- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- When Buster Posey's hometown paper in Albany, Ga., took a poll in November asking readers if he’s already a "lock" for the Hall of Fame, 89 percent of survey respondents said yes. That's no surprise given the depth of affection for Posey in Lee County, and the sense of pride among the locals in his achievements.
The more salient question is, what could those 11 percent of dissenters possibly have been thinking?
Something about Posey generates universally positive vibes, in the same wholesome, All-American way that Joe Mauer did before that $184 million contract raised the scrutiny and complicated matters a bit. In the San Francisco clubhouse, teammates marvel at how Posey takes his fame and success in stride. Maybe it's the way he goes about his daily regimen with country-boy earnestness and no expectations of favors or special treatment. The word "humility" is invoked time and time again.
Heaven knows, it isn't easy.
Posey's days are filled with more demands, attention and perks than ever in the aftermath of his monster 2012 season, when he recovered from a devastating ankle injury to win a National League batting title, collect Comeback Player of the Year and MVP awards and lead the Giants to their second World Series victory in three seasons.
Posey filmed a video game commercial over the winter and experienced another departure from the norm this spring when GQ magazine invited him to a photo shoot in Arizona. If Posey envisioned getting all gussied up in a $3,000 suit with a pocket square, he was quickly disabused of that notion when the crew handed him some tight-fitting sweatpants made of a new-age spandex material. It's not the type of outfit a guy wears when he's grocery shopping in Leesburg, Ga.
"I'm probably going to take some grief for it," Posey says ruefully. "But in 15 or 20 years, my kids can look back on it and it'll be pretty cool for them. Or maybe they’ll think I'm a dork."
Posey enjoyed a more meaningful interaction in January. During a trip to New York to collect his MVP award, he visited the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center in Little Falls, N.J., with his wife, father and mother. Berra, a living, breathing museum piece in his own right, was gracious enough to give the Poseys a personal tour.
As a former winner of the Johnny Bench Award as college baseball's top catcher, Posey is well-versed in the lineage of great players at his position. He has an enduring respect for the predecessors who incurred arthritic knees and bad backs from all those years of foul tips and endless squatting.
“I think anybody that catches shares a bond," Posey says. "You know what it takes to play the position from a physical and mental standpoint. To me, getting a chance to meet Yogi Berra and knowing how long he played and what he accomplished I'm a huge fan of it. I'm just as enthralled as anybody else. Maybe a little bit more, because I understand the difficulty of what he accomplished."
A mere three years and 308 games into his big league career, Posey has a legacy of his own to burnish.
Nearly two years have passed since May 25, 2011, when Posey was writhing in pain after a home plate collision with Scott Cousins of the Marlins. He suffered a fractured fibula and three torn ligaments in his left ankle on the play. The damage was so far-reaching and pervasive that it prompted general manager Brian Sabean to rip Cousins and start a dialogue over whether baseball needed to do something to protect defenseless catchers.
Soon after being helped off the field, Posey embarked on his rehab, which is painstakingly chronicled here. With help from trainer Dave Groeschner, strength and conditioning coach Carl Kochan and other support people who put in some long hours of their own, he returned to full working order sooner than anyone had a right to expect.
The Giants helped lighten Posey's load by moving him to first base for 29 starts, and he found a different gear down the stretch. Posey led the majors with a .385 batting average and .456 on-base percentage after the All-Star break and hit one of the signature home runs of October, a grand slam off Cincinnati's Mat Latos to vault San Francisco over the Reds in the finale of their National League Division Series.
You want precedents? We've got precedents:
• Posey became the first player since Frank Robinson of the 1966 Baltimore Orioles to win a league MVP, batting title and World Series in the same season. The others to complete that rare hat trick: Dick Groat, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Stan Musial and Joe DiMaggio.
• At 25, Posey was the youngest player to win an MVP award since Ryne Sandberg of the 1984 Cubs.
• He joined Bench, Roy Campanella, Ernie Lombardi and Gabby Hartnett as the only catchers to win a National League MVP award.
• As a bonus, Posey joined Jackie Robinson of Cairo as the second Georgia native to win NL MVP.
Run through that list of 12 predecessors and you'll find 11 Hall of Famers (all except Groat). That's 91.6 percent, so maybe the Albany Herald's readers are a little cautious in their projection.
