THE MARLINS' NEW CEO IS THE PRODUCT OF A BASEBALL CULTURE WHERE SUCCESS, SUPPORT AND PROFITABILITY WERE SIMPLE FACTS OF LIFE. HE'S NOT IN THE BRONX ANYMORE, BUT WHILE DEREK JETER IS PLAYING DEFENSE IN SOUTH FLORIDA, HE'S AS CONFIDENT AS EVER
Cool as marble, choosing bemusement over anger, Derek Jeter is playing defense from behind a desk. It's a new position for the former Yankees shortstop. Start with the desk itself: a sleek, modern aircraft carrier with much of its vast deck gone unused. Jeter is behind it five days a week, usually starting, as on this one in January, around 7:45 am.
Room 2.18.06 of Marlins Park formerly belonged to David Samson, president of the Miami Marlins under owner Jeffrey Loria.
It featured dark walls and black carpeting. In a symbolic first act four months ago upon becoming a part-owner and chief executive officer of the franchise, Jeter turned the walls white and covered the floor with a light-beige Berber so luxurious that it requires a doormat at the entrance, lest any shoes dare track in dirt.
The bookshelves behind him contain only four items: one of his five Gold Glove Awards and three framed family photographs, including one of his daughter, Bella, now six months old, and a wedding shot with his wife, Hannah.
When Jeter announced his retirement as a player in 2014, players' association executive director Tony Clark said, "For nearly 20 years there has been no greater ambassador to the game of baseball than Derek Jeter." When Jeter turned 40 years old that summer, his number 2 Yankees jersey was not only still the top-selling jersey that season but also the most popular of all time.
That Derek Jeter is gone, at least if you read the blame assigned to him in a cascade of headlines out of Miami that portray what must be the worst honeymoon since Ernest Borgnine boarded the SS Poseidon. Jeter has been blamed for firing four "beloved" Marlins assistants, a scout who was in a hospital undergoing treatment for cancer and the team's longtime play-by-play broadcaster; for bonus provisions tied to cutting payroll that can earn back his investment; for fronting an ownership group that needs money; for thinking he can boost attendance after trading his best players; for being irked he wasn't designated as the team's control person (i.e., the official top executive as recognized by Major League Baseball), and for blowing off the winter meetings to yuk it up at a football game.
And that was just his first three months behind the desk.
The same guy who had been compared with icons Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle is now being compared with malefactors Max Bialystock and Loria. He will address all of it. (One of the aforementioned charges against him, he admits, actually happens to be true.)
"You just don't turn into a new person because you're in a new position," Jeter says. "I don't treat people poorly. You would think some of these people covering the story might think, Well, you know what? That doesn't sound right. You would think they would say, Let's at least reach out and see what he has to say. But they've run with it. Like the gift-bag story. I addressed it publicly and it still lives on."
In 2011 the New York Post reported that Jeter gave gift baskets with signed memorabilia to women after they spent the night with him. Jeter denied it, but that did not stop many people from wanting it to be true. "It's the same thing here," he says. "So I don't know if me saying something even changes the narrative."
Like his friend and Marlins co-investor Michael Jordan, whose Charlotte Hornets have never won a playoff series in his 11 years as an NBA owner, Jeter knows he cannot answer his critics the same way he once could.
"When you're a player, you go out and have a good game, you silence the critics," says Jeter. "In this situation, the only way you silence your critics is over time.
"So if we're sitting here however many years down the road and we haven't been successful, then I think that would be fair criticism. But to criticize us before we even began and we're trying to fix something that, in my mind, has been broken—give us a little more time."
Jordan has a small stake in the Marlins of about $5 million. When Jeter turned to him for advice on being a CEO, Jordan told him, "If you believe in the plan, stick to the plan. Don't alter it midstream."
"And that," Jeter says, "is exactly what we're going to do."
What is that plan? On the business side Jeter is reaching out to the community in ways Loria never did. He is turning Marlins Park into an entertainment venue beyond the Marlin's 81 home dates. (Monster truck rallies and craft beer festivals are already scheduled.) He hopes to attract more fans with music and a festival atmosphere at ball games, similar to what was seen during the World Baseball Classic last year. ("Eighty-five percent of those fans were from the Miami area. Those fans are here," he says.) And he hopes to more than double the worst local TV deal in the game ($20 million a year on a contract that expires in 2020).
