Captainship in Baseball

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The Yankees name Derek Jeter captain and it’s part of their “rich tapestry of history.” The Mets do it with David Wright and it’s foundation for ridicule. Neither is accurate. What has to be asked about baseball and captaincies is whether there’s any value in it on the field or if it’s shtick.

The three current captains in baseball are Wright, Jeter and Paul Konerko of the White Sox. In the past, teams have had captains but the most prominent in recent memory have been Jason Varitek of the Red Sox and Jeter. The Mets named John Franco the captain of the team in May of 2001 and he had a “C” stitched to his jersey like he was leading the New York Rangers on the ice for a game against the Philadelphia Flyers. Varitek was named captain of the Red Sox after his somewhat contentious free agency foray following the Red Sox World Series win in 2004. The Red Sox couldn’t let Varitek leave a week after losing Pedro Martinez to the Mets, but they didn’t want to give him the no-trade clause that Varitek had said was a deal-breaker. Varitek’s pride was at stake and the unsaid compromise they made was to give Varitek the captaincy and no no-trade clause. Whether or not Varitek was savvy enough to catch onto the trick is unknown. It reminded me of an old episode of Cheers when—ironically—the fictional former Red Sox reliever Sam Malone and two other workers walked into the boss’s office seeking a raise and were met with a surprising agreeability and open checkbook as long as they didn’t ask for a title. They got the titles and not the raises.

Is the captaincy worth the attention? Will Wright do anything differently now that he’s officially the captain of the Mets—something that had been apparent for years? Probably not.

The Mets have had three prior captains. Keith Hernandez was named captain, similarly to Jeter, while he was the acknowledged leader and the team was in the midst of a slump in 1987 with management trying to fire up the troops and fans. An insulted Gary Carter was named co-captain in 1988 as a placating gesture. Then there was Franco. If the captain had any legitimate on-field value than for its novelty and “coolness” (Turk Wendell wanted the “C” in Franco’s jersey for that reason), a closer couldn’t be an effective captain and then-Mets manager Bobby Valentine certainly would not have named Franco his captain considering the difficult relationship between the two. Valentine’s reaction was probably an eye-roll and, “Yeah, whatever. Make him captain. As if it means anything.” Franco never got over Valentine taking the closer job away and giving it to Armando Benitez while Franco was hurt in 1999 and he got his revenge when, due to his close relationship with the Wilpons, he helped cement the decision to fire Valentine after the 2002 season. Franco could be divisive, selfish and vindictive when he wanted to be.

While the Yankees exhibit a smug superiority as to the “value” of their captains, there’s a perception—probably due to silent implication that the truth doesn’t feed the narrative of Yankees “specialness”—that the three “real” captains of the Yankees in their history have been Lou Gehrig, Thurman Munson and Jeter. But did you know that Graig Nettles was a Yankees captain and thought so little of the “honor” that he angered George Steinbrenner by saying, in his typical caustic realism:

“Really, all I do as captain is take the lineups up to home plate before the game.” (Balls by Graig Nettles and Peter Golenbock, page 20, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1984)

Of course Steinbrenner had a fit:

“The captain is supposed to show some leadership out there. That’s why he’s captain. To show leadership.” (Balls, page 21)

Nettles, the “captain” and so important to team success because of his leadership was traded to the Padres in the spring of 1984 after signing a contract to remain with the Yankees as a free agent after the 1983 season in large part because of that book.

Before Gehrig, the Yankees captain had been Hal Chase. Chase was a notorious gambler and repeatedly accused of throwing games. The Yankees would prefer Chase’s name not be affiliated with them in their current incarnation. Chase wasn’t a “Yankee,” he was a “Highlander.” Two different things I suppose.

After Nettles, the Yankees named Ron Guidry and Willie Randolph co-captains and then Don Mattingly as captain. The team didn’t win in those years and the captaincy didn’t help or hurt them toward that end. The teams weren’t very good, so they didn’t win.

The Yankees made a big show of the captaincy because Steinbrenner liked it. He thought it was important in a similar fashion to his rah-rah football speeches and constant haranguing of his field personnel with firings and entreaties to “do something” even when there was little that could be done.

