These days, it’s easier to find a pair of high-cut stirrup socks than a major league baseball team that has a captain.
Like the four-pitch intentional walk, the sub-2:00 game and the level swing, the position of team captain has vanished, possibly never to return.
As we head into October and playoff season, not one of the 30 big-league teams has a designated captain, nor have any had one all season. The last two, David Wright of the Mets and Adrian Beltre of the Texas Rangers, retired at the end of the 2018 season. They have not been replaced. Nor has any other team named a player its captain in the interim.
Not the Boston Red Sox, who have had the most captains, 20, starting with third baseman Jimmy Collins of the then-named Boston Americans in 1901. Nor the Yankees, who have had 15, including Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and the one who was known as Captain Clutch during his 12-year tenure, Derek Jeter.
The Yankees are not likely to replace Jeter (captain from 2003-2014) any day soon -- their general manager, Brian Cashman, is not in favor of the position -- and the Mets say no one on their roster is seasoned enough to replace Wright.
And besides, none of the people I talked to, a group that ranged from team owners to managers to current players and even some former players who had served as captains, was entirely convinced that having a captain is even necessary.
“I don’t know if we need it,” said Yankees manager Aaron Boone, whose team has gotten along just fine without a captain since Jeter’s retirement in 2014. “I would always be open to it, but I don’t think it’s something that is particularly needed in baseball. There’s usually enough natural leaders in the clubhouse who come to the forefront anyway.”
No one was quite sure what a team captain did, exactly, including guys who had held the position, but suffice it to say a good captain was part psychologist, part drill sergeant. His duties could range from delivering a pep talk to a slumping team, to chewing out (usually privately but not always) a teammate for loafing or boneheaded play, to patiently explaining to a rookie the way things are done or not done in a particular clubhouse. He can act as a go-between for the manager and front office with the players, a fixer when there is the threat of a team scandal, a wardrobe consultant and a restaurant critic. He can be a big brother or a father confessor.
Being named team captain meant not only were you a man, but a leader of men.
But one thing everyone agrees upon: He better be a player the other players respect.
“If you’re going to name a captain, it’s got to be a player nobody else is going to resent,” said Joe Torre, the manager for the first five years of Jeter’s captaincy.
Jeter was not Torre’s choice to become the first Yankee captain since 1995, when Don Mattingly retired. He was the choice of The Boss, George Steinbrenner, who besides having a famously military mentality also thought his team needed a jolt while “struggling” – the Yankees were 33-24 at the time and in first place in the AL East, a game ahead of the Red Sox – on a road trip to Cincinnati. Jeter wasn’t even Steinbrenner’s first choice for the role; according to Torre, The Boss first offered Paul O’Neill the job, but the intense right-fielder turned it down.
“Paul wasn’t comfortable with it so he resisted,” Torre said. “Jeter wasn’t crazy about the idea, either. He felt like he was already getting enough attention and he didn’t want that added on. But he grew into it.”
Jeter, now the president of baseball operations for the Miami Marlins, one of three clubs that has never had a captain, declined to be interviewed for this story. But for more than a decade, holding the position of Yankee captain was as much a part of his identity as his inside-out, line drive swing.
“I think when a guy like Derek steps away, there’s no filling those shoes,” said Yankees outfielder Brett Gardner, who made his debut in Jeter’s fifth year as captain and is now, at 35, the second-oldest position player on their roster, the Yankee with the longest amount of service time and along with CC Sabathia, the only remaining member of their 2009 World Championship team.
“He wasn’t the most vocal captain but when something needed to be said he wasn’t afraid to speak up and let you know,” Gardner said of Jeter. “His thing was leading by example. He played every day and he played hard, played through injuries, He showed up every day and kept his mouth shut. It was remarkable to see.”
Boone became Jeter’s teammate for the second half of the 2003 season, just after he had been made captain. “The thing that stood out almost immediately was that there was a presence about him,” Boone said. “I don’t know if edge is the right word but there was just something about him that grabbed my attention. He was always in the game, always in the moment, and his whole attitude was, ‘I got this.’ It rubbed off on the whole team.”
But not all were unanimously in favor of Jeter’s stewardship of the role; Cashman was particularly critical when, early in Alex Rodriguez’s Yankee tenure, Jeter pointedly refused to defend him against fan booing in Yankee Stadium, no doubt due to lingering resentment over comments Rodriguez had made about Jeter in a magazine article.
Torre, an ardent Jeter booster, said, “I think it was a little bit uncomfortable for Alex in the beginning. He went through an adjustment period. And it was never Derek’s way to flower anybody, if you will, as far as giving verbal support for public consumption.”
There was also the belief that as Jeter’s production declined in his final years his stature as team captain and fan favorite made it difficult for Cashman and Joe Girardi, his manager at the time, to sit him or move him down in the lineup.
