The first time Jorge Posada set foot on Yankee Stadium grass, there were questions as to whether Major League Baseball as an entity would survive, let alone a goofy-eared, converted-infielder’s catching career. Seventeen years later, attendance and broadcasting numbers climb every year and a beloved Yankee catcher with five rings and Hall of Fame credentials has exited the game a superstar.
Perhaps baseball’s toughest player–eschewing batting gloves in favor of pine tar and diplomacy in favor of a shove to the chest–Posada’s presence on a ballfield was immense. Though he often could be seen visibly reining in his emotions to talk a young pitcher through a wild spate or curling a lip sidelong at an umpire, the Yankees’ beloved catcher could calm an entire stadium with his familiar stride toward the mound in a Bronx heartbeat. With his attitude and with his mettle, Posada made fans nostalgic for the type of player they’d probably been too young to know: the hard-nosed, battle-tested warrior who would sacrifice anything just to win a game.
It will be impossible for me to fully honor Posada–an essential part of my Yankee memories since before I could vote–but I do look fondly on three memories, in particular:
October 13, 2001. The Shovel Pass: Coming off three consecutive world championships, the Yankees were the favorite heading into their ALDS matchup with the Oakland A’s. That was why it was so surprising when they found themselves on the brink of elimination down two games to none and riding a one-run lead into the bottom of the seventh inning. Mike Mussina, who had been especially sharp, surrendered a two-out double with a runner at first. When Shane Spencer slung the ball wide of first base, the notoriously slow Jeremy Giambi was sent from third. Inexplicably, and in what has now become an iconic play, Derek Jeter, who was backing up first, shoveled the ball to Posada, who alertly applied the tag to Giambi’s calf a split-second before his foot hit home plate. With the swipe of the glove, the game–and the Yankees’ season–was saved, at least for the time being.
I remember watching the game from our living room couch that October. I had spent the previous four championships watching almost every playoff inning with my father, who has always been my baseball buddy. I had come home from my first college semester to watch the ALDS with my family, and being able to watch that play, and see that kind of instant turnaround, created a wonderful memory I still talk about with my favorite fellow fan.
What is especially notable about Posada’s role in that memorable play was his quick reflexes in the face of what had been a career-nagging criticism about his ability to block the plate. Posada silenced the critics with the immediate tag, and cemented the play as one of the most game-changing–albeit quirkiest–in recent baseball memory.
October 16, 2003. The Aaron Boone Game: Quite possibly the most heart-pounding 11 innings I’ve ever seen, Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS featured a little bit of everything: nail-biting lead changes, thundering home runs, and an unlikely hero who ultimately saved the day. But before Aaron Boone’s wall-clearing winner and the new moniker he earned, there was a time when the Yankees looked to be headed to Florida…with their golf clubs. Fresh off David Ortiz’s rally-killing home run in the top of the eighth, the Yankees headed to their half of the inning down three with only six outs to burn. In drips and drabs, the Yankees quietly put runners on base, and then plated one, before Posada came to the plate to a quickly-stirring crowd and the tying runs on. In what would become only one of several cinematic moments that night, he popped a ball off the end of the bat that somehow landed behind second base and safely out of the reach of any fielder nearby. The Yankees tied the game, and Posada, who had been running all the way, raised his fists and yelled triumphantly as he touched second base. The rest, as they say, is improbable baseball history.
Although I’m sure I saw the double the first time around, I couldn’t remember any details about it until I saw a replay years later. I don’t think I’ve ever felt such a swell of emotion from a baseball game in my life, and the details had turned into a blur of high-fives and tears. The only image that’s imprinted on my mind from that night is Posada’s victorious cheer as he stood on second base like he’d claimed it. As far as the baseball fan experience goes, it doesn’t get a whole lot better than that.
May 16, 2006. The Marathon Comeback: It was one of those weird games whose trajectory couldn’t possible have been predicted at first pitch. The Yankees’, who were hampered by injuries and illness, sent Shawn Chacon to the mound opposite the illustrious John Koronka of the Texas Rangers. By the Yankees’ half of the second inning, it looked like a bullpen-and-scrub night, as the Rangers had mounted a 9-0 lead. But with virtually no bench, the Yankees were forced to stay in it and battle. And battle they did, scoring 11 runs over the next five innings, matching a franchise record for most runs made up in a game, and banging up their catcher in a homeplate collision. In true baseball fashion, the story wasn’t quite written, and the Rangers immediately scored a pair, trading runs over the next few innings before taking a one-run lead into the bottom of the ninth.
Sometimes baseball makes its fans feel as though they might be psychic, and that otherwise unremarkable Tuesday night was one of those times. The Stadium was alight with anticipation when Posada limped to the plate as the winning run, still swollen and bruised, and when his trademark slingshot home run landed in the right field seats, it felt like destiny. Watching Posada round the bases with his head down, as he always did, I thought it seemed fitting that their stalwart catcher would give resolution to what had been such a game of instability.
My tribute to Posada is humble, but I feel that it is the best I can do for such a prideful man. Everything Posada did, he did to honor the game. He played hard, he played clean, and he left his entire heart behind the plate. Thanks for the memories, #20, and remember the fans when you make your speech at Cooperstown.