Depending on who is named captain, it can matter in a negative sense if the individual walks around trying to lead and gets on the nerves of others. For example, if Curt Schilling was named a captain, he’d walk around with a beatific look on his face, altered body language and manner and make sure to do some “captaining,” whatever that is. But with Wright, nothing will change, and like Jeter and Konerko, it won’t matter much. It’s not going to affect the teams one way or the other whether the captain is in a Yankees uniform and has become part of their “storied history,” of if it’s the Mets and the world-at-large is waiting for the inevitable cheesiness that is a Mets trademark. It’s an honor and it’s nice for the fans, but that’s pretty much it.

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Reggie In Time-Out

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One amazing thing you’ll find about Reggie Jackson is how little he’s evolved from his playing days.

When looking for a Thurman Munson quote regarding Reggie’s famous “straw that stirs the drink” comment I found this William Nack Sports Illustrated profile from 1980 that is almost identical to the piece this week that’s gotten him placed into time-out by the Yankees organization.

The quote I was looking for, attributed to Munson, was an incredulous, “For four pages?!?” at the suggestion that Reggie’s “straw” comments in Sport Magazine were taken out of context.

When the latest Sports Illustrated piece came out, I wrote essentially that Reggie was Reggie before Manny was Manny (Manny Ramirez); that he was going to do what he would do, say what he would say and backtrack when faced with the consequences for his “candor”; that he was goaded into saying those things by the reporter.

Is his relationship with Alex Rodriguez damaged beyond all repair? Are the disparaged Hall of Famers and their families offended? Will he be allowed to hang around the Yankees again at his leisure?

Here’s the cold-blooded answer: what’s the difference?

A-Rod is very intelligent and calculating. He’s attention-starved and brings on much of his problems himself, but a large chunk of his issues stem from the hypocrisy he saw with Derek Jeter and Joe Torre among others. The “Jeter does no wrong” brigade is shocked when Jeter acts as if he was hit by a pitch when he really wasn’t and takes his base as the umpire instructs; the “St. Joe” label attached to Torre conveniently hid how calculating, money-hungry and manipulative the former manager could be. With A-Rod, when he used the gamesmanship of yelling “HA!!” in Howie Clark’s ear to distract him when trying to catch a pop-up, it was A-Rod being a bush leaguer; when he opted out of his contract—clumsily—it was A-Rod listening to his Svengali agent Scott Boras and being greedy.

I doubt A-Rod was seriously bothered or surprised by what Reggie said. He’s smart enough and cynical enough not to be offended by it long-term.

You might see Kirby Puckett’s and Gary Carter’s family reply to what A-Rod said; for Jim Rice to start his “why me?” act; but they’ll have their own reasons for doing so. In the case of Puckett and Carter the families will presumably reply to the question when it’s asked. With Rice, he’s still looking for validation that he presumably felt would fill that void when he was finally (deservedly) elected to the Hall. But he’s still hearing the same old debates about whether or not he belongs and now it’s coming from a peer and rival.

As for the “adviser” role Reggie has with the Yankees, his influence died with George Steinbrenner. Reggie’s position is similar to Johnny Pesky with the Red Sox when the club let him be involved without any real power other than that of a treasured former player—i.e. an old man who hung around. He was popular with the fans and wasn’t bothering anyone. Along with the Boss’s other circle of “advisers”—Billy Connors, Dick Williams, Clyde King, Dick Moss, Randy Levine, his sons, sons-in-law and whoever else managed to gain his ear for a period of time, it’s not the way it used to be with the Yankees. Gone are the days when Steinbrenner listened to the last voice he heard (validating a Boss rant with sycophantic agreement) and reacted by dumping a player the baseball people wanted to keep and getting a player that no one else would take.

Reggie’s mistake is that he is bothering the club by creating a controversy for no reason. It’s a hallmark of his life. Whereas it would once be brushed off and handled by the Boss, now with Brian Cashman in charge, Hank Steinbrenner effectively muzzled and subdued and the more thoughtful Hal Steinbrenner holding sway, how much of Reggie’s advice is actually taken? How much of it is listened to? How much is he even around and does anyone notice when he is or isn’t?

