Posada, Mattingly, Rivera, and the Mays '73 Moment

Who wants to see a great player struggle? During this offseason, there has been much speculation as to when Mariano Rivera will choose to retire, something he dropped hints about last season. My only preference is that whenever he does it, it’s too soon rather than too late. I don’t want to see Rivera fail.

I am too young to remember Willie Mays playing for the Mets in 1972 and 1973, but when I was growing up, that last go-round for the Say Hey Kid had become a symbol of something sad, the pain that came with watching a formerly great defender struggle to cut off balls he used to catch before they rolled past him to the wall, to strike out at the pitches he used to hit. His fans didn’t want to see him that way.

My own experience with this phenomenon came in the early 1990s, when I watched Don Mattingly change all too soon from the MVP of 1985 to the sore-backed singles hitter who batted .256/.308/.335 in 1990. In his case the problem wasn’t age, but injury. The result was the same—we were forced to watch something we just didn’t want to see.

Jorge Posada officially announced his retirement today. One of the first Pinstriped Bible crusades, right at the beginning of this feature’s existence, was that Posada had to displace Joe Girardi, and the sooner the better. The 1998 season had demonstrated what a valuable hitter Posada was. Girardi’s lack of offensive value had been established for almost ten years. In 1999, the imbalance between the two was perhaps even more extreme, even though Posada had a poor year by his standards. He hit only .245/.341/.401, but Girardi was far worse at .239/.271/.354, and made a point of hitting into just about every double play possible. The Yankees finally figured that Posada’s "apprenticeship" was ready to end at 28, and in 2000 he had the first of his really big seasons.

Now we’re on the other end of the string, and it’s clear that Posada had reached the end of his utility. I know that you can look at his production versus right-handers (.269/.348/.466) in isolation and say that Posada had something remaining in the tank, but what you’re looking at, given his lack of glove, speed, or right-handed swing is a left-handed DH and pinch-hitter with good-not-great numbers which were (A) compiled in a very streaky way, and (B) were no guarantee to repeat at age 40. The Yankees can approximate that and get more flexibility into the roster spot. It was, at least insofar as the Yankees went, time.

That Posada elected not to try to stretch his career for another year makes for a nice symmetry on his baseball card and a sentimental feeling in terms of fans, team, and player, but more importantly, his career can end on the note of his .429 average in the 2011 postseason rather than what would have been almost certainly the inevitable result of his transfer to a new address—too few at-bats to get going, followed by a midseason release when the roster spot was required for an extra pitcher or a player who could actually contribute in more than one dimension. That would have been a Willie Mays ’73 moment even more than last season threatened to be. Better to stop here.

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