When Derek Jeter retired at the end of last season, the New York Yankees lost not only a Hall of Fame player but their captain of 11 years.
No one has been named to succeed Jeter. General manager Brian Cashman said there may not be a successor.
“I think Derek did it as well as anyone can,” Cashman said on New York’s 98.7 FM. “I’m not a big advocate of giving out the captaincy anyway. . . . As far as I’m concerned, the captaincy should be retired with No. 2. I wouldn’t give up another captain title to anyone else.”
He added, “It’s not my call anyway, it’s an ownership call.” But he sounded so adamant it would cause a major media flap if the Steinbrenner brothers overruled him.
It seems like an odd decision by Cashman. A captain is very useful, especially in a media market the size of New York’s. The captain is the designated ambassador to the dozens of reporters who cover the team on a regular basis.
It takes much of the burden off the other players to have a go-to spokesman. Jeter was always available before and after games. He rarely said anything newsworthy, which was probably good for the team. With his calm amiability he was able to defuse potential controversies, and that made for a more relaxed clubhouse.
The Yankees have a tradition of magnificent captains, which may be one reason Cashman doesn’t want to designate another. Who wants to be compared to Lou Gehrig, Thurman Munson and Derek Jeter? To be Yankees captain is to step into a role fraught with too much history and tradition bordering on mythology.
When Gehrig, the Iron Horse, died at 38, from the neurological disease named for him, the Yankees did not appoint another captain until Thurman Munson. Until then, Gehrig’s shoes were considered impossible to fill, even by DiMaggio, Mantle, Berra and their ilk.
When Munson died at 32, in a plane crash in 1979, there were stories about the Curse of the Captaincy.
So it wasn’t until Jeter in 2003 that someone followed Munson as captain of the Yankees. Jeter’s locker in Yankee Stadium was adjacent to one that was kept empty for No. 15, Munson.
But you have to wonder if Cashman’s commentary on the captaincy might have been for his own benefit more than anyone else’s. Because of the captain’s access to the media, his position is influential and powerful. Cashman may be concerned that the next captain won’t be as circumspect as Jeter.
But chemistry and leadership are more important in baseball, with its heavy schedule of games, than in other sports. During the gap between Munson and Jeter the Yankees had a 12-year stretch of no first-place finishes.
Cashman may think his job will be easier without a captain of the team, but he’s likely to end up with more distraction, more turmoil. And the fact that the Yankees have no obvious captaincy candidate makes you wonder how much leadership there is on this veteran team.