Notice.

That’s what Reggie wants. It’s always been that way and clearly from the latest SI piece and fallout, that’s never going to change.

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My Gary Carter Story

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I’d like to say it was 1982, but don’t hold me to it.

I was around 10 and went to a baseball card convention at a hotel in Manhattan where Gary Carter was appearing and signing autographs.

We paid to get in and when we found the table where Carter was sitting, I walked over and handed my baseball cards to him. He smiled. He signed one, he signed two…and the guy sitting next to him asked in the general direction of me and my dad, “Where’re your tickets?”

In addition to the entrance fee, apparently there were blue tickets we had to buy to get the autographs.

I replied with my patented bewildered look of staring straight ahead as if the person speaking had just arrived from Neptune.

Thirty years later, not much has changed.

My dad asked, “What tickets?”

He was just as clueless as I was (am).

I had another card to sign but Carter, ever friendly, shrugged, pursed his lips and shook his head saying, “Sorry pardner.”

But he’d already signed the two cards below. We thanked him and left.

Carter, along with Al Leiter, are the two nicest ballplayers I’ve ever come across.

You can tell when the kindness is genuine and with Carter it was.

As a player, he had a reputation for self-promotion and always knowing where the camera was; that his hustle was sometimes done for the sake of perception, image and salesmanship.

When Pete Rose did it, it was okay because he also ran around, chased women and was one of the guys.

Carter was religious and straitlaced, so it wasn’t done in the context to selling himself while still maintaining the tribal acceptance. It was an end unto itself. That’s just the way he was. At least he wasn’t a hypocrite. His teammates probably would’ve liked him better if he had been.

He was called “The Kid” by fans and media because of the unbridled enthusiasm he brought to the field and that he was polite and accommodating with those same fans and media. But from certain teammates came the derogatory nicknames, “Teeth” and “Camera Carter”.

Carter was a self-promoter, but so are many players. Some are reviled like Curt Schilling; others are chuckled at like Brian Wilson.

Is it because Carter was a born again Christian, that Schilling is a conservative republican and that Wilson is just a guy with a thick beard who’s clearly goofing around?

Probably.

But what’s the difference?

With many players, interacting with fans at card shows is a necessary chore for extra cash they can shove in their pockets without notifying the federal government. Some of those players who were derisive of Carter did exactly that and worse, acting like they were doing a favor by chitchatting with the people who are essentially paying their salaries and being nice to a kid to give him or her a lasting memory.

With Carter, it wasn’t like that.

He was a truly nice man and giving human being. Baseball and the world are a worse place without him.

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Jorge Posada and the Hall of Fame

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Jorge Posada is reportedly set to announce his retirement. Let’s take a look at his Hall of Fame credentials.

Comparable players.

Catchers are held to a different standard because they have to handle the pitching staff; throw out basestealers; be the prototypical “field general”; and if they’re going to be in the Hall of Fame conversation, they have to hit.

Statistically, there are the no-doubt Hall of Famers like Johnny Bench, Yogi Berra, Bill Dickey and Mickey Cochrane.

Then you have Gary Carter and Carlton Fisk who are in the Hall of Fame, but didn’t waltz in in their first year of eligibility.

There are the upcoming catchers who will get in because of a superior part of their game counteracting the weak spots and questions. Mike Piazza has power numbers that no catcher has ever posted; Ivan Rodriguez is close to 3000 hits, over 300 homers and was a defensive weapon who stopped the running game by his mere presence.

After that, you have the players trapped in the “are they or aren’t they” limbo. They have credentials for enshrinement, but reasons to keep them out. Thurman Munson, Bill Freehan and Javy Lopez (seriously) can state cases for the Hall of Fame that wouldn’t elicit an immediate “no”, but won’t get in.

Posada is borderline and hovering between the Carter/Fisk wing and Munson/Freehan/Lopez.

Offensively.

