2017-08-16 18:39:02
On Baseball: Derek Jeter’s Greatness Will Be Tested as Owner of a Losing Team

18:39, August 16 151 0

The Miami Marlins won their game on Friday, hours after a group including Derek Jeter signed an agreement to buy the team. They won again the next night, then swept their weekend series, then won again on Monday

Classic Jeter, right? Simply by association, it seems, he could will his prospective new team to victory. All he does is win, win, win, no matter what.

That seems to be the sports world’s default stance on the prospect of Jeter heading the baseball operations of the Marlins, as proposed in the estimated $1.2 billion sale of the team to a group led by the venture capitalist Bruce Sherman. Baseball’s owners will vote on the deal, probably in October. As the lead investor, Sherman would be the final authority — the so-called control person — but Jeter, effectively, would shape and steer the team.

Based on Jeter’s track record, the reasoning among optimists goes, success surely will follow. Jeter won five championships in 20 seasons with the Yankees, serving as captain and collecting 3,465 hits in a career bound for the Hall of Fame. At 43, he could conceivably run the Marlins for decades — and as a biracial executive with a high-profile, authoritative presence in the game, he would immediately represent at least a symbolic victory for Major League Baseball in its struggle for front-office diversity. (Jeter’s father is African-American and his mother is white.)

“I’m very pleased,” said Leonard Coleman Jr., the former president of the National League. “When Jackie Robinson made his last speech in 1972, he talked about just this: minorities moving into front offices and team ownership. This is great, and certainly extends Jackie’s legacy.”

Coleman, who is African-American, is the honorary chairman of the Jackie Robinson Foundation. He referred to remarks by Robinson at the World Series in Cincinnati, just days before his death, in which he said he would be proud to one day see “a black face managing in baseball.” Robinson had been reluctant to throw out the first pitch that day until the commissioner, Bowie Kuhn, assured him baseball took the issue seriously.

Baseball had never had a black manager then, and all these years later, it has just two — Dusty Baker of the Washington Nationals and Dave Roberts of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Top front-office decision makers are also almost exclusively white, and baseball has seen a steep drop in the percentage of African-American players.

Still, Jeter has shown no desire to be merely a figurehead.

Much of his success, on the field and in crafting a spotless image, came from his discipline in adhering to a long-range plan. He formed a youth-focused foundation as a rookie, treated elders with respect and interacted well with the news media, readily accessible and hardly ever controversial.

Yet while Jeter fiercely guarded details of his private life, he was uncharacteristically specific about his goal after his baseball career was done: He wanted to own a team. That came through clearly in negotiations with the Marlins, whose owner, Jeffrey Loria, is a Yankees fan.

“I’ve gotten to know him through this process, and he is an incredibly interesting, articulate, smart, contemplative individual,” David Samson, the Marlins’ president, told reporters in Miami on Saturday, referring to Jeter. “Forget Hall of Famer, right? It’s not about that. It’s about his ability to run a team and his desire to run a team. It came through so clearly what he wanted, and we were able to finish a deal.”

A handful of elite athletes have also achieved glory from the executive box. John Elway won two Super Bowls as a quarterback for the Denver Broncos, and another as their executive vice president of football operations. Joe Dumars won two N.B.A. titles as a guard for the Detroit Pistons, and another as their president of basketball operations.

The difference with Jeter is his ownership stake — he contributed $25 million of his own money to the purchase of the team. He and Sherman will likely be embraced by the Marlins’ fans, many of whom have been deeply disillusioned by Loria and the team’s original owner, Wayne Huizenga, who dismantled championship teams. But good will only goes so far.

“I don’t care who you bring as owner, Derek Jeter’s not going to put one more seat in the stands because he’s not playing,” said Gary Sheffield, the former outfielder who is now an analyst on TBS broadcasts. “Derek’s going to have to win ballgames there, and he’s going to have to put together a winning team that fans can identify with, and the players have to be involved in the community, like we were.”

Sheffield, who played with Jeter on the Yankees, joined the Marlins during their inaugural season in 1993 and helped them win their first World Series four years later. In the early days, Sheffield said, the fans proved to him that they would support the team. He added that Jeter would understand the need for the players to restore that bond.

The Marlins clearly need a change. They have the longest postseason drought in the National League, last appearing in 2003, when they beat Jeter’s Yankees in the World Series. They ranked last in the N.L. in attendance 11 times in the past 12 seasons. The exception was 2012, when they opened a retractable-roof stadium in Little Havana, largely with public funds.

The Marlins face other big hurdles before Jeter signs a single player — an estimated $400 million debt, the possibility the league will reduce its revenue sharing (now about $50 million) and the lack of a good television deal.

Chuck Greenberg, the former managing partner and chief executive of the Texas Rangers, said Jeter should study the example of Mario Lemieux, the Pittsburgh Penguins Hall of Famer who now owns the team with Ron Burkle.

“It was a franchise that was literally in bankruptcy, in an aging building that needed to be replaced, that had a waning pipeline of talent,” said Greenberg, who, as an attorney, helped negotiate the Penguins deal for Lemieux in 1999. “He partnered with a terrific businessman in Ron Burkle, and together they worked in an exemplary fashion. They hired great people, they relied on those people and they’ve got three Stanley Cups, a yearslong string of sellouts and a brand-new, state-of-the-art building to show for it, with a dramatically increased franchise value.

“They forged a great working relationship, and they hired great people and let them do their job well, while adding their own personal influence. Mario took his brand and his persona and applied it to the Penguins in a way that has set the course for the franchise.”

With the Rangers, Greenberg had a successful but shorter run with Nolan Ryan, the Hall of Fame pitcher who became president of the team in 2008. Greenberg and Ryan led a group that bought the Rangers for $590 million out of bankruptcy auction in August 2010. Two months later, they reached their first World Series.

The Rangers returned a year later, but by then, Greenberg was gone, with Ryan getting his wish to control both the business and baseball operations. Ryan — who declined an interview request about the challenges facing Jeter because the Marlins sale is not yet official — resigned as chief executive in 2013 and sold his ownership stake.

“The key is to develop a trusting, personal relationship, which requires a mutual desire and effort on their part,” Greenberg said, referring to Jeter and Sherman. “There will be plenty of challenges that come their way, particularly in the early years. But if they can develop a close personal relationship and sense of trust in one another, that’ll go a long way.”

Jeter and Sherman have not spoken publicly about the sale.

Jeter, while a famously heady player on the field, was never known to immerse himself in the minutiae of the game after leaving the ballpark. As a chief executive, he could set a course for the franchise without delving deeply into the mundane aspects of a general manager’s job. Critically, he would have to assemble a talented cadre of lieutenants.

“Nothing else works if you don’t have the right front office,” the veteran executive Stan Kasten said in a recent interview in Atlanta, where he was president of the Braves in the glory years of the 1990s. “I think that’s the key to everything, and the value of scouting and player development. It sounds simple, but it takes patience — and patience is hard.”

For all of Jeter’s attributes, he is not known for patience. He won a World Series in his first full season and deemed every subsequent year without one as a failure. He never played for a Yankees team with a losing record.

Yet Jeter also had the vision to plan diligently and position himself for a postcareer challenge. He should have it soon — in a different city and a wider world of opportunities.

“He’s Derek Jeter,” Greenberg said. “He’s an icon, and that opens every door imaginable.”