Posada follows in footsteps of legend
Jorge Posada is inspired by Thurman Munson, and Munson's wife is inspired by Posada
BOSTON -- Joba Chamberlain scored the big punchouts against the Red Sox, celebrating his second in a fist-pumping rage. But as much as the new Joba looked like the old Joba, proving he belongs in the 'pen forevermore, this night was not about Chamberlain or A.J. Burnett or any Yankee who threw the ball.
It was about the Yankee who caught it.
"He was awesome back there," Burnett said of Jorge Posada.
On truth serum, A.J. would've called Jorge a lot of things last year. "Awesome" would not have been among them.
To understand how a 38-year-old Posada landed behind the plate in Tuesday night's 6-4 Yankees victory, fighting off Burnett's whims and all those whiz-kid catchers in the minors, you have to understand a primary source of his boundless spirit.
Posada found it right here inside Fenway Park, of all places -- the words of a prophet written on the weight-room wall. A quote from Thurman Munson, used as inspiration in the house of the Yankees' most despised foe.
Munson spoke of his appreciation for the cleanup spot and a healthy batting average. "But what I do every day behind the plate," the quote goes on, "is a lot more important because it touches so many more people and so many more aspects of the game."
This was 1997, and the young catcher measured the meaning as he stood there in silence. "I liked what he said," Posada said, "so I kind of stole it."
Munson's photo and quote ended up in Posada's locker in the Bronx. Soon enough, just as he was asserting himself as the everyday man behind the mask, Posada met a woman who changed his baseball life.
Diana Munson was at Yankee Stadium to honor her late husband, and somehow found a way to honor another catcher even more. Munson told Posada she could watch baseball again because of him.
"It kind of crushed me a little bit," Posada said. "I got sentimental when she said that. I said, 'Thank you,' and it meant a lot to me, but it was tough to hear that from her."
Diana Munson told the man playing her husband's position that his game and intensity reminded her of Thurman's, and the sentiment buckled Posada's knees. The widow was comparing him to a figure as large in life as he was in death. She was comparing Posada to the first Yankees captain since Lou Gehrig, and he needed time to recover. "But then I realized I was giving somebody else a chance to watch the game again," Posada said, "and it made me really happy."
Diana Munson said she cried when she learned that Thurman's photo and quote hung in Posada's locker, and that Derek Jeter was protective of the neighboring stall left vacant in Thurman's honor.
Above all else, Posada's passion for the game has made a profound impression in the Munson home. Thurman was driven by the same flame. Posada would read about it, watch the highlights of Munson chugging the bases and making those sidearm left-to-right throws to second base, and he'd ask Ron Guidry if his catcher was as hell-bent on winning as it seemed.
Munson once threatened to break Guidry's ankles if he didn't strike out the side, and acting on captain's orders, Guidry proceeded to strike out the side. "I talked to Gator a lot about him, asked him a lot of questions," Posada said. "He said I have a lot of Thurman in me."
The Thurman in Posada wouldn't let him retreat from Burnett's challenges in 2009, when Burnett's newfound problems at Fenway -- he dominated here as a Blue Jay -- suddenly became Posada's burden to bear.
Burnett preferred pitching to Jose Molina, and Posada made little attempt to hide his pain. He was a four-time World Series champ, a card-carrying member of the Core Four, and here was some flighty, $82.5 million tourist shoving a pie in his face.
Posada endured the postseason benchings and drove in five runs in six World Series games to win his fifth ring -- but no, he didn't forgive or forget.
He survived instead. He outlasted Molina, hardened his body in the offseason, held off the likes of Jesus Montero, and forced Burnett to build a bridge back to him. "Jorge cares about winning, and it's not an act," said his best friend, Jeter. "You can see through it when people say things and they really don't mean it, but Jorge wants to win.
"We came up in a time when The Boss was adamant we had to win, and that's all we knew. Losing was never accepted and that's how we were taught coming up, and that's probably a big reason why we're still here."
Posada was there Tuesday night in a very big way. He made a throwing error in the first inning, and Boston took a 1-0 lead as a result. But whenever Burnett bounced one of his curveballs, Posada bailed him out. "When you're blocking balls like that," Burnett would tell Posada, "it only gives me more confidence to keep chunking them down."
Posada made the most important call of the night in the fourth inning, heading to the mound to right a Burnett wrong. "When [Mike Cameron] got hit with the curveball, I went out there and told him to get on top of the curveball a little bit more," Posada said. "He did it right away, and then the curveball was biting the way it should."
With Victor Martinez on second after his RBI double, in the fifth inning of a 4-4 game, Burnett used that biting curve to claim his biggest two outs -- Kevin Youkilis' strikeout looking, and David Ortiz's strikeout swinging.
Posada would also leave his mark on the offensive side of the game. He led off the eighth with a full-count double off Hideki Okajima, ultimately scored the winning run, and absorbed Burnett's praise at his locker after the game. "It means a lot to me," Posada said. "He's really going out of his way to make me feel good, and I appreciate that."
The catcher who wore No. 15 on his mask last year to mark the 30th anniversary of Munson's death was standing tall at his locker, refusing to budge an inch.
As it turns out, knocking Jorge Posada out of the box won't be any easier than flattening Thurman Munson at the plate.
Ian O'Connor is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.