Yogi: Posey looks pretty good

Photo by Casey Dixon

Photo by Casey Dixon

ALBANY, Ga. -- There's a link now, one that runs from Leesburg to San Francisco to Cooperstown to the Bronx, and straight to the heart of baseball's Golden Era -- a connection for the ages wrapped in youth and donned in ageless pinstripes and 21st century immediacy, stretching across seven decades.

That's what happens tonight when Buster Posey squats behind the plate for the opening game of the World Series between the Giants and Texas Rangers, because Posey won't just be walking onto the field at AT&T Park. He'll be walking into baseball lore.

The kid from Leesburg who has stolen the hearts of San Francisco will straddle up to Yogi Berra and put his name right next to man who was the game's best catcher for generations, sharing one of baseball's priceless nuggets.

Posey becomes only the second rookie starting catcher in the history of the game to lead his team to the World Series. The other? Berra did it in 1947, an accomplishment that has lasted 63 years.

"I was the first,'' Berra said with a hint of pride during an exclusive phone interview with The Albany Herald on Monday night from his home. "And now he's doing it.''

It's a rare feat because catching is such a demanding job. To be a rookie catcher on a team good enough to reach the World Series is lightning-in-a-bottle stuff.

"It's a tough position,'' Berra said. "Some people don't realize that.''

Berra, however, does realize just how talented Posey is. He has followed the Giants rookie this season.

"I've only seen him on television,'' Berra said. "But he looks pretty good. He's doing a great job for them. He calls a good game, blocks the plate, and he's got a pretty good arm.''

Berra then paused and added with a laugh, "and he's not a bad hitter, either.''

Posey's bat has helped solidify a Giants lineup that struggled to score runs before he was called up May 29. Posey didn't become the everyday catcher until July 1, the day the Giants traded Bengie Molina to the Rangers -- the team they will host tonight -- to make room behind the plate for Posey.

Posey responded by ripping off a major-league season best 21-game hitting streak, the longest for a San Francisco rookie since Willie McCovey got at least one hit in 22 straight in 1959. The Giants, who were an afterthought when the season began, started moving up in the standings. Posey hit .417 with seven homers and 24 RBI in July, and by Aug. 1, the Giants were in the playoff conversation.

Posey finished the season hitting .305 with 18 home runs. He drove in 67 runs and scored 58 in 108 games, and many believe those numbers -- combined with Posey's uncanny ability to handle one of the most talented and diverse pitching staffs in baseball -- will win him the National League Rookie of the Year award.

That's what has impressed Berra as much as anything: Posey's ability to handle the burden of being an everyday catcher in a pennant race, handling pitchers, blocking pitches in the dirt and even blocking the plate. Berra says he thinks Posey will be fine in the World Series.

"The thing about the World Series is once they throw a couple of pitches, it becomes just another game,'' Berra said.

Berra should know. No one has more hits in the Series than Berra, who played in 14 Fall Classics and helped the Yankees win 10 titles, beginning in '47. He still holds several World Series records, including most hits (71), most at-bats (259), most doubles (10), most singles (49) and most plate appearances (295). He hit 12 homers. Only Mickey Mantle, who belted 18, and Babe Ruth, who hit 15, are ahead of him on that list.

Posey was overwhelmed when he heard Berra's comments about him.

"Wow. I mean, that's amazing,'' Posey told The Herald on Monday. "Well, I'm a big fan of his, too. He was well before my time but I remember watching highlights of him playing (when I was a kid) and, of course, all those 'Yogi-isms" he's famous for. The guy is a legend of the game. He's who I think of when I think of baseball guys."

And now Posey and Berra are hooked at the hip.

Berra played in only seven games in 1946, which meant he qualified for rookie status in '47. Posey, who was called up in September last season, also played in seven games for the Giants in 2009. Berra hit .280 as a rookie with 11 homers and 54 RBI in 83 games, solid numbers.

Berra might have been the best rookie in the American League, but 1947 was the first year of the award, and it was given to just one player from both leagues. The National League and American League didn't start giving out individual Rookie of the Year awards until 1949. The player who won the first Rookie of the Year award in '47? Another player from Southwest Georgia -- Jackie Robinson.

But Berra beat Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers in the '47 Series that lasted seven games and left a lasting memory for Berra.

"They were all talking about the no-hitter that (Philadelphia's Roy Halladay) threw in the playoffs,'' Berra said. "You know, I almost had one in '47 that year. We had two outs in the ninth and then lost the no-hitter and then we lost the game.

"We lost the game. The guy walked 10 batters,'' said Berra, sounding as upset as if it had happened last week.

The "guy" was Bill Bevens, who gave up a single with two outs in the bottom of the ninth to pinch-hitter Cookie Lavagetto, who drove in two runs to lift the Dodgers to a 3-2 victory. Of course, Berra was behind the plate in 1956 when Don Larsen threw the only perfect game in World Series history.

Berra now is a pop-culture icon because of the Yogi-isms he is credited with saying over the years -- everything from "It ain't over 'til it's over,'' to "When you see a fork in the road, take it,'' to "I didn't say half the things I said,'' to "It's deja vu all over again.'' He's the only athlete to have a cartoon character named after him, and until Johnny Bench came along in 1968, he was hands-down the best catcher in the history of the game.

That's why Posey was taken by surprised by Berra's compliments.

Posey is just the fourth catcher in history to start a World Series game under the age of 25, joining Berra, who was 22 in 1947, Bench and Yadier Molina. Bench was the National League Rookie of the year in 1968, but his Reds didn't reach the World Series until 1970. Molina was the Cardinals' backup catcher behind Mike Matheny in 2004 when St. Louis was swept by the Red Sox in the World Series. He started Game 4. Charles Johnson was the best catcher in the National League when his Marlins won the World Series in 1997, but Johnson's rookie year was 1995, and he was 26 when the Marlins won it all.

Only Berra and Posey were starting rookie backstops.

"I thought it was Yadier Molina with the Cardinals, but I heard that it was Yogi, too. So I wasn't sure," said Posey, who was then informed that Molina was a backup catcher when the Cardinals made the Series.

"Gotcha. That's pretty cool!" Posey said.

Berra watched the Yankees and Rangers and respects Texas' running game. He said he wouldn't be surprised if the Rangers, who stole nine bases in the six game ALCS against the Yankees, ran a lot in the Series.

"The Rangers run,'' Berra said. "They ran real good against the Yankees. They have some guys who can run, and their shortstop (Elvis Andrus) runs. But (Posey has a good arm) and he looks like he has been doing it for a long time.''

The game has changed, but tough, smart, hard-nose catchers are still difficult to find. And if you can get one who also hits, it's gold. The biggest difference in today's catcher and the ones who played in Berra's day?

"They make a lot more money than we did,'' Berra joked. "Back then, we made $5,000 for the whole season and got $5,000 for winning the World Series.''

Berra hit only .158 in his first World Series but grew into a legend and more. No one knows just what kind of career Posey will have.

"So far, he is all right,'' Berra said."We'll have to see how he does. He's only 20 years old.''

Actually, Posey is 23, but as always, Berra makes his point.