Early Verdict on Derek Jeter the Owner: 'He Doesn't Know What He's Doing'

Danny KnoblerMLB Lead WriterJanuary 4, 2018

MIAMI, FL - OCTOBER 03:  Miami Marlins CEO Derek Jeter speak with members of the media at Marlins Park on October 3, 2017 in Miami, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Arte Moreno has a mixed record in his time owning the Los Angeles Angels. Some good. Some bad. Some in between. Not the best owner. Not the worst.

But for years after Moreno bought the team from Disney in 2003, there was one thing he was known for that convinced fans he cared about them. Arte Moreno was the guy who took over the team and immediately lowered the price of beer at the ballpark. No matter what else he did, he was the guy who made beer cheaper.

"The People's Owner," Forbes called him.

Derek Jeter should click the link.

First impressions matter, and if Moreno would always be the guy who gave you a drink, Jeter is on his way to always being the guy who traded the MVP...and pushed Mr. Marlin out...and turned Marlins Man into a former season-ticket holder.

He came in as the guy who could save South Florida from Jeffrey Loria and David Samson, who were hugely (and rightly) unpopular as owner and president of the Miami Marlins. Three months later, he's the guy who already has some in the area convinced he's going to be just as bad as they were.

It doesn't matter that in many ways the perception is worse than the reality. The perception matters, and it's bad enough to make you wonder who would ever be a fan of this team. Who would ever buy a ticket?

First impressions matter, and this is the first impression Jeter has left since he and his investment group paid $1.2 billion to take over the Marlins.

"It's because he doesn't know what he's doing," said Jonathan Zaslow, host of the Zaslow, Romberg & Amber morning show on Miami's 790 The Ticket. "It really is that simple. He's a shortstop. No more, no less."

Jeter may well turn the Marlins into a winner before he's done. He may prove to be as successful as an owner as he was as a shortstop. He might build a winning team and rebuild relationships with the community that suffered under Loria and Samson. It's entirely possible the early baseball decisions he oversaw and directed will prove to be the right ones.

But this is where he starts. Unless and until some of those other things come through, this is what Jeter the owner will be.

He's not The People's Owner. He's the shortstop who doesn't know what he's doing.

He's the guy so out of touch that the day the Marlins traded MVP Giancarlo Stanton to the New York Yankees—Jeter's former team!—at the winter meetings in Orlando, Jeter was back home sitting in a suite watching the Miami Dolphins on Monday Night Football.

It doesn't matter that he stayed back in Miami to announce a charity initiative to help hurricane victims in Puerto Rico, Miami and Key West. It doesn't matter that while the headlines read "Jeter trades Stanton," he's actually the CEO and it was general manager Mike Hill who worked out the trade. It doesn't even matter that rival executives are near-unanimous in believing the Marlins did the right thing by moving Stanton's massive contract.

In fact, the early reviews on Jeter as owner are that he's a good listener and a hard worker. People who have met with him say he seems committed to player development and scouting in a way Loria wasn't and that the franchise has a direction it never did when Loria and Samson were in charge.

"There's a feeling it's going to be a good place to be a baseball person," said one Marlins employee, who nevertheless asked not to be identified.

Veteran baseball officials with rival teams offered cautious praise for the Marlins' early moves since Jeter officially took over the team Oct. 3. As unpopular as those moves have been with fans in South Florida, there's a general consensus in the game that Loria's mismanagement had made them necessary.

"I don't think anyone in baseball would disagree with what they're doing," one American League executive said. "If anyone does, they don't know the depth of the debt issues they were facing."

It was never realistic to try to build a winning team right away, even with a lineup that produced more runs than the National League champion Los Angeles Dodgers in 2017. Keeping the team together would have required a payroll rise from $115 million to around $140 million, and adding enough pitching to have a chance to compete may have required spending $170 million or more. With the Marlins' subpar revenues and weak farm system, that was never a workable option.

It may well be that Jeter's biggest early problems have been the result of perception more than reality. Then again, it's a perception he has helped feed, and perception matters.

First impressions matter, and this is the first impression Jeter and Co. have left in their new home.

"We now know that Jeter will be just as unpopular as Loria, though fiscally smarter, and that he doesn't care what you think," Greg Cote wrote in a Dec. 9 column for the Miami Herald.

