Yankees Magazine: Strong foundation

All around his native Puerto Rico, the building blocks of Jorge Posada's success remain

December 22nd, 2016
From the left-field seats of Yankee Stadium, a 12-year-old Jorge Posada made his intentions clear -- one day, he would play in the iconic Bronx ballpark. Today, he can look back proudly on a championship career in pinstripes. (New York Yankees)James Petrozzello

Jorge Posada is back where it all began. He's in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, a small section of town in the middle of San Juan. The former Yankees catcher is visiting family on the island, and on this hot summer afternoon, he's at the house where he grew up.

Wearing a pair of jeans and a light blue collared shirt, Posada Minor League who resides in Miami -- walks into his childhood bedroom. These days, he has more gray hair than he did when he retired from baseball in 2012 after 17 seasons with the Yankees, but he still has the build of a Major Leaguer.

Much of what was in that bedroom when Posada was growing up is still there. The twin bed that he fell asleep in each night takes up about half the width of the room. Two shelves hang above a wooden dresser on the wall next to the bed, and they are packed with mementos from Posada's youth, including a few baseballs and more than a dozen trophies from various baseball seasons and tournaments.

There are even a few miniature batting helmets, each representing a different Major League team.

"I used to collect these," Posada said. "They were giveaways from Baskin-Robbins. They used to put ice cream in them. I always had the Yankees helmet right where I could see it from my bed.

"The only things that are not in here anymore are my old posters," Posada continues. "I had a Don Mattingly poster and a George Brett poster. I loved those guys. I loved how hard they played the game, especially Mattingly."

On the part of the ceiling above the bed, there are several tiny marks and grooves.

"Every night, when I would lie down, I would play catch," Posada said. "I would pretend I was playing for a Major League team. I tried not to hit the ceiling, but that was hard to do."

Of all the meaningful items in the room, the one that makes Posada the most nostalgic is a photo collage from a trip that he and his family took to New Jersey when he was 12 years old. The family traveled to the Garden State for a softball tournament that Posada's father was playing in, and during the trip, they took in a game at Yankee Stadium.

Sitting in the seats in left field with his parents and his older sister, Posada was in awe of everything about baseball at the Major League level.

"Dave Winfield was playing left field," Posada recalled. "He ran back toward the seats and jumped up and stole a home run. Right after that play, I looked over to my mom and said, 'Someday, I'm going to play here.' She just smiled and said, 'If you want to, you will.'"

A Strong Foundation

Earlier in the day, Posada visits another place that holds special meaning.

Long before Posada took the field at Yankee Stadium, his summer days were spent at Casa Cuba, a social club about five miles from his house.

During Posada's childhood, he and his family would arrive at the beachfront facility early on weekend mornings and leave after the sun had set.

It was on the long beach at the club that Posada participated in competitive sports for the first time.

"We played football, baseball and soccer on the beach," Posada said while walking toward the ocean. "We also had running races, and we used to swim to a tiny island out in the ocean. Back then, it seemed like that island was so far away, but now it looks like it's right here. Being back here brings back a lot of great times."

In addition to the beach activities, Casa Cuba also had a baseball squad that competed against teams from the five other clubs on the island. Posada first played for the Casa Cuba team when he was 9 years old, and his memories of that experience remain vivid.

Casa Cuba, located in Isla Verde, played its home games at nearby Parque de Pelota de Isla Verde, and that's Posada's next stop of the day.

"The thing I remember most about this field is the day I got my first baseball uniform," Posada said from the red wooden bleachers behind home plate. "I was sitting right here when the coach walked over with a box in his hands and began to hand out our jerseys. They looked just like the old Texas Rangers uniforms. They were red and blue, and they said 'Casa Cuba' along the front."

From the time he first put on a uniform, all Posada wanted was to play baseball.

"It was fun to be out here when I was a little kid," Posada said, walking across the dirt infield and pointing to a concrete wall behind first base. "I played shortstop, and I was a little erratic. I would overthrow the first baseman pretty often, but the ball would bounce off that wall, and it saved me a lot of errors."

After he walks out to the outfield, made up of a rough combination of grass and clovers, Posada is reminded of one of his favorite memories.

"I hit a home run here with a wooden bat when I was 13 years old," Posada said. "I loved playing in games when there were a bunch of people in the stands watching us. The seats were packed that day, and I can still hear all of the people clapping."

For Posada, the decision to use a wooden bat while all of his teammates were swinging metal bats was not one he made on his own. His father, Jorge Posada Sr., a man who played baseball in his native Cuba before defecting and whose passion for the game is off the charts, forced his son to switch to a wooden bat early on.

"He wanted me to have quick hands," Posada said while making his way back toward the bleachers, skipping over a few large puddles of water in front of home plate. "When I was 8 or 9 years old, he told me to start using a wooden bat. The wooden bat was a lot heavier than the aluminum bat, and even though none of the other kids used wooden bats back then, he was able to find one that was the right size for me.