On the baseball side he wants a team that plays "the right way," looks professional ("Well-groomed is the best way to put it," he says when asked about a facial hair policy) and, from the lowest level of the minors to the majors, emphasizes winning—all of which more than suggests a team in his image. Jeter has known only the Yankees and their demanding, win-centric system. "There's a way that you work," he says. "There's a way that you're accountable. I never want to be the person who says, 'Well, when I played....' But when we were coming up we knew there was a way to handle yourself. That's something that needs to be instilled in players when they first sign."
The Marlins are not the Yankees. Not even close. They haven't made the playoffs in 14 seasons and have had eight straight losing years. The team is saddled with $400 million in debt. The farm system Jeter inherited was one of the worst in baseball. The team has finished last in NL attendance in 12 of the past 13 seasons. It has lost more than 600,000 paid customers since Marlins Park opened in 2012. The fan base is distrustful after the spend-and-slash ways of previous owners Wayne Huizenga and Loria, not to mention how Loria and MLB squeezed Miami-Dade County and the city of Miami to help build Marlins Park with what will turn out to be about $2 billion in bonds.
Into this mess rides Jeter, who has never run a team before. What makes him think this can work?
Those who ask that question simply don't know Jeter. He will run the Marlins with the same diligence, purpose and confidence he wielded as a player. His first pro manager, with the 1992 Gulf Coast Yankees, was Gary Denbo, who would later become his hitting coach, the guru who helped build the Yankees' minor league system into one of baseball's best, and the first man Jeter hired in Miami. Denbo is the Marlins' vice president of player development and scouting.
"I've learned," Denbo says, "that once he sets his mind to something he usually gets it done. Same as he did as a player, he's putting in the work."
LET'S START with the money. Last August, Loria selected a bid from a group led by Bruce Sherman—with Jeter on board—as the one he would present to MLB's ownership committee as the winning offer to buy the Marlins. In 1986 Sherman cofounded the money management firm Private Capital Management, which he sold in 2001 for about $1.3 billion. The price tag for the Marlins: $1.2 billion. Sherman's group would write a check for $790.5 million, with Sherman footing almost half the tab, and assume the team's $400 million in debt.
Jeter made it known that he wanted to be the Marlins' control person. As the deal neared the finish line, Samson told him that designation would not be possible. Jeter did not have a large enough stake in the equity of the team. (Reports have pegged Jeter's investment at $25 million.)
"I keep hearing about my 'modest' investment," Jeter says. "I wish that were the case. One, it's not small. And two, that's not accurate, no."
According to a source familiar with the deal, Jeter is the sixth-largest stakeholder in the Marlins, contributing $37.9 million. Asked to confirm that number, Jeter says, "Oh, it went up? Before it was 25. It's higher than 25."
The bid went to the ownership committee with Sherman listed as the control person, and the sale was unanimously approved on Sept. 27. According to Denbo, Jeter dreamed of becoming a major league owner "at least 10 years ago." Asked if he were disappointed not to be the control person, Jeter admits, "Of course. Of course."
In August the Sherman-Jeter group prepared a prospective for potential investors dubbed Project Wolverine (after the mascot of the University of Michigan, which Jeter attended for one semester after the 1992 season). Five months later the Miami Herald revealed details from the document after two potential investors shared it with the newspaper.
According to the Herald, Project Wolverine projected the Marlins to cut payroll in 2018 from $115 million to $90 million, but forecasts a 25% gain in ticket revenue and a 19% gain in attendance. Corporate sponsorship would almost double in three years, the prospective claimed. In addition, Jeter could help recoup his "modest financial investment," the Herald said, through a $5 million salary and a series of bonuses tied to team profitability, prompting Joel Sherman of The New York Post to equate Jeter with Bialystock, the fictional character from The Producers who makes money with an intentionally inferior product.
"They were trying to raise money," an MLB executive source says about the optimism of Project Wolverine. "You can't show a plan that's going to bleed money for seven years. Who's going to invest in a plan like that?"
Says Jeter, "The model you have is an old model. A lot of times you put together models and assumptions before you really get here and get under the hood. We've found out quite a bit since we got in here."
