing moments as being dropped to ninth in the batting order or lifted for pinch hitters in pressure spots.

Yet through it all, Posada persevered and put a nice finish on his season with some clutch hits in September to help the Yankees clinch the American League East title and a .429 effort against some tough Detroit pitching in the AL Division Series.

“It is a very emotional day for me,” Posada said, fighting back tears. “Since I was a kid all I ever wanted to do was be a major leaguer. The Yankees were my family away from home. I am so proud of the hard work I put in. I could never wear another uniform. I will forever be a Yankee.”

Posada was all about work. Signed originally out of Puerto Rico as a shortstop, Posada was moved to second base and then behind the plate. He recalled leading the league in passed balls his first season as a catcher but was encouraged when the Yankees jumped him to Triple A in 1994 where he continued to improve with the aid of manager Stump Merrill, a former catcher.

Along the way, Posada made connections to the players with whom he would eventually team as the “Core Four,” playing alongside Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera in 1991 at Oneonta, N.Y., and with Jeter in 1992 at Greensboro, N.C. The quartet would all make it to the Yankees in 1995.

Mo and DJ were in attendance Tuesday as well as another teammate, CC Sabathia, and a host of dignitaries: managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner, general partner Jennifer Steinbrenner Swindal, president Randy Levine, chief operating officer Lonn Trost, general manager Brian Cashman, assistant general manager Jean Afterman, manager Joe Girardi and special advisor Gene Michael. A nice touch was the appearance of former second baseman and coach Willie Randolph, who drove in from his New Jersey home.

“My dad loved warriors, and Jorge was a warrior,” Hal Steinbrenner said. “He loved guys that worked hard and were good role models. Those are the things to be a great Yankee that my dad felt were absolutely essential.”

There were other touching moments from guests who flew in from the Midwest. Diana Munson, Thurman’s widow, came in from Ohio. Lisa Nederer, who works for the Jorge Posada Foundation in Wisconsin, attended with her son, Brett, who suffers from Craniosynostosis, the same disease that Posada’s son has and which inspired Jorge and Laura to form the foundation.

As Posada sat on the podium with Laura, their daughter Paulina and son Jorge Luis, Diana Munson addressed the audience and explained how coming to know Posada renewed her interest in baseball after she had turned away from it following the death of her husband Aug. 2, 1979 in a single-engine airplane accident.

She talked about meeting Jorge in the dugout before a game and his telling her that he kept a quote of Thurman’s in his locker. Jorge left he briefly, then returned to the dugout to show her the newspaper clipping he had saved in which Munson had said batting fourth in the lineup was all right but what he did behind the plate working with the pitching staff was more important.

“I actually got to the point where I couldn’t wait to get the newspaper to read the box scores,” Diana Munson said. “That’s unusual. The only box scores I ever read in my life were Thurman’s, but Jorge stayed very close to my heart. I think he and Thurman would have been best buds. I’m honored to have loved two Yankees catchers in my life.”

Not surprising but when it came to singling out the highlights of a playing career in which he batted .273 with 275 home runs and 1,065 RBI, Posada settled on team-oriented moments. In chronological order, they were his major-league debut in 1995, catching David Wells’ perfect game in 1998 and hugging Rivera on the mound at the Stadium after the final out of the 1999 World Series. He added that his worst memory was from an inter-league game in Philadelphia when he committed three passed balls.

Of course, there are so many other moments than fans will remember, such as Posada hitting the first home run at the new Stadium in 2009. I think the one fans treasure the most is the two-run, game-tying double he hit off Red Sox nemesis Pedro Martinez in the eighth inning of Game 7 of the 2003 AL Championship Series. It brought the Yankees even after entering the inning with a three-run deficit and kept the game alive so that Aaron Boone could push the Yankees into the World Series with his walk-off home run off Tim Wakefield in the 11th.

“I thought [Martinez] was going to come out of the game,” Posada recalled. “After [manager] Grady Little left him in, I thought about how he had pitched me inside all game, so I looked for something inside. Sure enough, he jammed me, and it found a lot of grass.”

For all the hard liners Posada hit that were caught, he was happy to accept a bloop hit that broke the Red Sox’ backs.

Posada said he would miss his teammates the most, but he also had a special message to his fans.  

“I thank the fans for all their years of support, the cheering and the ovations,” he said. “You kept me going when I needed it the most.”

