FanPost

Open Writer Position - needed: a captain in the infield


Miguel Andujar is playing very well, and Gleyber Torres looks to be as exciting a new player as we have seen in a long time, perhaps more so than even Aaron Judge was last year. Didi Gregorious is the real thing at shortstop and electrified Yankees fans throughout April.

But while Didi is now certainly a veteran, he has not yet become the kind of veteran able to provide an anchor in the infield, be a captain on the field, lead the troops when the going gets tough.

Gary Sanchez, who may be a true superstar by the time he fully matures, is still learning the position of catcher.

Catchers, like Thurman Munson or Johnny Bench, or Yogi Berra, can often be the team leader, the field commander, which is one reason that many ex-catchers have gone on to manage. Shortstops, like Derek Jeter or Ozzie Smith, can provide that kind of leadership once they have shown their worth to a team consistently. Didi is getting there, but is not yet there. Gleyber and Miguel are new to the game.

The infield has veterans Neil Walker and Brandon Drury, but Drury has been injured much of the young season, so his presence upon return is unlikely to suddenly make a big difference in the clubhouse or on the field. Walker is hitting very well but is a role player so far, and missed much of Spring Training, so his interactions with the rest of the players has not had enough time to develop into relationships that could become leadership material.

Tyler Austin is good, has been here already last season, but he is only marginally more experienced in the big leagues than Torres or Andujar.

Sometimes outfielders can be the on the field leaders but this is rarer: Joe Dimaggio, Willie Stargell, Willie Mays. Dimaggio and Mays as examples speak for themselves: play at that level consistently, and you can be a team leader. Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton or even Aaron Hicks might be able to play that role someday, but none has been around long enough, shown enough consistency yet as a superstar - Stanton has more than the others of course, but for another team, and his Yankees initiation - though things have picked up - mean he has kept a low profile, since he needs to show he can do his part and justify the big money and publicity before he can take over as leader. Otherwise he risks the Reggie Jackson "straw that stirs the drink" complex. Reggie was one of my favorites, but he was never the leader of those 1970s championship Yankees teams.

Logically, because the infield is tighter-knit, more interactive, closer to the pitcher and catcher and to other players, an infielder or catcher is the logical and most typical position to find a leader.

Often the leader that is the missing element that a team needs to go from contender made up of young players to a championship team or pennant winner comes from the outside.

Think Pete Rose to the Phillies, or Steve Garvey to the Padres.

The Yankees have gotten three potential regulars from outside this season: Drury, Walker and Stanton, but for reasons cited above, none of the three is likely to provide that missing element, and two - Drury and Walker - are even potential sources of tension or ambivalence, since Andujar and Torres have now staked out territory at third and second base, and moving them aside is likely to alienate even well-informed fans, since replacing two already admired rookies with two veterans whom Yankees fans have not had reason yet to fully embrace, would not win hearts and minds.

More importantly, on a young team like the Yankees, while the veteran element is exactly what I am calling for, having a veteran take over FROM one of the young rookies would be more likely to divide the team's loyalties, and confuse the theme.

Stanton will often DH, and a DH by definition cannot be a field leader - well, okay, David Ortiz was able to do that, but you have to end an 86-year drought by coming up with miracle homers against a previously invincible opponent to pull that one off. And Stanton looks too young for any term of respect like "Big Daddy" just yet.

So, the logical place to look for a captain, an on-field commander, an inspiring leader, an emotional anchor with experience when the going gets tough, is at first base.

That the New York Yankees have not had a first baseman now for going on three seasons is kind of scandalous, and has been covered only because: 1) other players have surprised us so brilliantly - Sanchez in 2016 and Judge last year, and 2) we made it to the playoffs and almost got into the Series last year and 3) Greg Bird, when he is well which is hardly ever, hit magnificently in the postseason.

But a player who is absent now, trying to come back, who had trouble hitting his weight last year before the postseason, who is also as young as the rest of the team, can't really be expected to play that role. Tyler Austin cannot do it either, nor can Neil Walker. Granted, if Greg Bird returned and went into overdrive, and besides his hitting fielded brilliantly - and signs are he is a very good fielder at first, captained on the field and emotionally inspired the others - something we have to at least give Didi points for - he could provide the narrative of a Kirk Gibson in Detroit or Los Angeles, or of a Willie Stargell in 1979.

But Bird seems emotionally reserved, which is not a bad thing in New York, where players who are too emotionally high-strung have demonstrated themselves so often to not be able to handle the press, the atmosphere, the whole Bronx thing - see Brown, Kevin for examples. Still, an emotionally reserved type better be a superstar or one whose long career carries gravitas with it, an example for others to look up to. Don Mattingly in other words. Otherwise the field leader needs to be able to inspire others, to criticize their mental errors or failure to run out ground balls or to do that extra thing that makes a play happen.

The Yankees don't have that. Maybe they are so talented that they won't need it. But I think championship teams consistently show that they have someone like that, and the Yankees need it and can kill too birds with one stone (no pun intended) by going out and getting a veteran first baseman that others can immediately look up to.

Could that be Joey Votto? Maybe. Maybe someone else is out there. The Cubs sure are not going to part with Anthony Rizzo. But Freddy Freeman, Joe Mauer (the Twins spent a lot of money and are likely not to get what they hoped for in trying to compete), Miggy, might fill the bill.

Notice that I am not that concerned about the stats - the Yankees, as Bill James pointed out some weeks ago on his blog, are likely to score 800 runs this season anyway. Pete Rose was way past his prime when he joined the Phillies, but he provided what they needed.

This young team, with a Joe Mauer (my first choice), a Joey Votto, a Miguel Cabrera, even an Albert Pujols, might have that extra element that they need. They have plenty of straws to stir the drink, this young, exciting Yankees team. They a solid base for the glass so it doesn't tip over in a strong wind. And winds get strong in pennant races, and young teams stumble.

Plus, Lou Gehrig played there. A long time. I imagine sometimes that his spike prints are permanently a part of Yankee Stadium first base (I know, the actual bag and even stadium are not the same, but nice thought), Don Mattingly played there. Chris Chambliss, the only unflappable member of that crazy Bronx Zoo team played there, and won us a pennant with a timely home. Get us some gravitas at first base, and an experienced leader in the infield and then let the kids play their hearts out, knowing that there is an adult in the room.

I am a lifetime Yankees fan living in northern Italy where I teach for some American colleges and some Italian ones. I watch every game streaming on MLBTV.

My favorite player ever remains Don Mattingly. I am 57 years old, and started following the Yankees in the "Horace Clark" years (poor Horace, it really wasn't his fault. Well, except for the avoiding double play slides into second...), and rejoiced at Chambliss' homer, suffered through the humiliating aftermath against the Reds, watched Reggie's three home runs while sitting on my mother's couch in New Jersey at age 17, shouted at Bucky Dent's homer while at college, watching in our little college coffee shop, revere Sparky Lyle to this day for bringing us back from the dead in 1972 - and still remember how we chanted "De-fense, De-fense" in 1972 to Celerino Sanchez' heroics at third base. I leapt into the air when Jorge Posada hit that double in game 7 of the 2003 ALCS, was teaching in the Midwest at the time and my downstairs neighbor, no Yankees fan, pounded on my door to quiet me down. THAT would be my answer to the most exciting moment in the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry by the way, Jorge chasing Pedro with that double. I would love to write about the Yankees several times a week like little else in life. Thanks for this opportunity.

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