The St. Louis Cardinals should buck a baseball trend and designate Yadier Molina as the team’s first official team captain since Ken Boyer was traded to the Mets after the 1965 season.
Once upon a time, the St. Louis Cardinals and most other major-league teams routinely selected one player to wear a “C” on his sleeve, but that practice has been all but kaput since Derek Jeter, aka “The Captain,” retired from the Yankees after the 2014 season.
Selected to the Hall of Fame, Jeter will be formally inducted — barring a coronavirus-related cancellation of ceremonies — later this year. If there is baseball this year, it would be fitting to give Yadier Molina, a de facto captain and the long-time face of the St. Louis franchise, an honor he’s long deserved.
Why Yadi? And why now? Because the 16-year Cardinal is an icon who has caught 1,947 games in his career, the most with a single franchise in Major League Baseball history. He will be a free agent after the 2020 season and plans to play two more years after that, preferably with the Cardinals, but he’ll turn 38 in June. His time is running short.
Furthermore, a case can be made that, in the aftermath of the Astros sign-stealing scandal, MLB teams need team captains — or some sort of recognized player leadership — more than ever. It’s unlikely that a Houston team captain would have stopped the cheating, but it wouldn’t have hurt to have at least one player take some responsibility for the club’s actions.
Sure, “team captain” is mostly a prestige title, but if a proud player has a “C” on his sleeve, he might feel more accountable for his team’s good name than a clubhouse full of shrugging, “it-wasn’t-my-fault” types.
Would the Yankees’ Captain Jeter or the Mets’ Captain David Wright or the Rangers’ Captain Adrián Beltré have signed off on the illegal use of technology to steal signs? While we’ll never know, it’s hard to imagine any of those three — or Captain Molina — being cozy with egregious team conduct.
Here are three possible objections, and rebuttals, to stitching a “C” on Yadi’s sleeve.
No. 1: Team captains are out of fashion
So what? In the 1970s, natural-grass ballparks were out of fashion, multipurpose stadiums with artificial turf being all the rage. Sometimes going retro, as the Orioles did with the opening of Camden Yards in 1992, is the boldest move a franchise can make.
The last run of official baseball captains — The Mets’ Wright (captain 2013-18), the Rangers’ Beltré (2013–18), the Red Sox’ Jason Varitek (2005-16), the White Sox’ Paul Konerko (2006-14) and the Yankees’ Jeter (2003-14) — did nothing to sully the role of baseball captaincy. These were well-regarded players and, by all appearances, excellent teammates.
There’s also the fact that 2019, a year without team captains, resulted in baseball’s biggest scandal since the Black Sox threw the 1919 World Series. Baseball is broken, or at least bent, right now. This is no time to dismiss any ideas, old or new, simply because they might run counter to recent trends.
No. 2: “Captain” is a meaningless title
But there’s no harm in giving a “C” to someone who deserves it. In one sense, it’s like the fast-food places of my youth that offered “assistant manager” titles to minimum-wage burger makers in lieu of raises, just to boost the employee’s morale. Or universities that confer an honorary degree on a great man or woman.
The captain title is mostly a way of honoring someone, as when Queen Elizabeth knighted a 1970s-era pop superstar in 1998 and made him Sir Elton John. And it’s not like unofficial leadership is so special. In 2018, then-manager Mike Matheny backed veteran reliever Bud Norris’ constant haranguing of young Jordan Hicks, as chronicled by Mark Saxon of The Athletic and passed along by Jack Baer of Yahoo Sports.
Norris also tattled on other players who were “not living up to the standards the team set in spring training.” Saxon wrote that, “At times, Matheny said, he has levied team fines after Norris’ reports.” If The Athletic report was accurate, Norris behaved like a captain — Captain Queeg of the U.S.S. Caine. A true leader would not be a one-year-and-gone C
No. 3: Why Yadi? Why not Wainwright, Goldschmidt or someone else?
Goold reported that manager Vern Rapp planned to make third baseman Ken Reitz the Cards’ captain in 1978, a move that partially stalled “because longtime Cardinal Lou Brock was curious why Rapp didn’t consider him for the title.” Brock had a legitimate gripe. He’d been with the club for 14 years, helping the Cards to three pennants and two World Championships.
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Reitz had been with the team six years and had never appeared in a playoff game. But no current Cardinal has more seniority than Molina, not even Adam Wainwright, who was a rookie in 2006, two years after Molina’s first year with the team. Besides, pitchers are rarely made captains, with the Yankees’ Ron Guidry (1986-88) and the Mets’ John Franco (2001-04) two exceptions.
Paul Goldschmidt appears to be the quiet, lead-by-example type, and he’s only been a Cardinal for one year. Oh, and the fact that Molina’s career is in decline shouldn’t preclude him from the captaincy. None of the Cardinals’ three official captains* — shortstop Leo Durocher (1934-37), center fielder Terry Moore (1942–48), and third baseman Boyer (1959-65) — were superstars, although Boyer did win the 1964 NL MVP.
There have been superstar captains of other teams, such as the Giants’ Willie Mays, who filled the role from 1961-72, but usually, it’s just a solid dude that teammates respect. Prime Examples: Sal Bando, the A’s “C” from 1969-76, and Don Baylor, the Angels captain from 1978-82. Cardinals like Norris and would preferably behave more like a mentor than a bully.
Maybe Molina would decline to be the Cardinals captain. If so, fine, but give him a chance to accept or refuse it. There might not be another player in all of baseball more suited to the role. “When you think about the qualifications (of being a captain), it’s excellence as a player and longevity as a member of an organization,” Mets general manager Sandy Alderson told Newsday in 2015. “It’s tough to find that combination these days.”
Molina has that combination, and then some, along with the respect of his teammates. It’s time to anoint him “Captain” Molina.
* Third baseman-outfielder Pepper Martin may have been an official captain after Durocher in the 1930s. Terry Sloope of sabr.org wrote that Curt Flood and Tim McCarver served as co-captains from 1965-69, and Joe Torre has said that he and Brock were co-caps in the 1970s, although these may have been unofficial designations.