As I type this, I am looking up at a photograph of Jorgie and me that was taken before a game during spring training at Tampa in 1997. I was presenting to Posada on behalf of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America the James P. Dawson Award that Yankees beat writers vote on for the top rookie in camp. The award itself is an engraved watch.

I remember that after the game Jorgie came over to me and said that the box was empty. I told him that the watch was being engraved, and we would get it to him soon. The engravers had misspelled his name by using the anglicized George instead of Jorge. Well, the replacement seemed to take forever, which became a running joke between the two of us. Every day for the first month of the season, he’d come up me and ask what time it was.

After Tuesday’s proceedings, I kidded Jorge and asked him what time it was. He smiled and said, “You know. It’s time to go.”

Steep price to upgrade starting pitching

So a relatively quiet winter for the Yankees got pretty noisy on Friday the 13th of this month when general manager Brian Cashman pulled off a trade with Seattle of rookies with enormous potential, a deal which was finalized Monday and has fans of both clubs buzzing about the 2012 season a month before the start of spring training.

This was a bold move for the Yankees, who were in need of help in their rotation but did not see much aid forthcoming among what was available in a free-agent field relatively weak in starting pitchers. Cashman always seems to have the Mariners in mind when looking for pitchers and came close to gobbling up Cliff Lee in the middle of the 2010 season only to have the Rangers scoop up the coveted lefthander, who after that season decided he really wanted to go back to Philadelphia. Cashman also keeps close watch on Felix Hernandez, should the Mariners ever decide he could become too expensive to keep.

In reigning in Michael Pineda, Cashman brought to the Bronx size and youth in one package. The cost was dear, however, and Yankees fans will likely be assessing that price throughout the 2012 season. Jesus Montero, the Yankees’ best hitting prospect since Derek Jeter, won over the fans’ affection in his brief stint with the team last year, which makes his departure difficult to accept.

Of course, you have to give up quality to get quality, but Pineda should realize from the start that he will be scrutinized closely this season by fans who saw in Montero perhaps a second coming of Mike Piazza, a catcher with the ability to hit for average and power to all fields. Just as was the case with Piazza, defense was a sore point for Montero, whom the Yankees used mostly as a designated hitter after his late August callup.

Had Montero stayed with the Yankees, he would have likely continued to be a DH rather than behind the plate where the team is quite pleased with Russell Martin. A possible move to first base was out of the question with the productive and durable Mark Teixeira stationed there. In short, the Yankees did not really have a spot for Montero since they would prefer the DH role as a rotating half-day’s work for their aging veterans.

Besides, the Yankees’ greater need was pitching. Pineda, who just turned 23, is still just a pup, albeit a sizeable one at 6-foot-7 and 260 pounds. The Dominican righthander was 9-10 with a 3.74 ERA in 28 starts for a Seattle club that had the worst offense in the majors last season and earned a place on the American League All-Star staff.

Despite his general success, Pineda did raise some issues last year. He slumped to 1-4 with a 5.12 ERA after the All-Star break following an excellent first half (8-6, 3.03 ERA). He certainly enjoyed the atmosphere of pitcher-friendly Safeco Field where he was 5-4 with a 2.92 ERA in 12 starts. Yankee Stadium’s more hitter-friendly dimensions could pose a challenge to Pineda, who did not pitch there last season. The Stadium was by all means friendly to Montero, who hit .500 with 3 home runs and 11 RBI in 9 games and 30 at-bats in the Bronx.

Pineda will also have to get used to pitching more regularly in AL East yards. He was okay (3.00 ERA) at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla., but not so well at Baltimore’s Camden Yards (4.50 ERA) or Toronto’s Rogers Centre (7.11 ERA) and downright awful at Boston’s Fenway Park (14.54 ERA).

There were two other pitchers involved in the deal. Hector Noesi, who did a nice job in long relief for the Yanks last year, accompanied Montero to Seattle where he will get an opportunity to make the rotation. The Yankees also got Jose Campos, 19, one of the Mariners’ top prospects, who pitched in Class A ball in 2011.

Pineda would appear to fit nicely alongside CC Sabathia and Ivan Nova at the top end of the starting pitchers’ unit with Phil Hughes, A.J. Burnett and Freddy Garcia in a competition for the other two spots. Spring training will tell how all this will fall out.