"When I showed up at practice with a wooden bat, the kids asked me what I was thinking," Posada continues. "I was definitely at a disadvantage, and the only explanation that my dad gave me was that players in the Big Leagues used wooden bats. I would follow everything he said, and I just felt like if I was going to be in the Big Leagues some day, I might as well get used to using a wooden bat when I was a kid."

That wasn't the only way Posada's father fostered his son's ability to play the game through tough love.

Beginning at around the same time Posada abandoned metal bats, his father insisted that he learn to bat from both sides of the plate.

Again, the young boy was at a major disadvantage.

"He didn't tell me that I was going to bat left-handed against righties until I started playing organized baseball," Posada said. "I struck out and struck out and struck out. It was probably more mental because my swing was there, but it took me awhile to get the confidence I needed to have from the left side. It wasn't easy at the beginning."

Amid a long streak of consecutive strikeouts, Posada pleaded with his father to go back to his natural side.

"Without even thinking about it, he said no," Posada said. "He told me that if I kept working at it from the left side, I would be fine. He always encouraged me to stay with it."

Despite the challenges that came with batting lefty, by the time he was in high school, Posada began to realize that becoming a switch-hitter was paying off.

"My swing was a lot better from the left than from the right," Posada said. "That helped because you see a lot more right-handed pitchers when you're young. I can count the number of lefties I saw on one hand. After a few years, it felt like I was a natural from both sides of the plate."

As time went on, the older Posada -- a longtime Major League scout who began working for the Yankees when his son was 3 years old and later moved on to the Toronto Blue Jays, Atlanta Braves, Colorado Rockies and now the San Francisco Giants -- provided further explanation to his son about why he insisted on having him bat left-handed.

"We watched a lot of Major League games together," Posada said. "He would show me how curveballs would come in toward most hitters instead of away from them. He made me understand how much easier it would be for them if they were on the opposite side of the pitcher's throwing hand, and that made me feel better about the whole thing. Later on, he told me that I had an uppercut swing from the right side, and the only way to fix it was to move me to the other side because if he told me about it, he felt I would have overcompensated."

A Breakthrough

Although Posada had some great moments at Casa Cuba's home field, his favorite childhood baseball memory took place at Caparra Country Club, where his father was the coach.

"They had more resources than Casa Cuba," Posada said during the drive to Caparra, in the Guaynabo section of San Juan. "Even though we were members at Casa Cuba, they recruited my dad to coach over there."

When Posada arrives at Caparra, he parks the black rental Mercedes next to a well-maintained baseball field, walks toward the third-base dugout and takes a seat on a concrete ledge.

"They always beat us," Posada said. "We were outmatched, especially when we first started to play them. We got better because we practiced a lot, but my dad was always thinking ahead. From a mental standpoint, he had a big advantage over our coaches."

Then, near the end of the last game of the 1980 season -- when Posada was 9 years old -- he came to the plate with his team trailing by three runs and the bases loaded.

As he did many times after that, Posada came through in the clutch, smacking a three-run double into the outfield to tie the game. Posada's team eventually won.

"That meant so much to me," Posada said. "That was the first big hit of my life, and one that still remains one of the biggest I've ever gotten. I hated losing, and I especially hated losing to my dad. It was hard to deal with him joking about it on the way home after we lost."

This time around, the trip back to Rio Piedras was a lot more fun.

"As soon as we got in the car, my sister started rubbing it in," Posada said. "She asked him where he was taking us for pizza because when his team won, he would take them out for pizza. I didn't care about whether we were going out for pizza. I was just very excited and happy.

"My dad was very serious in the car," Posada continued. "But when we got home, I could tell he was happy for me. He was happy that I got the double from the left side."

Hard Work Pays Off

After the short visit at Caparra, Posada is ready for lunch, and his favorite restaurant on the island is not far away.

With the midday sun beating down, Posada pulls into Ceviche House and sits down in a booth near the back of the small air-conditioned restaurant.

Without even looking at the menu, Posada orders a large plate of ceviche.

"We are about to eat the best ceviche in the world," Posada said. "I come here every time I'm back in Puerto Rico -- at least five times."

As Posada waits for his lunch, he reflects on some of the experiences that shaped his childhood, including a few trips he took with his father to Big League Spring Training camps.

"If my grades were good enough, he would take me to Spring Training," Posada said. "I went with him four times -- twice when he was with the Toronto Blue Jays and twice when he was with the Atlanta Braves. We would start in Miami and make our way up to central Florida."

Being around Major Leaguers added fuel to Posada's desire to one day make it himself.

"I couldn't believe how many baseballs would be out on the field during batting practice," Posada said. "I remember being in awe of how green the grass was and how well-manicured the fields were. They would let me wear a uniform and take batting practice in the cages. I used to hit baseballs all day long. I would come home with calluses on my hands."

A huge plate of ceviche arrives, and Posada digs into the raw fish marinated in lime juice.

The conversation then changes to a memory that Posada is less fond of.