Jeter has traded every bit of what was one of the best young outfields in baseball—Giancarlo Stanton, 28; Marcell Ozuna, 27; and Christian Yelich, 26—as well as second baseman Dee Gordon, 29. The moves saved the team roughly $40 million on the 2018 payroll.
Says Jeter, "The speculation of what they say my salary is—$5 million?—that's not true. And then I get a bonus based on what?"
"Not true," he says. "That's not true."
JETER, DRESSED in a crisp blue suit and white shirt open at the neck, is standing in the dugout of Marlins Park, which is dramatically lit for "Dinner on the Diamond," a January function for about 150 potential business partners, sponsors and season-ticket holders. They dine on tables arranged across the infield. A 12-piece band at home plate plays Latin music. The roof of Marlins Park, a modern, stylish ballpark that fits the South Florida aesthetic, is cracked just enough to reveal a swath of stars. Jeter, as DiMaggio did, evokes a casual elegance and commands any space he enters, even one this big. He is here to schmooze and sell. Before the dinner he glided from conversation to conversation in a cocktail hour in a private club.
"The old ownership didn't do anything like this," says one of the guests, Ivan Herrera, CEO of UniVista Insurance in Miami. "New ownership is reaching out to the community. It's time for a change, and [Jeter] realizes that. He's got my support."
In the dugout, Jeter is reviewing his notes for his dinner talk when his phone stirs with a text. It's from Joe Torre, chief baseball officer for MLB and Jeter's manager for 12 years with the Yankees.
"Uh-oh, it's Mr. T," Jeter says. "I still get nervous when I know it's him. It's like, 'What did I do?'"
Like Denbo, former teammates Jorge Posada and Gerald Williams, former agent Casey Close, and selected others, Torre is part of Jeter's small but fiercely tight inner circle of confidantes. Jeter is bound to quote Torre on baseball matters, such as on the use of advanced analytics. "This organization is way behind in the analytics department, so that's something we're focusing on," Jeter says. "But I think there is a human element. Mr. T says it perfectly: Players have heartbeats. Analytics are great, but you still have to take the time to know the player.
"If I had time I'd go to Analytics 101. I've got to brush up on my Spanish. I understand a little more than I speak. Would I take classes? No question, I would."
It's time for Jeter to sell. He walks out of the dugout, crosses the third base line and waits, perfectly enough, at shortstop. Jeter played his last game on Sept. 28, 2014. That was the last time he picked up a bat—or even thought about playing baseball.
"When I retired people would say, 'Oh, wait till spring training comes around. You're going to miss it,'" Jeter says. "I can honestly say there has not been one day where I missed playing. And that's a good thing. I got everything out of my system, and there's nothing left."
Then the man who played in more postseason games than any ballplayer ever, with more runs, singles, doubles, and triples and total bases, and who won five World Series, catches himself.
"If I could wake up and play in the playoffs, maybe."
He walks to the podium with that unmistakable gait—slightly bow-legged and as erect as if wearing a crown. He has notes in front of him to remind him of the topics he wants to address, but he otherwise wings it superbly. He tells potential sponsors that "Marlins Park is open for business. It is an entertainment venue and it should be used for more than just baseball." He says the backbone of success is building a strong farm system. "This is a new day," he tells them. "We are sticking with our plan.... There will be no excuses tolerated. We will become the team you deserve."
Jeter does not eat at Dinner on the Diamond because he eats at home with his wife and daughter whenever he can. After the event he drives the 15 minutes to his residence in Coconut Grove, a 5,200-square foot, 19th-floor apartment he is renting. Later that night, as he is getting ready for bed, his phone buzzes with a message from Jason Latimer, his VP of communications and outreach. It includes a link to a story that just broke about Yelich's agent lobbying for a trade. Jeter puts the phone down without opening the link and goes to bed.
"I try when I get home to stay off my phone after certain hours," he says.
He does not open the link until the next morning, and only after he cuddles with his daughter.
"My wife and I race in there in the morning to see who can get there first when she starts crying a little bit and then starts smiling," says Jeter. "It's the best part of the day.
"I love being a dad. Absolutely love it. Puts things in perspective. She doesn't talk yet, but when you get home and somebody's happy to see you, regardless of what happened, it makes your day."