“George Steinbrenner turned Jeter into a monster for Cashman and Girardi,” said a former Yankees executive who requested anonymity.
The Yankees clubhouse is markedly different in the post-Jeter era. Where before it was business-like and often quiet as a library even after victories, the influx of young players such as Aaron Judge, Gleyber Torres and Gary Sanchez has turned the room into a raucous place after the team wins, complete with strobe lights, a fog machine and blasting music.
“Baseball was a job to Derek, and he took it very seriously,” Torre said. “The clubhouse was his place of work and he felt it was sacred in a lot of ways.”
Still, Sabathia says aside from not having an official captain, nothing has really changed around the Yankees in Jeter’s absence.
“Jeets was a good leader,” Sabathia said. “But now it’s not a one-guy thing, it’s a multiple-guy thing. And even when he was here, it was a multiple-guy thing. You had Andy [Pettitte], Mo [Rivera] and Jorge [Posada]. So we had a lot of leaders.’’
“I don’t know that it’s needed,’’ said Gardner, who would certainly be considered a candidate for the job. “I think we’re doing pretty well without having a captain right now.”
Across town, the Mets continued to have a captain, Wright, for four years after Jeter retired. But Wright, hobbled by serious back injuries, was hardly around the team in those years. He played just 75 games through 2015 and 2016, missed all of 2017 and got into two games at the end of 2018 as a ceremonial farewell gesture from Mets ownership.
“David was iconic to the organization,” Mets COO Jeff Wilpon said. “But now I think there’s enough leaders in our room that we don’t need to appoint a captain just yet.”
According to Wilpon, Wright’s greatest value to the club was in helping to manage “the things that never got out. There were many, many things that could have become issues that he helped us to avert. He would see the early warning signs and help deflect it in a way that it didn’t become public.”
The implication was that this week’s Mets kerfuffle, in which it was revealed that pitcher Noah Syndergaard was unhappy throwing to catcher Wilson Ramos and had complained about it to GM Brodie Van Wagenen, might have remained an in-house matter if the club still had a strong captain.
Although the Mets have a 12-year veteran in Robinson Cano on their roster for the next five seasons, rookie Pete Alonso, who leads the major leagues with 47 home runs and has emerged as a reliable team spokesman, seems the most likely to succeed Wright if the club is inclined to appoint another captain.
“I think it’s way too early to talk about that,” Wilpon said. “The kid doesn’t even have a full year in the big leagues. I hope someday he gets to that status. That would be something amazing for the fans, the organization, for ownership, for everybody. But let’s not put that on the poor kid right now.”
Sometimes, being named captain can boost a player’s self-esteem – and improve his performance. Torre said it happened to him when, in his second year with the St. Louis Cardinals, his teammates voted him co-captain along with Lou Brock. Torre responded by leading the league in hitting and winning the NL MVP.
“At the time, I think they saw more in me than I saw in myself,” Torre said. “It gave me a little bit of an emotional lift.”
As a manager, Torre tried to do the same for Bob Horner, the Atlanta Braves mild-mannered slugger who Torre believed could be even better than he was. So after consulting with some of the veteran players on his club, he made Horner a team captain, hoping it might spur him to greater heights. Instead, Horner’s production dipped. “That was my hope, but in reality, it really didn’t change a lot,’’ Torre said. “He accepted the responsibility but it really didn’t change his demeanor.’’
Sabathia believes a pitcher can’t be a team captain, not even one with a resume as impressive as his, because they can’t relate to the demands of playing every day. But despite being a relief pitcher, John Franco was chosen captain by his Mets teammates in 2001, a position he held until the club released him in 2004. Like a hockey player, Franco wore a “C’’ on his jersey.
“I felt honored to be a captain,” he said. “In those days, it was the captain’s job to show rookies how to dress, how to eat, how to act on the field and off. And back in my time, rookies had to earn their stripes. They had to carry the veterans’ luggage, carry the beer onto the bus, pick up all the hotel keys. But on the flip side, the veteran guys would never let a rookie pay for a meal, and if you needed clothes, they’d buy you a suit.”
Or, a pair of shoes.
In 2004, Wright’s rookie season, he wore flip-flops on a road trip, a violation of the team’s dress code. Franco took him aside to set him straight.
And the next day, there was a brand-new pair of shoes in Wright’s locker, courtesy of Joe McEwing, an unofficial team leader who is now the Chicago White Sox bench coach.
“I think I wound up making out on that deal,” Wright said.
Wright was a seven-time All-Star, a two-time Gold Glove third baseman. He played in two National League Championship Series, a World Series, and last September, was given a day in his honor before a packed house at Citi Field.
Still, he calls the day he was appointed captain of the Mets “the greatest individual honor anyone’s ever given me.”
Who knows when, or if, that honor will be bestowed again?
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