Saturday afternoon's Jorge Posada-Eric Hinske sixth-inning home plate collision brings into question why catchers do what they do for a living.
Being a major league catcher is hazardous duty, at least the most hazardous position on a baseball field. They get foul balls off limbs, face mask, throat. They get their heads knocked off in home plate collisions, like that one that left Posada dazed when Hinske came in forearm first and knocked him into oblivion. Posada held the ball. Hinske was out. But while Posada finished the game, he went to Massachusetts General Hospital afterward to make sure he didn't suffer a concussion. The CT scan came back negative.
He was inserted into the Yankees lineup last night as the designated hitter and while he accepted being a DH for one night, Posada is one of the tough guys. A converted infielder in the minor leagues, at age 36, he's having a career season. He has caught 120 or more games in eight straight seasons and he has never had a stint on the disabled list.
He is to the Yankees pitching staff what Jason Varitek is to Boston's, except Posada finished the weekend hitting .335 with 20 homers and 85 RBIs while Varitek's offense has steadily declined.
Posada hates to miss games behind the plate, especially ones started by Roger Clemens. He has caught more of Clemens's games (153) than any catcher in the Rocket's illustrious career. Clemens is 74-35 (.679) in those games. But because Yankees manager Joe Torre wanted to protect his catcher, and needed his bat, he wanted to give him 24 hours to collect himself.
Posada said last night he has had CT scans on his head in each of the past three years because he wants to make sure he's OK. He has suffered concussions in the past, even broke his nose, and each time he puts the gear back on and he does it all again. He's one of the few catchers in major league history to get better as he has gotten older, a phenomenon not lost on Tony Peña, who is credited with taking Posada's defensive ability to the next level.
"Here's a guy who has played 12-13 years already and he's very durable," said Peña, the Yankees' first base coach and catching instructor. "To be one of the best catchers in baseball, which he is, you have to be willing to always learn and get better and try new things. You also have a catcher who can really hit and, I'll be honest with you, given everything he does, I'm amazed that he can hit like he's hitting. This is a guy who, especially early in the season, he had to learn all of the young pitchers we brought up here. It was incredible what we were asking him to do."
He's a catcher his team can depend on, who is going to be behind the plate every day. He doesn't like to take a day off. He wants to catch all the time. He'd catch all 162 games if you let him.
"Right now, we need his bat in the lineup," said Torre, a former catcher who caught for eight years before becoming a corner infielder. "I just don't want to risk having a foul ball coming back at him. I just want to give him 24 hours to just sit back and just concentrate on his hitting."
Posada took a cab to the ballpark late yesterday afternoon with longtime teammate Derek Jeter. While Jeter is considered the team captain, Posada easily could be considered a cocaptain. There's not a player who has more teammate respect than Posada. He even draws respect from Varitek, who when asked about people he respects in the game always mentions Posada. And vice versa.
"I just went [to the hospital] for precautions, just to make sure I was OK," Posada said. "After the hit, I felt a little bit [dazed]. Anybody would have, but I felt fine. I felt fine after a couple of minutes. Just normal headaches after the game. I slept well. I woke up fine."
Posada recalled the Hinske play and had no problem with the way Hinske bowled him over.
"I didn't have a choice," Posada said. "I had no choice but to block the plate. The ball got there pretty much the same time, so I really couldn't do anything."
He said he doesn't think about the risk to his health and career when he's on the field. A collision of any magnitude could end his career. He was reminded of Mike Matheny, the fine defensive catcher of the San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals. His career ended prematurely because the concussions he suffered put him at risk for brain damage. The last straw came after a series of foul tips to the mask in a Memorial Day series while playing for the Giants in 2006.
"I broke my nose in spring training one year," recalled Posada. "Sometimes you get one [concussion] and you don't know that you had it. I would say I've had one three or four times. But you can't think about it. Can't think about the negative. You just have to keep hoping something good will happen. You just have to keep hoping everything will be fine and keep playing the game. You can't play the game thinking that something's gonna happen to me. It could happen anywhere. It could happen down the street and you get run over by a car. You can't worry about things you can't control.
"I had a CT scan in the offseason just to make sure everything's fine. The last three years I've been able to have them."
Recalling his collection of collisions, he said, "They're all pretty similar. Last year with [Mark] Teixeira was pretty good. Eric Byrnes really got me good when he was with Oakland. They're all pretty much the same thing. When the runner is there, you really can't defend yourself. You can't try to avoid it."
Asked whether he would consider changing positions in the future, the soon-to-be free agent said, "Right now, I'm a catcher and that's it."
Just two batters after Hinske, Posada found himself blocking the plate again as Jacoby Ellsbury came flying down the third base line toward him. Posada received the throw but didn't put the tag down. At the time, it was thought Posada was so dazed from the last hit that he wanted to protect himself.
"The second one, I thought he was gonna run me over, too," Posada said. "That's why I didn't put the tag on him. I thought he was just gonna jump on me. [Ellsbury] never got to the plate. I thought he was out, anyway."
Posada appreciated Hinske asking him the next time he came to the plate, " 'You all right, man?' I told him I was."
Posada got off pretty easy, actually. While his eyes seemed a little glassy yesterday afternoon, he was sure he was fine. It was all in a night's work for one terrific catcher and one of the most respected players in the game.