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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Derek Jeter has his work cut out for him

Derek Jeter, chief executive officer and part owner

Derek Jeter, chief executive officer and part owner of the Miami Marlins, talks to the media at the MLB general managers' meetings on Nov. 15, 2017. Credit: AP / John Raoux



Derek Jeter’s new uniform doesn’t have pinstripes. Of any sort. The one he wore Wednesday was a sleek gray two-piece, plain white shirt, standard boardroom issue. And after two decades constructing a Hall of Fame career, Jeter is a rookie again, playing on a field populated by older, richer opponents with much more experience at the highest levels of the game.

This past week was a landmark moment for Jeter, who was attending his first owners’ meetings as the newly minted chief executive officer of the Marlins. He may have been the new kid — Jeter is 43 — but the former Yankees captain also was the only suit to stir up a media crowd with the fervor of a tornado buzzing through a cornfield.

As soon as Jeter appeared, TV cameras collected in his wake, and by the time he settled beneath an outdoor canopy, he was completely surrounded, the circle of reporters three deep. As celebrity owners go, Jeter already is royalty, even if the franchise his group purchased for the incredible sum of $1.2 billion is considered a fixer-upper, with no clear blueprint for a workable renovation.

Jeter wasn’t the money man in this arrangement. He put up a tiny fraction of the final sale price, reportedly $25 million. But what he does bring is the image of respectability, or at least a winning attitude. On paper, a Yankees shortstop with five World Series rings and an unassailable character couldn’t be a better savior for South Beach.

“Derek Jeter is an intelligent, impressive young man,” commissioner Rob Manfred said at the conclusion of the owners’ meetings. “He is really focused on making the Marlins a success. I think he’s going to bring the same kind of focus that made him a great player to the business side of the house.”

Sounds great. But the Hollywood script version of CEO Jeter and the reality of what awaits him in the months ahead are two very different things.

During his Yankees days, Jeter was a known quantity: a clutch player, a 14-time All-Star and the face of the sport’s most storied franchise. He seemed to be born for that role and spent his entire life training for Bronx glory.

As for assuming control of the loser Marlins, a franchise that reportedly is $400 million in debt, there’s no schooling for that. And even if there were, Jeter was too busy paving his way to Cooperstown to attend.

Jeter’s business acumen is based on deep reserves of self-confidence but little practical knowledge, mostly the bits and pieces his well-heeled colleagues have imparted to him since he took over the job.

Will that be enough? Jeter was an instant champion with the Yankees, earning Rookie of the Year honors at age 22, then enjoying life as the precocious boy wonder during the franchise’s dynasty run of four titles in five years. Jeter has never needed patience before. But the Marlins, a team that hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2003 or posted a winning record since 2009, are going to test his boundaries.

“One thing is, you have to be careful putting time frames on things because people hold you to it,” Jeter said. “I said in the initial press conference, we’re trying to build an organization that’s sustainable over time. I don’t like the word rebuild because I think a lot of negativity comes with that. But we’re trying to build something here. We will build something. But it will take time.”

Jeter has plenty of powerful friends to lean on for help. Michael Jordan, principal owner of the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets, is very near the top of that list, if not No. 1. But it’s Jeter’s relationship with the Yankees that will be interesting to watch going forward.

Since his 2014 retirement, Jeter has kept his distance, not even stopping by Steinbrenner Field — a few miles from his Tampa home — during spring training. The Yankees retired his No. 2 during a Bronx ceremony during the 2017 season, one of the very rare occasions he’s visited the Stadium, and now that he’s a Marlin, maybe he’ll swing by when the two teams play in April.

Hal Steinbrenner was among the first to call Jeter when the Marlins sale was approved — he estimated 10 minutes after it went through — and the Yankees’ principal owner still sounds more like a fan than a rival.

“It’s strange to think of Derek being involved and wearing the colors of a different club, so to speak,” Steinbrenner said this past week. “But he’s going to do great there. He knows baseball. He’s a good leader and obviously a very hard worker. So we wish him all the best. But he’s got his hands full.”

That last part was ominous. Jeter realizes he’s not in the bejeweled Bronx anymore, considering that his first mission is to lop off roughly a quarter of the $115-million payroll with which the Marlins began last season. Jeter could accomplish that simply by trading Giancarlo Stanton, who is due $295 million over the next 10 years. But dealing one of the best players in franchise history, as well as a baseball Hercules who slugged 59 homers in 2017, is not a great way to increase attendance figures.

Jeter’s sales pitch Wednesday was all about energizing the Miami baseball community, bringing back corporate sponsors and convincing the demoralized fan base that it will be worth returning to the Marlins’ retractable-roof stadium. But he’s also been actively shopping Stanton, along with any other decent Miami player, so the message is easily lost in those crossed signals.

“I think it just starts with communicating,” Jeter said. “If you let people know what you’re doing, that you have a plan, and that every move that we make is a strategic move. We’re trying to build something, so we’re not just going to make decisions and make moves off the cuff. We’re not going to be emotional and make decisions. We’re building for the future. We’re going to make decisions that sometimes may be unpopular decisions. Just know that every decision we make is to try to turn this franchise around.”

That’s asking a lot from the frequently burned Marlins fan base, but Jeter clearly has the trust of his No. 1 backer: the commissioner. When Manfred was asked Thursday what he liked about the team’s sale, along with the new ownership group, his immediate reply was “the price.” Beyond that, however, Manfred refused to take issue with Jeter’s apparent strategy to treat the Miami franchise like a chop shop, at least initially, and the highly controversial move of shipping Stanton out of South Beach to save money.

“I think that it’s important for new owners to come in, evaluate the state of their franchise, decide where they think they’re headed long term, and kind of write with a clean slate,” Manfred said. “I think it’s unfair, really, to criticize a decision if it turns out be the decision to move a player who has a contract that somebody else negotiated. It’s just new management often comes in with a different idea about how to best put the best product on the field and I hope that the fans in Miami — whatever decisions are made — give Bruce [Sherman] and Derek an opportunity to show what their plan for moving that franchise forward is.”

Jeter earned a bulletproof reputation with the Yankees and was nearly invincible in pinstripes. But this is the most vulnerable he’s been since breaking into the majors, and the future of the Marlins franchise is banking on him again being clutch.

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