While the Marlins say they're happy with their return in the Giancarlo Stanton trade, the image of their best player wearing the uniform of Jeter's old team didn't sit well with fans.
While the Marlins say they're happy with their return in the Giancarlo Stanton trade, the image of their best player wearing the uniform of Jeter's old team didn't sit well with fans.Willie J. Allen Jr./Associated Press

The danger in that comes if fans respond by saying they don't care what Jeter says, or even what he does. That's what happened with Loria, perfectly expressed by a woman I spoke to at a Marlins spring training game in 2013, for a story that ran on CBSSports.com.

"It's almost like they defy you to care," Susan Hart said that day.

Whatever else happened, that part was supposed to change the day Loria sold the team. That, as much as selling tickets, adding talent and winning games, is the challenge Jeter faces, the one he is having trouble accomplishing.

He needs to convince people to care.

The first report that Loria was thinking about selling the Marlins came from Forbes on Dec. 15, 2016. It said Loria wanted $1.7 billion for the team, which sounded absurd for a franchise that had long struggled to prove Major League Baseball could work in South Florida.

Four months later, just after Opening Day, Fox Business reported Jeter's interest in buying the team. The legendary Yankees shortstop seemed to quickly become MLB's preferred buyer, and while it took all summer, the group led by Jeter and Florida businessman Bruce Sherman were unveiled as the new owners in an Oct. 3 press conference in Miami. The purchase price was $1.2 billion, with Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports reporting that Jeter put up about $25 million of his own money.

However much money was his, there was never any question about who was in charge or who would get the credit or the blame. Jeter is the CEO, and it's not just a title. Even before the sale was final, every Marlins move was linked to the rookie owner.

Right away, there were issues. Jeter asked the outgoing ownership team to fire ex-manager Jack McKeon, Hall of Fame advisors Andre Dawson and Tony Perez and Jeff Conine, the former player who became known as "Mr. Marlin." He would later backtrack slightly, offering them contracts at $25,000, according to Bleacher Report sources, but the effect was the same. Four big, popular names who were associated with the Marlins under Loria were suddenly gone.

So was television announcer Rich Waltz. Jeter later blamed Fox Sports for the Waltz firing, but a source said Jeter was the one pushing for "a new voice."

Various Marlins executives were also dumped, which isn't completely unusual when a new owner takes over. Loria was known for giving big contracts to his favorites, and it was understandable Jeter would want to make his own decisions. But even one of those moves blew up after Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports reported Dec. 1 that the Marlins had fired longtime scout Marty Scott while Scott was recovering from cancer surgery.

By that time, though, the bigger issue was Stanton, who led the league with 59 home runs and became the first Marlin to be named the National League's Most Valuable Player. Jeter's Marlins were talking seriously about trading him, and the reaction in South Florida wasn't good.

When the Marlins eventually traded Stanton to the New York Yankees on Dec. 10, the reaction was even worse.

For all the other moves Jeter's Marlins have made, it's the Stanton deal and the decision to rebuild that has caused by far the biggest local stir. While executives around the game saw it as the necessary dumping of a contract that never had made sense for a team with below-average revenues, local fans saw only echoes of previous Marlins fire sales. This was the same franchise sent into sell mode by Wayne Huizenga immediately after it won the 1997 World Series, the same team that traded Miguel Cabrera in 2007 and Hanley Ramirez, Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle in 2012.

"Baseball has betrayed South Florida," popular Miami sports talk host Dan Le Batard bellowed at Commissioner Rob Manfred in a contentious Dec. 20 interview on ESPN Radio.

For Le Batard, the issue was whether MLB knew going in that Jeter planned to trade the team's biggest star. Manfred contended that baseball "did not have player-specific plans" before approving Jeter and Sherman as the new owners. Le Batard called Manfred a liar, and it went from there.

It made for great radio, and the commissioner didn't come off well. He struggled to explain why fans should give the Marlins their support and was unconvincing in defending the new owners against charges they are seriously underfunded.

"You have no idea what the cash was in this deal," Manfred told Le Batard. "This club after the transaction had the same amount of debt as it did pre-transaction."

The Marlins' books aren't public, so there's no way to prove whether that is technically true. But the perception that Jeter's group is underfunded is widespread in the game and in South Florida, and Jeter hasn't helped it by continuing to solicit new investors.

Jeter has met with local business executives, a smart and needed move to build community support that was lacking in the Loria days. But when he held a "Breakfast with the Miami Marlins and CEO Derek Jeter" in November, local radio host Andy Slater reported Jeter was also asking people to invest.

Andy Slater @AndySlater

SLATER SCOOP: Derek Jeter hosting private breakfast tomorrow. Multiple invitees tell me it’s to gain interest in financially investing in Marlins, advertising, and buying premium tickets. https://t.co/exFlqcF4QL

Around that same time, Jon Heyman got hold of an "investment teaser" the Marlins had sent to potential investors. Heyman quoted two people who received the emails as saying the Marlins were hoping to raise as much as $250 million.

