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Emulating Munson Pays Off For Posada


May 11, 2004
Copyright ©2004 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved.

PHOTO: Barton Silverman/The New York Times

Through 29 games, Yankees catcher Jorge Posada was hitting .304 with 8 home runs and 23 runs batted in.

Jorge Posada was just starting his career when he found the quotation, the wise words of a predecessor about the purpose of their job. "You're not going to believe where I got it from," Posada said.

Posada was lifting in the weight room at Fenway Park, of all places, when he read the insights of Thurman Munson reprinted in a sports magazine. "Look, I like hitting fourth, and I like the good batting average," Munson had said. "But what I do every day behind the plate is a lot more important because it touches so many more people, and so many more aspects of the game."

Posada asked a Fenway attendant to make him a copy, and when he returned to Yankee Stadium, Posada taped it to the side of his locker, the one across the room from Munson's empty stall.

Posada is carving his own legacy with the Yankees, and doing it in Munson's mold. He has become a leader on and off the field, producing at the plate but keeping defense his priority.

With a .308 batting average, 8 home runs and 23 runs batted in, Posada has been the Yankees' steadiest hitter in addition to guiding a pitching staff that is largely new to him. He has continued his consistency from last season, when he ranked third in the voting for the American League's most valuable player, an award Munson won in 1976.

"I just liked the way he played the game," Posada said of Munson, who died in a plane crash in 1979. "He was a leader first, a teammate second and whatever he did on the field was second to him. He wanted everybody to feel comfortable. He wanted everybody to be on the same page, ready for every game.

"I read a lot about him being like that, and I wanted to find out more."

Posada has asked the former Yankees pitchers Ron Guidry, Goose Gossage and Mel Stottlemyre about Munson, the team captain from 1976 until his death. This is what Posada heard: clutch hitter, played hard, played hurt. It is part of what Posada expects from himself.

"I think he's going to be an even better player the next two or three years, because he's smarter, and he's learning every single day," said Gary Tuck, the Yankees' catching instructor. "He's never going to be a guy who says, 'I've got it all.' He's constantly collecting information and preparing."

This season, Posada has prepared for games with a revamped pitching staff that is leaning on him. With Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and David Wells gone, Posada is helping Kevin Brown, Javier Vazquez and Jon Lieber adjust to life in the Bronx and the American League.

"I've had no problem trusting him from Day 1,'' said Brown, who is 4-0 and starts at home tonight against the Anaheim Angels. "He's done a great job in the past, and he knows the league. He does a good job of seeing what's working that day and trying to utilize it."

Vazquez, in particular, has relied on Posada. Vazquez is 27 years old and felt a connection with Posada, 32, the first veteran catcher he has worked with and a fellow native of Puerto Rico.

Posada can be a vocal leader, never afraid to speak up in team meetings or criticize teammates for perceived nonchalance, as he did after the loss in the 2002 division series to the Angels. But Vazquez said Posada is composed on the field, and that helps him.

"He's not real fiery, but he knows what he's doing," Vazquez said. "He's calm behind the plate. He can calm you down when you're not doing what you're supposed to do."

Tuck says he has noticed Posada making more trips to the mound during games, cutting down on the visits that Stottlemyre, the pitching coach, or Manager Joe Torre have to make. To Torre, a former catcher, Posada's relationship with the pitchers has never been better.

"He's taking charge, and the pitchers don't mind it a bit, because they are gaining more respect for Jorge over the last couple of years," Torre said. "Not that they didn't respect him before, but his knowledge and maturity has led to the other stuff."

Shortstop Derek Jeter, the team captain and Posada's close friend, said it was harder for Posada to assert himself as a young catcher because the Yankees had a veteran staff. "Now, he feels as though he's the veteran," Jeter said.

Posada has spent much more time refining his defense the last two years, since Tuck was rehired after three years with the Cleveland Indians. Tuck, who has worked with Posada since the Yankees drafted him in 1990, said Posada's defense had slipped by 2002.

"We need to get this thing right," Tuck said Posada told him before last season. "You need to finish the product."

Posada believes that his improvement on defense made him a candidate for M.V.P. last season, never mind his career-high 30 home runs and 101 R.B.I.

Posada once struggled to separate his offense from his defense, but that has changed. "He's not wearing himself out emotionally the way he did a few years ago," Torre said.

But any clues about Posada's opinion of his hitting are private. Posada will not discuss his offense when he is going well, even though his status as a switch-hitter with power sets him apart from other catchers.

"He can do as many things, if not more things, than anybody playing the game right now," Tuck said. "He's a switch-hitter, he hits for power, he's a situational guy, an R.B.I. guy, an on-base guy. He catches, blocks and throws.

"He's the whole package, and he doesn't have a big ego. He slips in the background in the clubhouse; he sticks up for pitchers. He does a whole lot of huge things in there, and he'd rather be in the background."

Posada inherited this code of conduct, and he has made it his own.

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