Derek Jeter Is Back in the Postseason With a Whole New Perspective
The chief executive of the Miami Marlins has the most postseason experience of anyone in baseball history. For Derek Jeter, all of it came in his first act, as shortstop for the Yankees — 158 games in the caldron of the playoffs and World Series.
Now comes No. 159, on Wednesday afternoon at Wrigley Field in Chicago, where Jeter will watch his Marlins face the Cubs in the opener of their best-of-three playoff series. He will not be in uniform, so he will be nervous.
“It’s completely different, because you have no control whatsoever,” Jeter said by phone on Sunday, before the Marlins beat the Yankees to finish 31-29, their first winning record in 11 years. “You can’t talk to guys while they’re going through a game. Obviously, it’s exciting, because it’s an organization that we built and you’re pulling for guys to be successful. It’s frustrating. It’s all these emotions.”
It has been an eventful eight years since Jeter’s last trip to the postseason, which ended when he broke his ankle diving for a grounder in the 2012 American League Championship Series. He retired with a flourish in 2014, became a husband, a father, a Hall of Famer — and, in late 2017, a part owner of the Marlins, presiding over their baseball and business operations.
As a player, Jeter was eminently accessible yet intensely private, rarely given to introspection. The major exception was his postcareer ambition: He talked openly about his dream of owning a team, and he did not have to wait long. While Bruce Sherman is the Marlins’ principal owner, Jeter, 46, has recast the Marlins in his image, weathering two years as the worst team in the National League to become the most unlikely entrant into baseball’s 16-team playoff field.
“The approach that I’ve talked to our players about since Day 1, the first spring training in 2018, was, ‘Listen: Every single pitch, every at-bat, every inning, every single game counts — and if you take that approach, there’s no added pressure,’” Jeter said. “You get to the postseason, it’s the same game that you played in spring training. That’s the approach we take, and I think it’s a big reason why our group’s been able to bounce back from a lot this year.”
After their opening series in late July, the Marlins missed a week because of an outbreak of 20 positive Covid-19 cases. Only five players were active for all 60 games, and the team made a staggering 174 roster moves in all. It was a low-key triumph of front office hustle, and after the Marlins clinched a playoff berth on Friday, Jeter spent the night calling scouts and baseball operations staffers to thank them, as Peter Gammons reported on Twitter.
“Building a great team — on the field, in the front office, it’s still the same thing,” Jeter said. “You have to understand what you’re good at and where you need help. I’ve always been very good at knowing what I don’t know.”
All those years with the Yankees, Jeter was paying attention. The Marlins’ front office, coaching and scouting staffs are loaded with people who have strong ties to the Yankees. The Marlins have rarely spent like the Yankees, and when they have — especially in 1997, when they won their first World Series, and in 2012, when they opened Marlins Park — they quickly reversed course. Jeter hopes for more than fleeting success.
“It’s not like we’re trying to chase winning one time,” he said. “We all know how difficult it is to win. We want to have an organization that, year in and year out, we have an opportunity to compete for a championship.”
Opportunity has always been a telling word for Jeter. Joe Torre, his manager for 12 years with the Yankees, spoke often of how Jeter reacted when the team cleared a starting spot for him in 1996: Jeter acknowledged only that he had the opportunity to win the job. He was not entitled to it.
Three years ago, as a rookie executive with the Marlins, Jeter said much the same thing. He did not expect fans to trust him, because they did not know him. He was careful with his promises and pledged to alter his mind-set to fit his new role.
“When you’re playing, you’re competing for that particular year,” Jeter said. “When you’re in this position, you’re playing for this year, next year, three years, five years down the road. So you’ve got to have a certain amount of patience — but I don’t have a lot of it. I tried, but I don’t have any.”
Then he reconsidered.
“Hold on one sec, I’ll tell you one thing — I have more patience with players than most, because I understand how difficult it is to play this game,” Jeter said. “I understand that players are going to struggle, and quite frankly I like to see players when they struggle, because everyone’s going to do it. It’s just a matter of seeing how you’re going to bounce back.”
The Marlins have acquired several intriguing prospects via trades, often banking more on tools than track records. Some have indeed struggled in their first taste of the majors: Infielder Jazz Chisholm was 9 for 56 this season, and outfielder Monte Harrison was 8 for 47.
Sixto Sanchez finished poorly but looked dominant in his first five pitching starts, with a 1.69 earned run average. The Marlins control Sanchez for six more seasons, while the player they traded for him, catcher J.T. Realmuto, will be a free agent this winter after two seasons with Philadelphia.
The Marlins’ depth in young pitching, Jeter said, gave him hope that the team would contend. Combine that with an opportunistic offense that ranked second to San Diego in stolen bases, and the Marlins have the type of roster Jeter envisioned for Manager Don Mattingly, who predated Jeter with the Marlins after first managing the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“Speaking with Donnie over the last couple of years, I told him the type of team I want to build,” Jeter said. “I want to build a team with pitching, I want to build a team with athletes, I want to build a team that’s aggressive, bunting, hit-and-run, stealing, and Donnie’s on board with it. He loves it, and you see that with our group now. We play aggressively. Yeah, we make mistakes, but aggressive mistakes are fine.”
Mattingly and Jeter were the last two captains of the Yankees, and neither played anywhere else. But the Yankees passed on Mattingly as a successor to Torre, and the Steinbrenners have never put the team up for sale.
Mattingly and Jeter, then, are like so many other New Yorkers who moved to South Florida for opportunity and reinvention.
“People will say, ‘What are you, a Yankee or a Marlin?’” Jeter said. “Well, look, I’ll always be a Yankee. My entire playing career was in New York. You’d never want to change that. I have quite a special relationship with the Steinbrenner family and the fans in New York. But now we’re building an organization down here in Miami, which doesn’t mean you have to pick one or the other.”
With the Yankees also in the playoffs, though, there’s a chance that could change by late October.
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