AT THE end of last season, with the Sherman-Jeter group only days into taking ownership of the Marlins, the team's best player, Stanton, sat down with president of baseball operations Michael Hill and told him he wanted out if the team was going to go through a rebuild. (On Jeter's orders, the word rebuild is verboten among employees; he prefers to call it a "build.")
"When we got the team our thought was that he was going to be a part of it moving forward," says Jeter. "He has a no-trade clause. The plan was he's on our team."
Stanton had played eight seasons in Miami, all of them losing seasons, and he wanted to stay only if this ownership group was going to spend money to fortify the pitching staff. But, says Jeter, "You could have added two pitchers to this team and they still wouldn't have won."
Seeing the writing on the wall, Stanton gave Hill a list of four teams to which he would accept a trade: the Dodgers, Cubs, Astros and Yankees. Initially none of the four showed interest, so Hill widened the search and engaged the Giants and the Cardinals. On Dec. 7, two days after meeting with Jeter and Hill in Miami, Stanton turned down those two suitors. But that same day, a repeat call by Hill to the Yankees proved fruitful. What changed? Five days earlier New York learned that Japanese free-agent pitcher/outfielder Shohei Ohtani had ruled them out.
Once Yankees GM Brian Cashman told Hill he would include second baseman Starlin Castro (due $22 million over the next two years) in a trade, Hill says, "then you knew a deal was a possibility."
Denbo and Dan Greenlee, the Marlins' new director of player personnel, spent all night and the next morning digging through the Yankees' system to determine which prospects they wanted. Hill knew that "to get better quality players in return," he would have to kick in cash. The Marlins included $30 million in the deal, getting back prospects Jorge Guzman, 22, a pitcher, and Jose Devers, 18, an infielder—a take that critics considered too light, driven more by finances than by talent.
"Anyone who makes that comment doesn't understand what we do as general managers," Hill says. "More than ever, there are so many smart people working in other front offices. They all have parameters to work with. A 10-year commitment and $295 million, you're not talking about 29 clubs with the ability to take that contract."
The critics took shots at Jeter, too. Why didn't he talk more with Stanton? Why shop him to teams not on his preferred list?
"I'm the president of baseball operations," Hill says. "That's not [Jeter's] job. Unfounded and unfair. He's the CEO. He's got to get his arms around so many things in addition to baseball. [Trade talks], that's my job."
Two days later, as the winter meetings began in Orlando, Jeter was seen in a luxury box watching the Dolphins play on Monday Night Football. Wrote David Hyde of the Sun-Sentinel, "The Marlins burn. He watches the Dolphins. The baseball world laughs at this franchise. He sits among The Beautiful People."
"It's just a bad look," says a rival GM. "I know he's the CEO. But it would be better if like the rest of us he's at the whiteboard in the [winter meetings] suite at 2 a.m. grinding it out, studying roster spots."
Jeter says he never planned to attend the winter meetings because that responsibility falls to Hill. Moreover, he attended the Dolphins' game through an invitation to meet with local business leaders about possible partnerships. But by then, Jeter's doorstep had become a dumping ground of criticism. He took heat for the departures of Jack McKeon, Jeff Conine and Andre Dawson, who had served as advisers to Samson.
"They are no longer special assistant to David Samson," Jeter explains. "He's no longer here. In my mind, that's simple."
Jeter did offer the advisers a reduced role at a significant pay cut. None accepted. Jeter told fans at his town hall, "Those individuals were treated appropriately and with respect."
Jeter also took heat for the removal of play-by-play broadcaster Rich Waltz, even though Fox Sports, the local rights-holder for Marlins games, said publicly that the decision was theirs alone.
Nothing created as much negativity for Jeter, however, than the dismissal of a Marlins scout, Marty Scott, who was recovering from colon cancer treatment. Scott, 64, told Yahoo Sports he was "very hurt" to learn with two weeks left on his contract that he wasn't coming back.
The Sherman-Jeter group did not gain operational control of the team until Oct. 2. Most standard employee contracts in baseball expire on Oct. 31. In the second week of October the baseball operations department began the process of reviewing which of the Loria-Samson hires would be renewed. Scott's review was put on hold because of his hospitalization.
