What is a "True Yankee" and Why Should We Care if Jorge Posada is One

New York Yankee designated hitter Jorge Posada recently indicated that he would be open to playing for another team in 2012, thus providing evidence that in addition to being, or perhaps having been, a great baseball player, Posada is a rational economic being. After all, in the surreal world of baseball economics, Posada could take a 90% pay cut next year and still make, by the standards of most Americans, an enormous amount of money. Additionally, Posada is unlikely to make a comparable amount of money doing anything else now or in the foreseeable future. Thus, Posada’s decision to try to earn another million dollars or two while playing baseball for another year, regardless of who his employer is, makes a lot of sense.

Should Posada move on to another team next year, one of the great Yankee careers will have come to an end. Inevitably, the baseball media and blogosphere in New York, will begin questioning Posada’s credentials as a “true Yankee.” Putting aside the legitimacy of questioning the credentials of a player who played a key role in four Yankee World Series winning teams, delivering numerous big seasons and clutch hits along the way, this also draws attention to the absurdity of this term.

Being a “true Yankee” often, but not always, means, among other things, spending one’s entire career in pinstripes, so some of the greatest Yankees ever including Yogi Berra and Babe Ruth don’t meet that criteria. The term, and lore around it, also suggests something less tangible a baseball je ne sais quoi that Tommy Heinrich and Paul O’Neill, who started his career with the Cincinnati Reds, had, but superior players like Dave Winfield and Alex Rodriguez, somehow lack or lacked.

No other team has a term like this, or an attitude that makes it possible. George Brett and Frank White, were great players who spent their careers with the Kansas City Royals, but they are never referred to as “true Royals” despite their contributions to that franchise both on and off the field. Similarly, Willie Stargell, Bill Mazeroski and Roberto Clemente, Hall of Fame teammates who were together on World Series champions and between them never played a game for a franchise other than the Pittsburgh Pirates are never referred to as “true Pirates.” These players are honored by the team for which they played, but rarely is their relationship to their team invoked as evidence of their character.

Willie Mays, Henry Aaron and the late Harmon Killebrew are among the great players who played all their career with one team before ending up at the very end of their playing years with another team, but their time with the Mets, Brewers and Royals respectively subtracts nothing from their contributions, and perceived contributions, to the Giants, Braves and Senators/Twins. In a rather extreme case, Juan Marichal, the greatest San Francisco Giant pitcher ever, pitched two games at the very end of his career for the Los Angeles Dodgers, but suggesting that Marichal is any less of a Giant because of this would be a contentious, to say the least, statement in San Francisco.

The “true Yankee” narrative is primarily just something else that is viewed by Yankee fans as part of what makes the Yankee tradition so special, and by fans of the other 29 teams as just another weird Yankee thing. Frequently, this is of little import. If, for example, Posada decides to play for another team in 2012 and Yankee fans view that as some kind of character flaw on Posada’s part, that is silliness, but harmless and part of the game. However, when, the “true Yankee” narrative leads the Yankees to make questionable contract decisions, such as the one given to Derek Jeter, or to explain away poor performances, like of AJ Burnett, it is more troublesome.