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We Stand Behind Jorge

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Yankee catchers: Martin, Posada, Cervelli

If you’re a Yankee fan, or even just a casual observer of baseball, then you heard about this weekend’s dustup, which the media upgraded to a tornado, surrounding Jorge Posada.  Briefly, Posada arrived at the stadium Saturday to find he was batting ninth, and one hour before game time told Manager Joe Girardi he was unable to play, for reasons left murkily undefined. This story, however, actually began at the end of last season, when Posada was told he’d be relieved of his catching duties and become the Designated Hitter for 2011. At 39, he’d been showing signs of slippage.

The Yankee’s Number One catcher since 1995, Posada is one of the Core Four, who, along with Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, and Mariano Rivera, are the only group of athletes in any sport in history to have played together on the same team for 16 consecutive seasons. (Pettitte missed three of those seasons with the Yankees while playing for his hometown Houston Astros from 2004 through ’06.) They have won five world championships together.

Pettitte recently retired, and over the course of the next few years, the other three will inevitably follow suit, making this a sad and bumpy transitional time for them, the team, and their fans. Anyone with the least bit of emotional intelligence would expect problems to arise and try to minimize the damage. Joe Torre, for instance, would certainly have anticipated the challenge, and managed it with grace. So would almost every woman I know. Unfortunately, Brian Cashman, the Steinbrenner kids, and Joe Girardi don’t get high points for emotional intelligence.

I don’t know what goes on in the back rooms of baseball, but I’d wager a hefty bet that they don’t weigh in psychological fallout when making big decisions. The cruel mistake here was in yanking Jorge from behind the plate all at once, when his attachment to being a catcher is fierce; even physiologically speaking, it must be enmeshed in the marrow of his bones after all these years. He should have been gently weaned by being allowed to catch a few games this year. Because psychological fallout wasn’t taken into consideration, it’s now affecting team performance — borne out by the disheartening Red Sox weekend sweep.

After Jorge took himself out of Saturday’s game and sat down in the dugout looking suicidal, Laura Posada tweeted the world that Jorge had been complaining of a bad back, and, oh, by the way, ”he loves being a Yankee.” My previously high esteem for Ms. Posada, based on how she’s dealing with the challenges of raising a disabled child, immediately sagged: unless Jorge asked her to do it, which I doubt, her intervention made him look bad. He never said he had back troubles, in fact, he admitted a need to “clear my head.” The little woman’s interjections – and she became “the little woman” the minute she insinuated herself into the situation – fanned the flames of nonstop media speculations that went on relentlessly for the next 24 hours.

Not surprisingly, Red Sox fans could hardly contain themselves, expressing their joy in nasty comments all over the Internet. They should’ve taken a cue from their favorite player, David Ortiz (Big Papi), their own Designated Hitter:

“I’m going to tell you what I think. They’re doing that guy wrong. They’re doing him wrong. You know why? Because that guy, he is legendary right there in that organization. And dude, DHing [stinks]…from what I heard, they told him from the very beginning that you’re not even going to catch bullpens, that straight up starts messing with your head. You’re going to tell me that Posada can’t catch a game out there? Come on, man. Now, I got used to this because I got no choice, but I can imagine how hard it has to be for him. This is a guy that is a good hitter. I don’t care what anybody says.”

With those heartfelt, humane words Big Papi just entered into my small circle of favorite players. Smart, insightful, and respectful, he has more compassion in his big toe than many so-called Yankee fans, of the younger persuasion no doubt, who are calling for Posada’s retirement, ‘dissing his age, performance slippage, and “diva” behavior.

That was Saturday. At Sunday night’s game, true Yankee fans proved their loyalty with a sign reading, “We Stand Behind Jorge.” The “Bleacher Creatures,” a bunch of guys who at every game do roll call of on-field players only, made an exception for Jorge: After finishing their attendance check with A-Rod, they chanted “Jorge, Jorge” and got an appreciative wave back from his place in the dugout. In the eighth inning Posada was sent in to pinch-hit for Andruw Jones, and the crowd gave him a standing ovation. He drew a walk against Red Sox reliever Daniel Bard, who later said, “I think that’s pretty cool that they’re sstanding behind him, but I still wanted to get him out.”

When the 2011 season opened, the Yankees charged the gates, bats blazing, and until a week ago were firing on all cylinders, at first place in the division. But their performance has steadily diminished, and a few days ago Tampa Bay leap-frogged right over them. Posada’s at-bat average was under .150, as opposed to his lifetime average of  .273, with a high of .338 in 2007. Still,  I didn’t realize it had been affecting the whole team. This weekend it became obvious that it has.

Captain Jeter, Jorge’s best friend, said,  “He’s a brother — we’ve been together a long time. If I thought he did something wrong, I’d be the first one to tell him.” Jeter himself is none too dazzling this season: his average is 260, and if I never see another groundout from him I still will have seen too many. Someone pointed out that Jeter is playing under circumstances similar to Posada, with retirement on the horizon, yet he’s not acting like a “pouty diva.” But if Jeter isn’t showing any emotional wear and tear, it’s probably because he’s not quite as attached to being a shortstop as Posada is to catching. Besides, Posada’s nature is that of a highly sensitive person; it’s like comparing apples and oranges.

Catching is, in my opinion, one of the hardest jobs in baseball. The physical position alone is enough to kill you. And this is the guy who tells the pitcher what to throw and when: he’s key to the progression and outcome of the game. I’ve always admired catchers, even more than pitchers, and Jorge Posada is my favorite player. He’s not glamorous like Jeter or A-Rod, not flashy or adventurous or given to grandstanding. He is in fact anything but a diva.  My affinity for him deepened even further when he and Laura had a son with craniosynostosis. Having been through a similar experience myself, I read their book and wrote them a letter in response, enclosing my own book on the subject, Perfectly Normal.

I’m fully confident that Posada will emerge from all this with his dignity intact. Losing his place and identity as a catcher is a significantly big deal, but it is, after all, neither the most difficult nor the most painful life experience that Jorge Posada has ever faced.

Other Yankee Notes

Friday night’s game with the Red Sox was the 2,048th time the rivals faced each other on the field.

The Yankees have made 26 errors this season, one of the highest in MLB. In a typical sloppy move, the ball came dribbling down the field heading straight for A-Rod, who casually bent over, his mind obviously somewhere else, and let it roll past his glove and through his legs while the hitter took first base.

The Yankees’ team average is .292, with only Eric Chavez and Felix Nunoz batting over 300.

Will Eric Chavez turn out to be this year’s Nick Johnson? You might not remember Nick, so brief was his tenure last season, when he hurt his wrist in May and stayed out the rest of the season. Chavez, who came over from the A’s this year, promptly pulled something or other and is on the DL. Having spent his last few Athletic seasons on the list, I don’t expect to see him again at Yankee Stadium.

Pitching: Yankees have a pitching problem for at least the third consecutive year. With the exception of C.C. Sabathia, none of the starters are completely reliable. Bartolo Colon, as well as A.J. Burnett, is inconsistent, and he’s also one of those maddeningly S-L-O pitchers who lengthen the game – as if it needs lengthening! – with long pauses between pitches. Worse, however, is that Colon frequently wears a blank face, giving the impression he’s not completely there. Phil Hughes is on the DL. Meanwhile, Girardi lets all of them stay in the game well beyond the bounds of decent performance. I guess he’s busy deciding who’s going to catch…uh oh, don’t get me started again!

Let’s hope for better news next week!

 

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