"We were incredibly sensitive to what Marty was going through," Hill says. "We were trying to allow him to go through what he was going through. Marty wanted to know and kept calling to try to get an answer."
Only upon the inquiries from Scott, Hill says, did pro scouting director Jim Cuthbert inform Scott his contract would not be renewed. "Our desire is to be a first-class organization and treat people with respect," Hill says. "How it was portrayed was not entirely accurate.... Our CEO has nothing to do with it."
Says Jeter about Scott's dismissal, "The scout, I don't even want to get into. He has health issues. There's no reason to go down that path."
Wrote Greg Cote of the Miami Herald of Jeter, "To call those moves callous is bad enough. To call them Loriaesque may be an even greater indictment." The Atlantic piled on last month, writing, "Few athletes have entered a front-office role with as spotless a reputation, and fewer athletes have compromised that reputation so quickly."
JETER OWNS a 32,000-square-foot waterfront mansion in Tampa. It has become a white elephant. He originally planned to return to Tampa on weekends, but in his first four months as Marlins CEO he spent just five days there: two at Thanksgiving and three at Christmas.
"I'm here," he says. "You have to be here."
Like all employees, he wears a photo identification badge, which is attached to his belt. He has just come from one of his frequent breakfasts with prospective investors and sponsors. Almost immediately after the Sherman-Jeter group purchased the team, the Marlins' owners cast lines among wealthy local businesspeople for more money, this time with a prospective called Project Citrus. The effort was read widely as a signal that the ownership group was underfunded.
"Bruce Sherman is very wealthy," says a senior MLB executive. "We don't have any concern about their financial wherewithal. It's actually a very well-financed group."
"One thing we wanted was to have local people in Miami invested in the team—to add to our group," Jeter says. "It makes us stronger as an organization. We've got a lot of money. Don't think that we don't."
In front of Jeter's desk is an enormous aquarium filled with colorful fish, and a conference table on the other side. To his left are floor-to-ceiling windows, dappled with the shadows of palm trees that sway in the trade winds that carry over South Beach and Biscayne Bay. This morning is the kind of brilliant that forces a Northerner, unbound from winter's long twilight, to squint.
If you summon the prime version of Jeter in your mind's eye, up pops either that marionette-like, inside-out swing carving a humble single to rightfield or, most of all, the quick fist pump after a win, the equivalent imprimatur of Nike, the goddess of victory, raising the victor's garland.
The Yankees won 60% of the games in which Jeter played. "Winning is the best," he says. "Winning a championship. That's why you put all the work in. And that mind-set doesn't change now in this position."
Pressure never shook him. Jeter hit .310 in the regular season and .308 in the postseason. Now that equanimity—the marble in him, with its high compressive strength—is tested again, but in the worst market in the league, with the worst TV contract, with $400 million of debt, a roster stripped of its best players, and a name and a title so big as to bear every bit of blame. He made $265 million as a player. He doesn't need this. Or does he?
"Why?" he says, repeating an inquiry about why he is behind this desk. "I want to build something and be proud of it. It's going to be a challenge here. But you've got to like challenges. If it were easy it wouldn't be worth it.
"We believe we can turn this thing around. A lot of people viewed [the optimism] as a negative, or viewed it as us being crazy. But I think it's a good thing. Correct me if I'm wrong, but the fan base should be happy that you have an ownership group that believes the fan base is coming back to the stadium. I will never apologize for believing in the Miami market."
In the cocktail hour before the Dinner on the Diamond event, grown-ups swooned around Jeter, posing for pictures and asking him to sign Yankees jerseys. He is the face of the Marlins, for better, as on nights like this, or for worse.
Ralph Eguilior, an architect from Miami, walked up to Jeter. "I hope you're as good an owner as you were a shortstop," he said.
Jeter smiled and said, "Better."
"I DON'T TREAT PEOPLE POORLY," SAYS JETER. "YOU WOULD THINK SOME OF THESE PEOPLE COVERING THE STORY MIGHT THINK, WELL, YOU KNOW WHAT? THAT DOESN'T SOUND RIGHT."
ON JETER'S ORDERS, THE WORD REBUILD IS VERBOTEN AMONG EMPLOYEES; HE PREFERS TO CALL IT A "BUILD."