A driven player
In the San Francisco clubhouse, Posey's influence transcends his status as the team's best player. He has an easygoing appeal that resonates across income levels, service time and baseball-reference.com profiles. If he seems too good to be true, he will certainly do until something better comes along.
Posey's "it" factor is readily apparent to former players who work for the Giants in advisory capacities. That group includes Shawon Dunston, a spring training instructor and part-time coach with the organization. When Dunston first encountered Posey in spring training of 2009, he was impressed by both the kid's drive and the vehicle he drove.
"He showed up in a little red rent-a-car," Dunston says. "I put myself in that boat. If I came out of college and just signed for $6 million, I'm not driving a rental car. I said, This guy is focused."
Of all the San Francisco players, Posey and pitcher Matt Cain are Dunston's favorites because they're so "boring" and "old school" and oblivious to the concept of self-promotion. Dunston even tells his son, Shawon Jr., an outfielder in the Cubs' minor league system, to watch Posey and Cain and try to emulate the way they play and conduct themselves.
First impressions tend to linger. Pitcher Jeremy Affeldt remembers an interview that Posey did shortly after signing out of Florida State as the fifth pick in the 2008 draft. When Posey was asked about the possibility of a September call-up, he said he wanted to join the big club because he had earned the privilege -- not because the Giants were contractually obligated. He displayed no trace of a smidge of an iota of entitlement.
"This is a very humbling game," Affeldt says. "A lot of times people come in with a lot of flash, and the game humbles you and you play a certain way. But Buster came in playing that way. For him, it's not about bat flips or hoopla or loudness or grandstanding. It's about standing in the box and hitting a grand slam in the playoffs and acting like 'that's what I should do with that pitch.'
"When it comes to his accolades, he doesn't live in them. He doesn't get too caught up in it. If he won an award, it's probably because he deserved the award. But then he's on to doing what got him that award in the first place, and that's going out and playing hard and being good at his position.
"Derek Jeter is one of the best at it. He stands out because he plays in a very large market, but you're not going to see him in the media and the tabloids. He just does his thing and goes home. No drama. I think people respect a guy who has quiet confidence, believes in what he can do and goes out and does it. That's what Buster carries and leaders carry, and that’s what players look up to."
The players in Posey's peer group certainly view him in that light. Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford, a fourth-round pick out of UCLA in 2008, played with Posey in Class A San Jose the following year and says "he hasn't changed at all." Crawford is two months and six days older than Posey, yet smart and attentive enough to regard him as a professional role model.
Along with his offensive contributions, Posey spends a lot of time reading scouting reports and devising game plans to help his pitchers maximize their success. In 2012, Baseball Info Solutions ranked him 12th in defensive runs saved among 20 big league catchers with at least 750 innings played. But the sweat he invests in the process can't be quantified. It's a tribute to his parents, Demp and Traci, and to the folks who taught him to play the game back home in Georgia.
Personal experience plays a role too. That gruesome leg injury forced Posey to confront the possibility that he might return as a lesser player. If he continues to perform at an elite level -- and there's no reason to believe he won't -- the Cousins affair will be a defining moment in his career.
Nearly two years after the collision, Posey uses it as motivational fuel when his bat is dragging or his body is so achy that it's hard for him to roll out of bed in the morning. Posey and his wife, Kristen, have 19-month-old twins, son Lee and daughter Addison, so he rarely has the luxury of dawdling unless the Giants are on the road.
On a quiet morning in Scottsdale, before he hits the field for batting practice, Posey takes a quiet moment to reflect.
"I hate to keep going back to the injury, but it was a blessing in disguise in several different ways," he says. "You see that baseball's not the be-all and end-all. Everybody has a time line on them, no matter how good you are.
"There's no question I want to be able to draw from that experience and remember it. Hopefully I don't have to go through that again. But when it's August and I'm feeling a little bit tired, I know there's probably somebody who's on the shelf with an injury and wants to be out there. That's something I can use to my advantage."
As Posey approaches his 26th birthday later this month, he is grounded in the knowledge that success isn't defined by the clothes he wears, the car he drives, the money he makes or even the circle of friends he keeps. It's about what he represents.