By every definition, Derek Jeter’s first Opening Day in the Majors was a smash hit. Wearing the pinstripes of the New York Yankees, the rookie blasted his first big-league home run in a victory. It was 1996 on a 38-degree day in Cleveland.
Jeter can only hope his first Opening Day as neophyte chief executive officer and part-owner of the Miami Marlins turns out as gloriously as that first one did as a young player.
With a win, of course.
The experience just won’t be anything like it was for him 22 years ago when the Marlins face the mighty Chicago Cubs in Thursday’s season opener at Marlins Park — the first game for the franchise’s new owners.
“It’s a little different, my first Opening Day as an executive and owner,” Jeter said while watching the Marlins taking batting and infield practice in their final workout Wednesday. “Your mind is concerned about other things, not just what happens on the field, making sure everything runs smoothly. Those are things you don’t think about as a player.”
It has been six months since Jeter and principal owner Bruce Sherman shelled out $1.2 billion to buy the franchise from Jeffrey Loria, and the new regime has received its share of criticism, from its decision to trade Giancarlo Stanton and Marcell Ozuna to the firing of longtime franchise icons such as Jeff Conine and Jack McKeon.
The honeymoon was brief.
But all throughout, Jeter stuck with a plan to rebuild a team and organization that hasn’t enjoyed a winning season in seven years and hasn’t made a trip to the playoffs in 15.
For Jeter, it’s mostly been about reaching out to business leaders, fans and politicians in a bid to re-energize a community that has shown a lack of interest in the Marlins, who ranked 28th of 30 Major League teams in attendance last year.
“You don’t ever go into something thinking it’s a 9-to-5 job,” said Jeter, who shows up to his office most mornings before 9 a.m. and rarely leaves before 5 p.m. “This is a full-time position. I knew it was going to be a challenge.”
As such, Jeter has spent very little time on the field. He paid a few visits to spring training, but rarely was seen around the field, a place he spent 20 seasons of his playing career, all with the Yankees.
There has been no itch to grab a bat and glove and join in.
“I’m not hitting anymore,” he said. “I’m not fielding ground balls anymore.”
But he is paying attention.
“I’m very involved,” Jeter said of the on-field product. “You don’t have to be on the field necessarily to be involved.”
Jeter is consulted about every transaction, and there have been plenty of them during the past six months as the Marlins have tried to restructure their roster with younger (and cheaper) players and an eye on the future.
The decisions haven’t gone unnoticed, especially among players.
“The biggest thing for me is I respect that he has a plan,” said veteran Marlins reliever Brad Ziegler. “I don’t know all the details of that plan, but I’m going to give it an opportunity to work itself out. There’s a knee-jerk reaction to every move [in this sport].”
Most of Jeter’s efforts have been working behind the scenes, building a successful business model and generating enthusiasm in the community. He has signed thousands of autographs and posed for too many photos to count.
“Contrary to popular belief, we’ve gotten quite a bit of support from the community,” Jeter said. “We have over 20 new corporate partners. We have new season-ticket holders. We have new suite-holders. The fan base and community here has embraced us.”
Jeter even managed to persuade Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez and City of Miami Mayor Francis Suarez to throw out the ceremonial first pitch before Thursday’s opener.
It could signal a better relationship between the Marlins and local government. Gimenez and former team president David Samson feuded publicly for years, and Gimenez boycotted games at Marlins Park, save for a few innings.
Internally, longtime employees are also taking notice.
Said one, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity: “[Jeter] has brought a level of professionalism and accountability to the front office that didn’t exist before and has been a very welcome change in the minds of a lot of people.”
Fans, of course, want a winner — something the Marlins haven’t achieved in a very long time and have yet to accomplish in Marlins Park, which opened in 2012. That could take a while.
Most are predicting a last-place finish and as many as 100 losses for the Marlins, who are rebuilding their farm system with prospects they acquired in the offseason trades involving Stanton, Ozuna, Dee Gordon and Christian Yelich — prospects they hope can help them down the road.
“We are just getting started,” Jeter said. “We’re not in this for one year, two years. We’re trying to build an organization — we WILL build an organization here — that the community and fan base of Miami can be proud of. That takes time. We’ll see how long.”
Marlins manager Don Mattingly on Jeter’s rebuilding plan:
“Derek has the itch to be successful, and that’s everything,” Mattingly said. “The way our minor leagues are going. The way our fan base feels. The experience. I think it’s a lot more than just baseball.”
Jeter won’t have a direct hand in Thursday’s outcome, not the way he did in his very first Opening Day as a player.
He won’t be in uniform and he won’t grab a bat. Those days are over.
“I’ve picked up my last bat and I’ve picked up my last ball,” he said.
Still, the goal is the same.
“You want to win,” he said. “That’s No.1. ”