At a town hall meeting with about 200 season-ticket holders Dec. 19, Jeter insisted his group has enough money to run the team.

"Our group is a bunch of financially successful individuals, not motivated by near-term cash flow needs," he said, according to a transcript provided by the team. "This is an organization that has been losing a lot of money—a significant amount of money. We did not buy this organization to continue that trend of losing money—and more importantly, losing games. It's been 14 years since this organization has been in the postseason. That's a long time. More of the same is not the answer. There are changes needed. We have a plan. We will put this team in a financially sound and stable position."

To a fanbase soured by previous Marlins sales, that was hardly a satisfactory answer.

It didn't help that when the Miami Herald got hold of a pre-sale document Jeter's group provided to investors, it showed a projected "cash flow" profit of $68 million for 2018. While the projection seemed wildly optimistic, based on negotiating a huge new local television deal and increasing ticket revenue, it fed the image of another owner who cared about his bottom line rather than how many games the team wins or loses.

"Without the previous fire sales, we'd have to have a little perspective," Zaslow said. "Two World Series titles, but they haven't made the postseason in 14 years. Obviously, something needs to change, even if it's going to be bad at first. We've seen what happened in Chicago and Houston. It wouldn't be that big a deal.

"But the whole selling point on the new ballpark was that these types of moves were never going to be necessary ever again. That park opened just five years ago, and all we hear now is how the team is losing all this money. It feels like a scam."

For fans who have been let down before, it's not all that comforting to hear that in trading seven major leaguers since June of this year, the Marlins have begun to remake their system. Eight of the team's current top 15 prospects, as ranked by MLB.com, arrived in those trades. The Marlins should do even better if they trade outfielder Christian Yelich and/or catcher J.T. Realmuto, who both expressed discomfort with the rebuilding effort, as confirmed by Bleacher Report sources. For now, though, the Marlins are telling other teams they plan to build around Yelich and Realmuto.

Zaslow also attended the town hall, and he disputed the idea it was a free-for-all with irate fans tearing into Jeter.

"I think Jeter handled himself really well," Zaslow said. "He listened to every fan who had a question, and it was for over 90 minutes. All things considered, it was pretty tame. You had a couple of fans who expressed their anger, one woman who was very sad that Ichiro [Suzuki] is gone, and the absurdity that was Marlins Man."

Ah yes, Marlins Man. He's Laurence Leavy, a local attorney you've no doubt seen sitting behind home plate at every big game in every stadium, wearing a bright orange Marlins jersey. He's the team's self-styled and self-appointed biggest fan, and he announced at the town hall that he hasn't renewed the season tickets he has held since the Marlins were born in 1993.

"I'm very angry," Leavy said, according to Jackson. "This makes us miss Jeffrey Loria. Who would have thought that?"

As Leavy no doubt wanted, his speech at the town hall got national attention, in large part because he began by asking Jeter, "Do you know me?"

The better question after the town hall was whether we really know Derek Jeter, and whether we yet know what he'll be like as an owner. The early missteps have harmed his image, but the eventual verdict will depend on whether Jeter can turn the Marlins into winners on and off the field.

Multiple people inside the Marlins front office described him as a hard worker and a good listener, but even they struggled to say what exactly Jeter intends to do with the team. While there's some optimism that he will use the savings gained by trading Stanton, Marcell Ozuna and Dee Gordon to fund spending on scouting and development that Loria nixed, Jeter himself has yet to make that commitment.

Jeter has said repeatedly that he doesn't like operating through the media, but his reluctance to speak in anything other than generalities has left it for others to define what he is and what he'll do. Instead of making a Moreno-like gesture and immediately lowering prices, Jeter has allowed the firings and the trades to become his early legacy.

For all the work he has done, the image of the Jeter Marlins so far is of their best player putting on the Yankees uniform Jeter once wore with pride. It's of Stanton using his Instagram account to speak of the "unprofessional, circus times" in Miami, and to use his press conference to suggest Marlins fans "watch from afar" as the team rebuilds.

And it's of the new CEO, skipping that press conference in Orlando and instead sitting in a suite watching the Miami Dolphins play on Monday Night Football.

Images do count, and Jeter should know that as well as anyone. For two decades as the Yankees shortstop, playing in the biggest market and the biggest fishbowl, he carefully preserved his image.

In three months as an owner, he has let that image slip.


Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

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