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Trio of captains treasure role
03/01/2008 12:45 PM ET
Ask Derek Jeter about the deeper meaning behind serving as his team's captain, and the Yankees' shortstop's morning seems to brighten slightly.

Is it a responsibility to lead by example? To be an accessible voice in his clubhouse? Or because he has pride in the tradition that surrounds his position?

Well, the correct answer is a bit of each.

One of just three captains currently named in Major League Baseball, Jeter -- like Jason Varitek of the Red Sox and Paul Konerko of the White Sox -- treasures the acknowledgment, which goes beyond just a title.

"It's an important role and it's an honor," Jeter said. "I know, in this organization, it's not something that's thrown around lightly. It's something that I cherish."

The role of captain on a baseball team is generally issued to a player responsible for strategy and teamwork while the game is in progress on the field. That makes the position normally -- but not always -- a natural fit for a prominent position player.

"There are a lot of responsibilities," Jeter said. "You're accountable to your team, your teammates, the organization, the media. You understand that it's not just an honorary thing."

In many instances, the honor is an unexpected tribute. When the Red Sox announced Varitek had signed a new contract on Christmas Eve 2004, general manager Theo Epstein handed the catcher jerseys with the letter "C" stitched on the right chest.

The gesture brought an official tone to what those watching the Red Sox knew for some time, especially in the afterglow of Boston's first World Series title in 86 years. Varitek, an invaluable leader now deemed iconic in franchise history, had become Boston's first captain since Jim Rice in 1989.

"Just the work ethic and wanting to do things at a high level, leading by example, things like that -- that's why he has that 'C' on his chest," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "He's our leader, and he'll continue to be. It bodes well for us."

Veteran big leaguer Johnny Damon has a unique perspective, having played with Jeter and Varitek while they served as captains for their respective clubs. While acknowledging differences between each player's style, Damon said the role of captain is much the same on both sides of the rivalry.

"He's the go-to guy," Damon said. "If something's going on, he's the guy who should know everything. He's the guy to speak up at team meetings, and he's just very important. They definitely have to conduct their lives a little different than the rest of us.

"They're the captain of a franchise. They can't be getting into trouble. They just have to be a lot smarter than the rest of us."

In recent years, players like Barry Larkin, Sammy Sosa and John Franco have worn the "C" on their chests to signify their standing. But now that Mike Sweeney has moved on from the Royals to the Athletics, Varitek stands alone as the only remaining big leaguer wearing a "C."

Both Jeter and Konerko, who was tabbed as the South Siders' captain before the '06 season, have opted to go sans "C." Konerko believes that the additional letter is better suited for hockey jerseys, and Jeter points to the fact that no previous Yankees captain -- including Lou Gehrig, Thurman Munson, Don Mattingly and dating all the way back to Hal Chase in 1925 -- had use for the letter.

"I'm no different than anyone else on the team," Jeter said. "I understand that I have that title. I'm not saying that there's anything wrong with anybody that's wearing it, but for me, it was never an issue."

"He's the go-to guy. If something's going on, he's the guy who should know everything. He's the guy to speak up at team meetings, and he's just very important."
-- Johnny Damon, on Derek Jeter

Konerko, who was offered his title at SoxFest by manager Ozzie Guillen, looks at his captainship differently than both Jeter and Varitek. While choosing his words carefully, Konerko doesn't feel a captain is necessary for a clubhouse to have order.

"I'm flattered by it, but it didn't change one thing about how everything operates inside our clubhouse," Konerko said.

The White Sox did just fine in 2005 without a team captain, he said, winning a World Series. In Chicago's clubhouse, Konerko considers himself on equal footing with veterans like Mark Buerhle, Jermaine Dye and Jim Thome.

"The fact that 27 teams don't have one, that kind of tells you the need of it in baseball," Konerko said. "On this team, there are guys on this team that are older than me and have more time in the game.

"I've always said what it really comes down to is it gives the guys more things in stretching to get on me about. Any time something has to be done that nobody wants to do, they say it's the captain's job. It's really what it boils down to, to be honest with you."

Still, the departure of a captain can create an issue. The Royals felt it firsthand when Sweeney did not report to camp this year in Surprise, Ariz., instead looking to keep his career going on a Minor League deal with the A's.

A veteran who helped young players grow acquainted to life in the big leagues, Sweeney was immediately missed by Kansas City, with no sure replacement in sight. Once an embraced captain like Sweeney leaves, it may take years -- and several people -- to fill the hole.

"You look around, and there's not a clear-cut leader," Royals outfielder Mark Teahen said. "Obviously, we're not going to be what Sweeney was, but, because he's gone, we need a couple guys to kind of fill that void and see who emerges as a leader."

When considering the title, a contrast to hockey is most striking, where each club is required to name one and the captain is the only player permitted to speak with referees regarding rule interpretations. Baseball simply abides by a different style than the NHL, NBA or NFL, where captains are plentiful.

"It's much different than other sports like hockey, where the captain, it's a different story," Konerko said. "You're playing three games a week and there are situations where I think it's involved a little bit more."

Sometimes, baseball even draws its inspiration from the other sports. In 2001, the Mets' Turk Wendell lobbied to name Franco after noticing the "C" on jerseys at a New Jersey Devils game.

Though the Brooklyn-born Franco was readily identifiable with the organization after his lengthy service, having a captain who spent most of his time in the bullpen made the selection an oddity.

Other times, it is the timing that proves curious, even though the player being selected may be a slam dunk. In June 2003, Jeter became the newest captain in club history (the Yankees believe there are now 11, though researchers claim there may be as many as 15).

Jeter was a natural fit -- "A young man of great character [who] has shown great leadership qualities," owner George Steinbrenner said at the time -- but the honor was bestowed while the club was on a road trip. The hasty decision prompted the Yankees to hurry a press conference at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati, where the club was shaking off a 3-12 skid.

"I had a message that Mr. Steinbrenner wanted to talk to me," Jeter said. "I thought I was in trouble. I called him and he said that he wanted to name me the captain, and he asked what I thought about it."

Not surprisingly, Jeter didn't hesitate to accept. The position may mean different things to different players, but top to bottom, one thing is certain -- even now, it is meaningful.

"It's a short list," Jeter said. "I understand how special it is."

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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