When Posada was 12 years old, his father arranged for a pile of dirt to be delivered to the area in front of their house. Posada remembers the pile standing about 10 feet -- reaching higher than the house.

"When I got on top of the pile, I could see the roof of my house," Posada recalls. "It was ridiculous."

When Posada woke up on that early-summer morning, his father handed him a shovel, pointed to a wheelbarrow and ordered him to move the dirt to the backyard, which needed to be landscaped.

"I worked from sun up to sun down for almost three weeks," Posada recalls. "The more it rained, the worse it got because the dirt hardened. I was determined to finish it in a few weeks so that I could enjoy the rest of the summer."

While Posada can't imagine ever charging either of his two young children with such a grueling task, he speaks less about the resentment toward his father and more about how he benefited from the work.

"My legs got strong," Posada said. "My forearms got really strong. I could see the physical strength I gained from it. Mentally, it helped me understand how hard you have to work to accomplish difficult things in life, and that helped me long after that summer."

By the time Posada finished the dirt pile story, he was already onto his second dish of ceviche.

"It's amazing how much my dad has softened these days," Posada said near the end of lunch. "I see him with my son and daughter, and I say to myself, 'Who is this guy?'"

Where A Dream Was Born

After lunch, Posada is off to his parents' house to spend a few hours with them.

As he leaves a more crowded San Juan neighborhood for the quiet streets of Rio Piedras, many of which are shaded with overhanging trees, Posada points out a few parks where he once played.

Then, he pulls up to his parents' one-story house located at the crest of a slight incline.

"When I was about 14 years old, my dad used to measure 60 feet out there and mark it with spray paint," Posada said. "Every other day, I would run that distance 10 times. My dad would tell me if I could make it in under eight seconds out here, I would be able to make it from home to first base on a flat surface in under seven seconds."

His parents briskly walk outside to greet him. Posada's mother and father each embrace him before he steps through the front door.

From the front of the house, the family makes its way past Posada's childhood bedroom to a room in the back of the house that was added on after the catcher reached stardom with the Yankees. The room is a temple to Posada's professional career and specifically to his 17 seasons in pinstripes.

The white concrete walls are covered with photos of him celebrating championships, magazine articles and even his first Yankees Magazine cover. There is a bat rack behind the couch with one bat from each of the five World Series Posada won in New York. Sitting on a table next to those bats is the first of five Silver Slugger Awards the catcher took home during his career, and Posada's locker nameplates from each of the five All-Star games he played in hang on another wall.

As Posada reminisces about his early days in Puerto Rico, his mother, Tamara -- who is originally from the Dominican Republic -- reaches out and grabs his hand. She's unwilling to let it go.

"I'm so proud of him," she said. "But the time went too fast. I wish he could still be here all the time."

Posada and his family soon move to a table on a patio in the backyard. There is a tin roof above the patio, and the seating area overlooks the backyard, which is about 30 feet by 50 feet.

"This is really the first place I ever played baseball," Posada said. "My dad used to take me out here when I was 3 years old, and we would play catch with a plastic ball.

"When I got older, I played Wiffle Ball back here all the time with my two best friends," Posada continues. "They both lived right around on this street. We had a lot of fun back here."

Off to the side of the lawn is the foundation of a batting cage that Posada's father installed when his son was in high school.

"I used to hit baseballs all day and night back then," Posada said. "We had lights out here so I could be out here after it got dark. I drove the neighbors crazy."

Even though Posada has just finished lunch, his mother serves a platter of steamed shrimp with a citrus glaze, made from a secret family recipe she calls "Shrimp Posada."

Posada's father grabs a few cold beers from a refrigerator out on the patio, and he hands one to his son. Then, the man who pushed his son to the limit and who rarely showered him with praise reaches into his pocket and pulls out a piece of paper.

On the paper, there is a list of all the catchers in the Hall of Fame -- and Posada. The players' most important statistics -- games played, batting average, home runs and RBI -- are listed along with their rankings in each of those categories. Among the Hall of Fame catchers, Posada is in the middle of the pack or better in all of the statistical categories.

Posada's father hands the paper to his son.

"The Hall of Fame is next," the older Posada said. "You have the numbers, and what's different from a lot of the other catchers on this list is that you have won five World Series and played in five All-Star Games."

Posada smiles and then carefully peruses the paper, discussing the accomplishments of a few of his favorite catchers.

A little while later, the older Posada gets up and walks toward the refrigerator. As he's about to open it, he stares at a magnet on the refrigerator door. The magnet, which was produced by the Yankees, features a photograph of the former catcher, and it reads "Jorge Posada Day, August 22, 2015," referring to the afternoon the team retired his number and dedicated a Monument Park plaque to him.

"It's like a dream," the older Posada said. "It's like I'm walking on air. I couldn't be prouder of him."

As afternoon turns to evening, Posada's visit comes to an end. He's off to meet his wife, Laura, their two children and his in-laws for dinner.

As he leaves the house, Posada again embraces both of his parents, this time kissing his father on the cheek and uttering two all-encompassing words.

"Thank you."