Derek Jeter spent 20 years playing shortstop under the weight of the pinstripes and glare of New York.
He has never been in a tougher position than the one he’s in now.
The man who fashioned a Hall of Fame career as the imprimatur of winning and success — helping earn 17 playoff appearances and five World Series titles — is now in the baseball basement as the front man trying to set the public framework for the Miami Marlins.
We saw again this week what a difficult spot that is as Jeter, the team’s CEO, tries to convince Marlins fans to believe and to come to the ballpark to watch a team that he and principal owner Bruce Sherman gutted in a massive ground-up rebuild.
So Jeter is at Marlins Park this week at a food-tasting event to pitch all the enhancements, such as improved concession offerings, livelier music, different seating options, and so forth, and the money quote that gets disseminated is:
“One thing you always remember is the experience you had while you were at the park. We want it to be a positive experience. We want people to enjoy themselves. Look, people come and they don’t even know who won or lost sometimes. They don’t even know who was playing. But they do know if they had a good experience, and that’s what we’re focusing on.”
Ouch. From that it was hard not to infer that Jeter was preparing you for a lot of losing ahead while also saying there will be enough bells ‘n’ whistles ‘n’ yummy food to distract you. It’s like bracing for major surgery. At least there’s anesthesia!
The problem, of course, is saying you are focusing on a “good experience” when any fan over the age of 7 would suggest that a good ballpark experience begins with winning, with a team to be proud of.
If it’s all about the experience, just have all nine players in the field wear Billy the Marlin uniforms.
All of the ancillary stuff is fine. The rebranding. The ballpark enhancements. The “Dimelo “(Tell me) video booths. The new food (at least the hot dog survived the makeover). The home-run sculpture replaced by three tiers of new seating. The Latin music. The standing-room only “social” section geared to millennials. The new logo, colors, and uniforms.
All good. Whatever.
But Miami is a smart enough fan base to not be fooled into forgetting that everything starts with a competitive team, or a belief we will have one of those, and soon.
Marlins fans first want to be entertained during innings with what’s on the diamond,, not between innings.
Jeter had spoken to that more fundamental desire only three weeks earlier, at the onset of spring training in Jupiter. Then, he was evoking his old Yankees mind-set and wanting nothing to do with any assumptions of losing. He said: “I have no patience; zero patience. I’ve been preaching it. I don’t have it. Patience is something you have to learn. But I’m fine with not being patient If you’re here, you have an opportunity to win. I can’t preach that enough.”
Asked when fans can expect the team to be competitive, he said: “I don’t put a time frame on it, because you’re telling the team to accept mediocrity [in the meantime]. Every time you compete, you’re competing to win. That’s the mind-set I want throughout this organization.”
Three weeks ago, Jeter was reprising his playing career’s role as The Captain.
This week, he was perceived as closer to playing The Captain rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.
(Jeter on Thursday declined our interview request to discuss the difficulty of balancing his innate competitiveness with being a realist).
For me, Jeter should be forever emphasizing the progress and outlook of the team, not the pomp and circumstance of the stuff intended to make you forget the product is bad right now. When might the Marlins be good? You know there are internal estimates. In two years? In five? I see no harm in giving fans a carrot stick on realistic expectations.
The farm system is much better. Trading away stars has brought good players. Lewis Brinson is showing signs. There are lots of reasons to feel good about what’s ahead. (Complicating things, the National League East rival Mets, Nationals, Braves, and Phillies all are much better right now, but that’s for a different day).
For now, you feel for Jeter and the position he’s in. He must simultaneously play both sides. For his team, he must preach winning and damn the (very) low outside expectations. For its fans (including the lost ones he’s trying to win back), he must convey the realistic though challenging aim of somehow making losing fun.
This isn’t about his legacy. Jeter’s is set. No amount of losing as an executive in Miami will tarnish what he did as a player. The analogy I would use is Michael Jordan. In 13 seasons as owner or head of basketball ops for the Charlotte Hornets he has largely failed. His teams have made the playoffs only three times and never gotten past the first round. Unblemished, he’s still the G.O.A.T.
For Jeter, this is about the biggest challenge of his baseball life. The five rings and legend’s status in New York were easy.
Now, down here in the baseball basement, he begins Year 2 of trying to make something from scratch, and trying to convince a beaten-down Marlins fan base to believe again.