A switch-hitting catcher with a career batting record of 275 homers; .273 average, .374 on base percentage, .474 slugging percentage; and an .848 OPS/121 OPS+ has better overall numbers than Fisk and Carter. Fisk’s numbers were bolstered by playing seven more seasons than Posada.

Bench hit nearly 400 homers; Piazza was an offensive force; Cochrane batted .320 for his career with a .419 on base, had power and rarely struck out.

Rodriguez benefited from a friendly home park and, like Piazza, is suspected of PED use. Piazza was never implicated on the record; anecdotal evidence and the era have combined to put him under the microscope and he’s considered guilty due to his rise from a 62nd round draft pick as a favor to Tommy Lasorda to perennial MVP contender. Rodriguez was implicated and there’s statistical evidence in the decline of his power numbers from before testing began and after.

No one ever mentioned Posada as a PED case.

Defense.

There’s more to catching than baseline numbers like passed balls and caught stealing percentage.

Posada’s career caught stealing percentage was 28%. During his career, the Major League average has been between 26% and 32%. Posada was average at throwing out runners. The pitchers quickness to the plate, ability at holding runners and reputation are factors that have to be accounted for. Rodriguez didn’t have people stealing on him; Posada was dealing with some slow-to-the-plate pitchers like Roger Clemens and David Cone and he wasn’t catching much of the time that Andy Pettitte was pitching—runners didn’t steal on Pettitte because of his ability to keep runners close.

If you’d like to compare the pitchers’ results based on the catcher, you can’t say that Posada was “worse” than his nemesis/partners/backups. In 1998, the numbers were better with Posada than they were with Joe Girardi.  In 1999 they were nearly identical with Posada and Girardi.

By 2000, Posada was catching nearly every day.

The managers play a large part in that perception of good or poor defense. Joe Torre was a former catcher who wasn’t going to compromise defense behind the plate for offense. With the Cardinals, it was Torre who replicated the move he made as a player himself by shifting Todd Zeile to third base and installing defensive stalwart Tom Pagnozzi as his catcher. When managing the Braves, Biff Pocoroba was a better hitter than Bruce Benedict, but Benedict was far superior defensively and that’s who Torre played.

When he took over the Yankees, in a concession to the way Torre liked to run his team, GM Bob Watson took the unpopular step of replacing the beloved Mike Stanley with Girardi and it worked exactly as planned.

Torre was not going to play Posada if he was inept behind the plate and it wouldn’t have mattered how much he hit.

Posada’s defense and game-calling became an issue after Torre left and Girardi took over as manager. The relationship between Posada and Girardi was never good. It was an understandable byproduct between two very competitive people who wanted the same job when they were playing; but when Girardi took over as manager, it was his job to get the pitchers and Posada on the same page and he didn’t do it; he allowed younger pitchers like Joba Chamberlain to join in the chorus of complaints about Posada’s game-calling led by CC Sabathia; it should’ve been squashed; that’s on the manager.

Ancillaries.

Posada has five championship rings. The first one, in 1996, had nothing to do with him; but he was a key component in the other four. Feisty and fiery, Posada’s leadership was more understated than that of his counterpart Derek Jeter; it was Posada who was Jeter’s thug and the muscle who enacted Jeter’s edicts; if a player was acting up and Jeter wanted him spoken to, it was Posada who carried out the order.

He was an All Star and Silver Slugger winner five times.

Posada was drafted as a second baseman and converted to catching in the minors. There’s long been a myth that there was a grand plan on the part of the Yankees to build from within and a prescient ability to spot talent led them to Posada, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera (three-fourths of the “core four” along with Jeter) as late rounders and free agent signees. Reality sabotages that story.

Much like the Cardinals didn’t know they were getting this era’s Joe DiMaggio when they drafted Albert Pujols on the 13th round of the 1999 draft, the Yankees didn’t know what they were getting when they selected Posada in the 24th round and Pettitte in the 22nd round in 1990. Had George Steinbrenner not been suspended in the early 1990s, it’s unlikely that Posada or Pettitte would have become the stars they did, at least in Yankees uniforms. The team was lucky that Gene Michael and Buck Showalter had the opportunity to rebuild the team correctly and give these players a chance to develop, the players took it from there.

