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Thursday, March 3, 2011
Posada passing the torch with grace

By Ian O'Connor
ESPNNewYork.com

TAMPA, Fla. -- In a deep corner of the New York Yankees' clubhouse, three open catcher's mitts holding signed baseballs rest side by side in a stall, like trophies in a case.

"Just if something happens," Jorge Posada said.

He will turn 40 in August, and if showcasing the tools of his former trade is a sign of a midlife crisis, so be it. On muscle memory, Posada showed up with the pitchers and catchers at the start of camp.

Jorge Posada
Jorge Posada, the Yankees' new DH, still reported to camp this spring with pitchers and catchers.

There is no known report date for a designated hitter and potential backup first baseman entering a thanks-for-the-memories tour his employer booked against his will.

"When all is said and done," Derek Jeter said Thursday, "Jorge is going to go down as one of the best catchers ever to play the game."

Jeter cautioned that his dear friend's career is not over, that Posada still has time to enhance a distinguished career as a worthy successor behind Thurman Munson's plate.

Truth is, Posada doesn't look or sound or act like a full-time designated hitter or part-time first baseman any more than he looks or sounds or acts like the minor league second baseman he used to be.

Never mind that Posada is officially a DH, and that Joe Girardi revealed Thursday that Posada will soon begin working as a possible backup to Mark Teixeira. Posada's whole being revolves around a catcher's ethos, around manning the manliest of baseball positions, and he can't surrender his identity overnight simply because his bosses asked him to.

"I'm working on it," he said through a laugh. "But it's tough. Your routine is a lot different in spring training, when you usually catch and you catch and then you go hit. Now I have a little more time on my hands, and I'm trying to figure out what that routine is going to be."

Posada's been trying to figure it out since the November day Brian Cashman visited him at Columbia-Presbyterian, where the catcher was scheduled for an MRI. The general manager had called Posada and asked for a meeting, and Posada told Cashman to meet him at the hospital before he flew out of town.

Cashman asked a hospital official for a private room, sat Posada down, and did without the small talk. "I just told Jorge this is what we were going to do, that we're going to have somebody else handle the catching this year," Cashman recalled. "I told him if our best-laid plans at catcher went by the wayside he should be ready to catch, but that he was now our DH.

"Jorge didn't say anything. He just listened and finally said, 'OK.'"

Posada knew this was coming after he hit .248 and showed some wear and tear on the defensive side of the ball. "But it was hard when I was told," he said.

"They told me early, though, and I think that helped me throughout the winter to prepare mentally to come in as a DH."

The depth chart says Russell Martin is the starting catcher, with the injured Francisco Cervelli and the phenom, Jesus Montero, auditioning for the role of backup. But Posada still has his catcher's mitts at the ready. He brought along his mask just in case.

Asked if he still felt in his heart of hearts that he will end up as the Yankees' catcher at some point this season, Posada said, "I don't know. A lot can happen. A lot of things can happen. We've got some young catchers that are ready, so we'll see. I'm looking forward to DHing right now."

After the news broke that Posada was done as the everyday catcher, he was comforted by fans who wrote to him or ran into him on the street, fans who told him that the team still needed his leadership, his toughness and his bat.

Of course, Posada is among the homegrown links between the 2009 champions and the dynastic teams of the late '90s. He might be the Core Four's answer to Ringo Starr, a Yankee lacking the kind of signature moments delivered by Jeter, Mariano Rivera, and Andy Pettitte.

But Posada belongs on the list of all-time great Yankees, a distinction earned with a Munson-like passion to play through the pain. In fact, if Girardi only let him, Posada would risk another concussion, throw on a mask Friday night, and treat a spring training game against the Boston Red Sox the same way Munson would have treated another fistfight with Carlton Fisk.

"I've watched a lot of video of Thurman catching," Posada said, "the way he threw the ball and the way he carried himself at the plate. I saw he was banged up a lot and he'd still go out and perform, and his teammates told me that he was always there for his team, that if he was banged up and Ron Guidry was pitching, Thurman told himself, 'I have to be out there for him.'

"You have to really dig deep as a catcher, because you're always hurt. Thurman did that, and I see myself a little bit like that."

Munson's widow, Diana, told Posada his intensity reminded her of her husband's, and that Posada's approach to the craft allow her to watch baseball again many years after Thurman's death in a 1979 plane crash.

"That meant so much to me," Posada said.

So now he stands willing to teach the kids -- the Monteros and Austin Romines -- how to do it the Munson and Posada way.

"Jorge's been awesome," Cashman said. "He's decided not to fight City Hall. I'm not saying he doesn't want to catch, but he's had a great attitude and I've never seen him engaging the younger catchers as much as he's engaging them now."

Posada's in the final year of his contract, almost certainly his last contract as a Yankee. Girardi will need the DH spot in the coming years to rest Jeter and Alex Rodriguez, among others, leaving Posada with one final frontier to conquer beyond 2011.

Does he get the plaque in Monument Park he so richly deserves?

"Oh man, that would be very special to me," Posada said. "I just hope it's not too far from now, because my mom and dad are getting old and I want them to be there. That would be an emotional day that would be very tough for me."

Jorge Posada, five-time champ, will find a way to handle it. That's what proud Yankees catchers do.