Over the course of 14 big-league seasons, David Wright was an All-Star seven times, a two-time Gold Glove winner and played in two National League Championship Series and one World Series. Last September, in appreciation of a great career cut short by injury, he was given a day of celebration at a sold-out Citi Field before what was expected to be the final game of his career.
Still, Wright says “the biggest individual honor anyone’s ever given me’’ was being named captain of the Mets in 2013. Wright, who was only the fourth captain in the team’s history — Keith Hernandez, Gary Carter and John Franco were the others — took the job as seriously as he took the game.
“For me, the most important thing about being the captain was getting to know everyone on the team as individuals and what makes them tick, and how best to get through to them,’’ Wright said by telephone on Tuesday. “I think there is some value to having somebody to be a bridge between the players and the front office who can step in and resolve some matters before it gets to the manager of coaching staff.’’
Wright was surprised to learn that with the retirement this winter of Adrian Beltre and his own impending retirement, the role of team captain seems to have gone the way of the level swing. Unless something changes between now and Opening Day, no major league team will have a captain in 2019, perhaps for the first time in MLB history.
“The game is evolving, as we can plainly see,’’ said Rick Cerrone, who served as the Yankees director of media relations from 1996-2006 and is now the editor-in-chief of the venerable Baseball Digest. “It’s just another thing in baseball that right now has disappeared.’’
The cover story of the January issue of Baseball Digest, written by Dave Kaplan of the Yogi Berra Museum, deals with the rise and fall of the baseball captaincy, a position that has been filled by all but three big-league teams — the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Washington Nationals, and ironically, the Miami Marlins, the name of whose president, Derek Jeter, is practically synonymous with “Captain.’’
In fact, the position of captain holds a special place in Yankees history, having been held by 15 men starting with pitcher Clark Griffith in 1903. The line of succession runs through Babe Ruth, whose captaincy lasted barely two months of the 1922 season, and of course Lou Gehrig, who was seemingly destined to be the last Yankees captain; 37 years passed between his forced retirement in 1939 to when George Steinbrenner resurrected the tradition in 1976, designating Thurman Munson the captain.
Joe McCarthy, Gehrig’s Yankees manager, had decreed he would have no successor. “If McCarthy had known Munson,’’ Steinbrenner said, “he’d have felt differently.’’
Steinbrenner, a former football coach with a quasi-military mentality, appointed six captains: Munson, Graig Nettles, Willie Randolph, Ron Guidry, Don Mattingly and Jeter, somewhat of a surprise pick in June 2003 since he and The Boss had had a very public spat over Jeter’s extracurricular activities a few months before.
“It kinda came out of the blue because the year started off with George kind of dismissing the idea,’’ Cerrone recalled. “In hindsight Jeter was really the obvious choice, but it kinda just came together really quickly. The way the year started you’d never imagine he was going to do it.’’
But since Jeter’s retirement in 2014, the Yankees have given no indication of considering appointing a successor, and like many contemporary general managers, Brian Cashman has said he considers the position of team captain to be unnecessary.
In fact, there is a school of thought that teams would prefer not to appoint captains anymore, because it hamstrings them in how they can deal with that player. Team captains are generally veteran players who have been with the club a long time, and often for their entire careers. They are also often fan favorites. That combination makes it difficult to trade the player, or allow him to leave as a free agent, or even to accept a reduction in playing time or a demotion in the lineup. The Yankees faced that dilemma with Jeter in his final season.
“I guess that makes sense,’’ Wright said. “But I would think there’s a benefit to a team to have that guy who can manage the clubhouse and nip problems in the bud. The manager has enough things to worry about. You don’t want him or the coaches to have to deal with some young guy who thinks it’s OK to wear a t-shirt on a road trip.’’
Wright was offered the job by a contingent of Mets brass — owners Fred and Jeff Wilpon, GM Sandy Alderson, assistant GM John Ricco and manager Terry Collins — after playing in the 2013 World Baseball Classic.
“My emotions were running wild,’’ he said. But he was clear-headed enough to ask the front office people to make sure it was OK with the veterans in the Mets clubhouse before accepting the role.
“I wanted to make sure I had the blessing not only of the decision-makers but also the guys I went to work with every day,’’ said Wright, who saw his job as part psychologist, part drill sergeant.
“Whatever the issue, however dumb or small it is, it’s the captain’s job to try to smooth it over, for the good of the entire team,’’ he said. “It could be anything from whether a guy is unhappy with the kind of food that’s being served, or doesn’t like the uniform we’re wearing on the day they pitch, to bigger things that can become a distraction and a problem for the team over the course of the season.’’
Wright had his own run-in with a team captain as a rookie in 2004 when he showed up for the first road trip wearing flip-flops.
“I didn’t know any better, and Johnny (Franco) let me know about it,’’ he said. “I was told in no uncertain terms that we have a dress code, and we don’t wear flip-flops on the road.’’
And like many young players being set straight by a veteran, Wright came out better for the experience.
“Joe McEwing actually ended up taking me to the shoe store and buying me a pair of nice shoes,’’ he said. “So I think I wound up making out on the deal.’’
Of all the traditions baseball has lost or discarded in its often misguided efforts to remain relevant, the disappearance of the captain may be the one its players feel the most.