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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Valentine’s Been Through This Before

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In Bobby Valentine’s first full year with the Mets, the team started out 4-10 and the veterans had already spent a substantial amount of time before the season in clandestine meetings discussing how and whether they should try to get him fired.

This was after he’d managed the team for a total of 31 games in late 1996.

Valentine was under constant pressure from the media for another already lost Mets’ season after 14 games. They’d been bad for so long, the front office hadn’t spent any money to improve a club that had finished the previous season at 71-91 under Dallas Green and Valentine and it looked as if they were well on the way to an even worse year.

But Valentine maintained his positive outlook, insisted that the team was better than they were playing and swore they’d turn it around.

No one believed in him or the Mets.

But they slowly pulled themselves together and were 18-18 after 36 games. They worked their way over .500 until they were as much as 15 games over .500 by August and one game out of the Wild Card lead.

Because they were in a division with the Braves and Marlins, they didn’t come close to a playoff spot. A massive trade made by new GM Steve Phillips brought Turk Wendell, Mel Rojas and Brian McRae from the Cubs for Mark Clark, Lance Johnson and Manny Alexander and didn’t pay the immediate dividends they’d hoped for. It wound up being a net winner for the team because the only player who was of any long-term use to either club was Wendell, but for the rest of 1997, it failed.

That September as the club faded, Valentine engaged in a public spat with star catcher Todd Hundley as Valentine complained about Hundley’s sleeping habits (or lack thereof) negatively affecting his game.

Valentine had also had a preseason dispute with pitcher Pete Harnisch as Harnisch was dealing with depression and withdrawal from quitting chewing tobacco. Valentine was blamed for the mid-season firing of GM Joe McIlvaine in a power struggle which Valentine won.

After the season he was held responsible for the ouster of longtime broadcaster Tim McCarver because Valentine felt McCarver doled too much criticism on the Mets.

Overall, Valentine came off as cold, heartless, dismissive of player complaints and Machiavellian in his attempts to accumulate organizational power from the composition of the roster to the teaching in the minor league system to the front office structure to the men in the broadcast booth.

Some of the allegations were based in truth and others were scapegoating because Valentine was an easy target since he was so polarizing.

The best starter on the staff that season wound up being Rick Reed. Reed was a journeyman righty who was shunned in the clubhouse by leader John Franco because he’d been a replacement player in 1995. Valentine managed him at the Mets’ Triple A affiliate in Norfolk and believed in him. Uninterested in acquiescing to demands or forging bonds with his veterans like Franco, Valentine did what he thought was right for his team.

And it worked.

Factions of the clubhouse hated him, but other players swore by him rather than at him because without Valentine’s insistence and belief, they wouldn’t have had major league careers at all.

Three years later, the Mets were in the World Series.

What has to be remembered now as he’s trying to handle the Red Sox is that underestimating his stubbornness and resiliency is a big mistake.

Those who think Valentine is going to resign from the Red Sox job because of a bad start can forget it.

The 1997 Mets didn’t have the expectations of the 2012 Red Sox. They weren’t trying to rebound from a humiliating collapse. In fact, that Mets team came out of nowhere.

But there are similarities to the circumstances.

If he gets a sense that the wind is blowing in the direction of him being fired, Valentine is not going to go down meekly and if that means taking on members of the front office like GM Ben Cherington or players who are running interference and smearing him behind his back, he’s going to do that.

This is not to say that Valentine has done a good job with the Red Sox because he hasn’t. Everyone is at fault for the mess they’re in. Ten years out of a Major League dugout might have caused the game to pass him by. Perhaps he can’t relate to today’s players and is overmatched for this toxic brew and massive scrutiny that no one could’ve anticipated. If that’s the case, then the hiring was a mistake, but to imply that any other manager would have a better record with this group is pure folly. The idea that “somewhere Terry Francona and Theo Epstein are laughing” is possible, but if true both men are doing a wonderful job of brushing aside their contributions to this burgeoning disaster.

Valentine didn’t put this team together, but he’s got to deal with it.

This is his last opportunity. He’s not going to give it up without a fight.

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