By Paul Lukas
Special to Page 2

When the Red Sox re-signed Jason Varitek last month, they gave him more than a new contract. He was also named the team's captain, and general manager Theo Epstein marked the occasion by presenting Varitek with a new jersey featuring a "C" prominently sewn onto the front.

Varitek is a catcher, so his "C" will be obscured for half the game by his chest protector. But if that bugs him, he could just have the letter moved to his sleeve. Or to his thigh, or his hip, or wherever else he wants it. Because in a sports world notoriously persnickety about, well, everything, captains and the way they're denoted are a surprisingly freestyle subgenre. And that's their charm -- an unpredictable element in an increasingly regimented athletic landscape.

Some quick background: Back in the 1800s, every baseball team had a captain. But captains in those days functioned like today's managers, and the managers were more akin to today's GMs. Some captains, but not all of them, wore a special designation on their uniforms, most notably Bob Ferguson of the 1876 Hartford Dark Blues, who reportedly had a white belt imprinted with "I AM CAPTAIN" (a photo of which has unfortunately resisted Uni Watch's best sleuthing efforts).

But as managers became more involved in on-field matters, the role of the captain diminished. According to Glenn Dickey's "History of National League Baseball," things reached the point where the captain's main job "was to try to keep at least some of the players sober." (Ferguson's belt no doubt came in handy for such policing duties.) Eventually, many teams dispensed with captains altogether.

Decades later, there is still no standard protocol. Some MLB teams have captains, some don't; some captains wear a uniform designation, some don't. Look at last season's five captains and you'll find five different approaches:

  • Mike Sweeney, Royals: "C" worn on right front shoulder.

  • Barry Larkin, Reds (now a free agent): "C" worn on right chest.

  • John Franco, Mets (now with the Astros): "C" worn on left front shoulder (the same placement Keith Hernandez used while captaining the Mets in 1987, although he and Gary Carter both went "C"-less when Carter was named co-captain in 1988).

  • Sammy Sosa, Cubs: "C" worn on the right sleeve of his home and road jerseys, and on the left sleeve of his alternate jersey. (Uni Watch notes that Sosa's captaincy dates to 2000, when Cubbie skipper Don Baylor took the unusual step of simultaneously naming four co-captains. The others, all now retired, were Mark Grace, Kevin Tapani, and Rick Aguilera.)

    Jason Varitek
    Hmm: 2005 "C" jersey, 2004 World Series patch. Can you say "jinx"?

  • Derek Jeter, Yankees: No "C."

    Intentionally or not, the Varitek/Franco/Hernandez "C" placement mimics the style used by hockey captains (including the Russians, who used to wear a "K" but in recent years have switched to "C"). In fact, Franco was named captain in 2001 because teammate Turk Wendell attended a Devils game and thought, "Why don't we have a captain, like the hockey teams do?"

    NHL rules do, indeed, require each team to have a captain. But did you know that the location of the "C" is discretionary? It's true: Rulebook section 14(a) stipulates only that the letter must be situated "in a conspicuous position on the front of [the captain's] sweater." Same goes for the "A" worn by alternate captains (the coolest of which, of course, is the flaming "A" used by the Calgary Flames, a classy nod to the franchise's original Atlanta-era logo). But the left shoulder placement has been de rigueur for so long that not even the historians at the Hockey Hall of Fame could tell Uni Watch when or why it became standardized.

    Turning to basketball, most NBA teams have captains -- often several per team. But uni-borne imprimaturs have generally been more the exception than the rule; and in some ways, the situation is as fluid and inconsistent as in baseball. Last season, for example, the Bucks had three "C" co-designees (Tim Thomas, Desmond Mason, and Erick Strickland), but this season they're "C"-less. And Reggie Miller wore a "C" in the 1993-94 season, but hasn't worn it since. A partial listing of other NBA lettermen over past decade or so includes Tracy McGrady, Nick Van Exel, Antonio McDyess, Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Tim Hardaway, and Christian Laettner.

    All these players have worn the "C" near the right shoulder, presumably because the left shoulder is reserved for the NBA logo (lone exception: the Heat, who wear the league symbol on the right). But before the NBA went brand-happy -- remember, this is a league that puts its logo on the players' socks -- some captains wore the "C" on the left, including Jack Sikma and the immortal Downtown Freddie Brown.

    And then there's the NFL, where the teams have so many captains that the pregame coin toss now resembles a rugby scrum. But they never wear a "C," or any other designation. Which is just as well this time of year, because the Super Bowl logo creates enough jersey clutter on its own -- a topic Uni Watch will be exploring in greater detail next week.

    I Have a Dream ... of Playing Hockey

    Reader Jon Dolezar alerts Uni Watch to an interesting promotion that took place last week: In honor of Martin Luther King Day, the Kansas City Outlaws -- a minor-league hockey team -- wore special jerseys patterned after the Negro League baseball uniforms of the old Kansas City Monarchs, complete with the names of former Monarch players on the back.

    This is the only instance Uni Watch can think of in which players in one sport have worn something patterned after the uniform of another sport. MLK would no doubt approve of this cross-cultural intermingling.

    It's a Zoo Out There

    Uni Watch's recent survey of team logo mascots brought out the animal-lover in everyone, with scores of readers pointing out additional mascots that weren't mentioned in the article.

    The most grievous oversight was singled out by reader Charles M. Eldridge, who is justifiably appalled by Uni Watch's failure to mention the Mighty Ducks' surreal 1995 third jersey, which shows the team's Wild Wing mascot in full, uh, flight. The great thing about this alternate jersey is that Wild Wing is wearing the team's standard jersey, which is a clever way of avoiding the infinite regression problem.

    As long as we're talking hockey: Jerry Kratochvil and Garret Heinrich note that the Kings' third jersey features a hockey-playing lion, and Anuj Vaish and Nael Masood remind Uni Watch about the Flames' fire-breathing horse. Several folks also mentioned the Stars' alternate jersey, although Uni Watch is inclined to disqualify this design, since it looks more like a fallopian tube diagram than a mascot.

    Over in the NFL, it turns out that the Bengals used to have a tiger who was carrying a football and running out of his helmet. Kudos to Jason Wainscott, who was the first of several readers to bring this logo to Uni Watch's attention.

    Thanks also to Mark McDonald, who informs Uni Watch that the Chargers are actually an animal-based team. As he explained, a charger is a cavalry horse; and sure enough, the team used to have a horse-based logo. Similarly, half the state of Texas wrote in to tell Uni Watch that the Mavericks are animal-based as well, because a maverick is, among other things, an unbranded calf. None of which quite explains why the Mavericks logo features a horse (although it does explain the logo used in the late 1960s by the ABA's Houston Mavericks).

    And speaking of horses, Timo Reger writes in to explain that the horse on the Detroit Pistons' logo is there because "pistons are used in engines to generate horsepower." Fair enough. Now if they'd just use an illustration of a horse made out of piston parts, like they used to do with this fella -- then they'd really have something.

    Paul Lukas does not have, to the best of his knowledge, an animal-based name. Archives of his pre-Page 2 "Uni Watch" columns are available here and here. Got a question or comment for him? Send it here.

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