Last Saturday night, about an hour before the Yankees and Red Sox were set to play, Jorge Posada went in to manager Joe Girardi’s office and told him he couldn’t play. Posada is, in my mind, a Yankee great. He’s been a rock behind the plate for over a decade and a clutch hitter for the Yankees during their championship years. But Saturday night he was told he'd been dropped to 9th in the line-up. I don't think this should have come as much of a surprise. His batting average is .165 and he doesn't have a right-handed hit yet this season. But, there it was. He wanted to sit out rather than hit 9th.
Posada’s decision raises interesting questions about the tension between the individual and the group in the context of a team sport. Professional athletes must be driven, focused, and sometimes even selfish and stubborn to succeed at the highest levels. Pete Rose, for example, used to say he was the most selfish player on the field because he wanted to get a hit every single time he got up. There’s no question these attributes can contribute to personal and team performance. But there’s a dark side to this type of ambition. In short, it can cause you to temporarily forget that you’re playing a team sport. One reason team sports are so interesting to me is that they usually require ambitious, self-focused people to think hard about the desires of a variety of other people—namely their teammates, manager, position coaches, general manager, and owner—if they want to accomplish anything for themselves. Egos must be sacrificed for the good of the group, but sometimes this can be difficult to do. And the resulting damage can be both personal and collective. Indeed, not only can blind ambition lead you to make very dumb decisions with unrecognized personal risks, such as using steroids or HGH, but you can also undercut the very people that helped you get where you are. This tension is apparent in the twilight years of a successful player's career, when they may not be playing as well as they used to.
So here’s Jorge Posada, the great Yankee catcher, in the middle of a batting slump, and probably at the tail-end of his career. He sees he’s been dropped to 9th in the line-up, goes into Joe Girardi’s office, says he can’t play, without explanation, and the Yankees take him out. This is strange. When you play a team sport (or even when you work in a business), you do what your manager says. Period. Certainly, there needs to be good communication between you and your manager, but when a decision is made, you do it. To be fair, it looks like communication may have been a factor in Posada's reaction. Joel Sherman, of the New York Post, said that after all that Posada has done for the Yankees, and since hitting 9th is so symbolic and probably something that would not go over too well, Giraridi should have talked to Posada about this possibility at least a couple days before the decision was made. I agree. Posada apparently found out he was hitting ninth when he got to the ballpark that day. Both sides could have talked and maybe avoided this major blow-up. Girardi was trying to help him get out of his slump by playing him, but maybe 8th could have worked. Ninth, really? There are a number of Yankees struggling...maybe someone else could have hit ninth. That would have shown Posada some respect, and Posada probably would have reacted with respect towards Girardi. Good managers are not only good tacticians, but they are also good communicators...or at least they try. Nevertheless, Posada should have stayed in the line-up. I mean, he's really been struggling. In the words of my high school coach Jack Dunn, lately Posada's been a switch hitter that hits three ways: "left, right and seldom”.
Focusing on oneself can slowly erode the foundations of effective teamwork: respect for the team and respect for the manager. If you have respect for your manager and teammates when things are going well, you can’t abandon that when you are struggling. Some may say he doesn’t deserve this kind of treatment. For example, David Ortiz, seizing on the chance to stir the pot with Yankeee fans, said the Yankees were wrong to do this to one of their own. But let’s remember that Posada’s making over ten million dollars this year to add to the tens of millions he has made over his career. He’s produced, he’s been a leader, and he’s been handsomely compensated for it. Now he just needs to remember that the best leaders are those who know when to lead and when to follow.