The Yankees have no desire to bring him back in 2012 and the relationship between he and the club is strained, but because he’s retiring while he can still contribute as a hitter and won’t wear another uniform to pad his stats only makes his candidacy more palatable to certain voters.

Will Posada be elected and when?

I believe Posada will eventually be elected by the writers but it won’t be on the first ballot; that lofty accomplishment is limited to catchers like Bench. Fisk waited until his 2nd year; Carter waited until his 6th year on the ballot; Posada will probably have to wait at least that long and probably longer.

I’ll venture a guess that it’s going to be nine or ten years and as long as no PED accusations or proof of their use is uncovered, he’ll be inducted.

Jorge Posada had a great career and is worthy of election to the Hall of Fame.

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Stuff Even I Don’t Know

Hot Stove

Contrary to popular belief, there are things I don’t know. In some cases I may think I know them, but really don’t.

I’m not alone in this regard.

In reference to the side aspects of a human being—not an athlete,a human being—there are many things that go on in an individual’s life that affect their work. Sometimes it’s self-created; others it’s just…life.

I got to thinking about this after reading Bill Madden’s column yesterday and how Rafael Soriano‘s reputation has taken a beating for his behavior as a member of the Rays and Yankees GM Brian Cashman’s reluctance to sign him.

According to Madden, the Rays despised Soriano:

But losing his No. 1 draft pick wasn’t the only thing that bothered Cashman about signing Soriano. The 31-year-old Dominican’s makeup is – and should be – of great concern. Despite his league-leading 45 saves and 1.73 ERA, Soriano was hated by almost everyone in Tampa Bay last year. His periodic hissy-fits over being brought into games in non-save situations, or being asked to pitch more than one inning wore thin on Rays manager Joe Maddon. The final straw was the last game of the season – Game 5 of the ALDS versus Texas – when Maddon asked Soriano to pitch the ninth inning with the Rays trailing, 3-1. After throwing a tantrum in the bullpen in front of all his fellow relievers, Soriano trudged into the game and promptly gave up a single to Nelson Cruz and a game-breaking homer to Ian Kinsler.

This is an example of “stuff” I didn’t know. I was aware that Soriano didn’t like entering games in non-save situations, but had no idea it had reached the level of public tantrum in a playoff game—a game that was still within reach; in reach until Soriano came in anyway.

The easy answer is to blame Maddon for this; to suggest that the B.J. Upton lack of hustle and clear absence of discipline that’s present in the Rays clubhouse—amid the new age culture cultivated by Maddon—is responsible for the players feeling they can get away with anything. But I don’t see this as the fault of Joe Maddon; it’s people showing who they really are.

Did Soriano have it in mind that entering a game in a non-save situation wouldn’t add to his number of saves and, by extension, not contribute to his paycheck in free agency?

Of course.

Is this natural with a human being?

Yes, but here’s the difference between the Soriano-type and another player who would have an eye on the numbers both statistically and financially—the other player, while selfish, would do his job for the team absent of the shortsightedness displayed publicly by Soriano.

Curt Schilling could be considered an attention-seeker who liked to hear his own voice and have his face plastered all over the newspapers with stories—that may or not have been accurate—of his on-field heroism. This, more than anything else, is why the “bloody sock” was seen as a possible ruse. It was very convenient and sounded like something Schilling would do. During his time with the Phillies when he showed up his teammate Mitch Williams in the 1993 post-season by draping a towel over his head, it was an act that shouldn’t have taken place. Was Schilling intentionally playing to the camera? Or did he genuinely not want to watch?

It was probably both.

With all of that, Schilling has been an impossible person to categorize because he has done so many nice things for people with money and time that I get the impression that his acts of kindness—while making him look good—are done because he is a decent man.

As an athlete he left it all out on the field and would’ve done anything for his teammates.

Is Soriano willing to leave it all out on the field? The suggestion that Mariano Rivera will be a calming and positive influence on Soriano is not without merit; but I have concerns about players getting their clubs to sign or acquire friends.

I don’t want players making personnel moves. In fact, the players should have no say whatsoever in the composition of the team.

If an executive is so tone deaf to the clubhouse and its hierarchy, he shouldn’t be running a club in the first place. Any good manager or executive has to know the difference between a divisive force and a player who straddles the line of positive and negative influence to the other players.

As they were phased out as team stars in the late 1980s, Gary Carter and Keith Hernandez both became somewhat embittered by their descending career trajectories and didn’t help the Mets move on into new clubhouse leadership.

It’s a fine line and this is why you’ll see a good front office dispatch veteran players who, while still having something left on the field, aren’t so indispensable that they’re worth the oncoming aggravation. Getting rid of a player at the right time is a risky proposition.

On the one hand, it’s a message: “If we’ll get rid of him, we’ll certainly get rid of you!” On the other hand, making a drastic clubhouse change can blow up something that was working. It’s not to be done for the sake of it and makes nuance an imperative. A good leader has to acknowledge and take steps to counteract these factors.

You can equate this to the new concept of the field manager being a “middle manager” who takes orders from the front office; the public castration has stripped that manager of authority; if the manager doesn’t have clear support from the front office, there are players who will bully and push the envelope with the manager. Not every superstar is Albert Pujols who leads by example and supports his manager. Star players have and will continue to get their coaches/managers fired by one method or another.

The front office must support the manager.

Off-field team camaraderie is not of utmost importance to win. Some of the best clubs in history—the Athletics of the early-1970; the Yankees of the late-1970s—had players who literally hated each other personally. But on the field, if you went after one of them, you went after all of them.

Sometimes a team that gets along too well off the field is indicative of a loser on it. If a season is lost and the passion dissipates, what’s there to fight about? A team united in their disinterest is far worse that players fighting because they care.

This is why we can’t accurately assess everything on a club. We can listen to and read stories such as the Madden piece about Soriano, but until they’re proven accurate in the long term, we don’t know.

With the Rays there was much talk about the aforementioned Upton and the dugout confrontation between him and Evan Longoria after Upton failed to hustle for a ball hit into the gap in a mid-season game against the Diamondbacks.

To imply that to have been the first time someone on the Rays from teammates to coaches to the manager to the front office had confronted Upton about his lackadaisical play is ridiculous. Something like that only goes public when propriety is thrown out the window because co-workers have had enough and aren’t waiting until they’re out of the camera’s eye to let an Upton known that they’ve had enough.

Over the course of a season, these things happen hundreds of times between teammates and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it.

The easy answer with a team like the Rays is to blame the manager, but Soriano and Upton would act this way no matter who they played for. When the Rays made the deal for Soriano, they had to have weighed his reputation with the risk/reward of acquiring him. He was expensive ($7.5 million for the 2010 season), but the Rays were only giving up Jesse Chavez to get him and they knew that without an established closer, they’d have trouble competing with the Yankees and Red Sox. Then there was the draft pick they were going to get when he left.

Soriano’s free agent aspirations were a boon and a detriment as he was determined to have a big statistical year, but threw what Madden called a “hissy fit” when asked to do anything more than accumulate a save.

Presumably he won’t behave that way with the Yankees, but you never know. The one thing the Yankees have an advantage with is that manager Joe Girardi has a terrible temper and won’t hesitate to drag Soriano into his office by his shirt collar and let him know that selfishness is not tolerated in his clubhouse.

As far as the off-field stories go, we all hear rumors. Some of the players and people who have great reputations as bastions of their community may not live up to the portrayal. Others who are seen negatively are oftentimes not putting up a pretense for public consumption and that’s not what the employers, image makers and fans want.

They don’t want a human being; they want the idol to worship.

I think that’s worse because when the person falters—as he inevitably does—it jades those that thought the object of their affection was something that he never really was in the first place.

These are not issues to ignore. The only thing a club can do in the case of a Soriano or anyone else is mitigate them with checks on the behaviors. Apart from that, they have to hope it doesn’t tear the clubhouse apart.