Let me paint this picture. It’s a small thing, that’s really a big thing and it shows why I’ve been on the Marlins bandwagon since part-owner/CEO Derek Jeter became Mr. Marlin after the 2017 season.
I’ve been to every team’s spring training site through the years, many, many times, going back to my Padres days in Yuma, Arizona. That was the perfect place to cover spring training. Easy to get around. No hassles. Stayed at the team hotel so players and coaches were readily available. There was no place to hide and back then players didn’t hide. There were baseball conversations all the time.
At the ballpark, the working conditions were excellent, too.
Large clubhouse. Press box on top of the action at Desert Sun Stadium and you could always find GM Jack McKeon on the back fields. This was before cell phones too. A great trick current GMs do now is when they see a reporter coming their way, their phone suddenly goes up against their ear in Fake Conversation to avoid a real conversation and questions about the team.
As you can guess, this was long before spring training camps became fortresses and reporters were locked away in a window-less cell, security always keeping watch.
Plus here is another thing, Yuma is home to the Territorial Prison, opened in 1876, and the city embraces its history. In fact, the high school’s nickname is one of the best ever. The Yuma Criminals. In 1917 they officially adopted the name. An opposing high school gave them that nickname as a slight, but the Yuma students “embraced the suck”, as Joe Maddon likes to say and to this day Yuma High School is home to the Criminals or Crims.
February 17, 2020: JUPITER, FL. The Miami Marlins way - Run, Don't Walk. Photo: David Santiago, Miami Herald
And yes It was a T-shirt I just had to buy my first spring in Yuma.
Like the Johnny Cash song says, and it should have been written about covering baseball:
I’ve been everywhere, man
I’ve been everywhere, man
Crossed the desert’s bare, man
I’ve breathed the mountain air, man
Of travel I’ve a’had my share, man
I’ve been everywhere
With all that in mind let me tell you about an early morning visit this spring to the Marlins camp in Jupiter, a site they share with the Cardinals. Once I pulled into the parking lot and said hello to Dominick, the best baseball parking attendant in the world, I made my way to the patio area, adjacent to the Marlins clubhouse.
That’s where you hang out.
There are double steel doors the players use to enter and exit. Players come out for the early morning workout … early, so get there even earlier, if you can. That’s how you run into stories.
There are different fields in use and some fields are a good walk from the clubhouse.
“Players are often bitching about something, it’s the nature of the beast, much like sportswriters.”
Usually, players come out in small groups, telling stories, laughing, joking or, because they are baseball players, complaining. Players are often bitching about something, it’s the nature of the beast, much like sportswriters.
On this perfect February morning, though, I immediately noticed something different.
Here were players coming out, but they were not sauntering their way to the fields. They were not walking. Each and every Marlin, young and old, is running to the fields. Not a sprint, but something better than a jog. They are moving with a purpose from the get-go, there is work to do.
I’ve never seen that before in hundreds of visits to major league spring training sites through the decades. You might see one or two Johnny Hustles, but the whole team?
And not one player is eating a banana or an orange or an energy bar or chatting away as they slowly walk to the fields.
Every player is hustling, running to the field. When the workouts were over, the players ran off the field back to the double steel doors of the clubhouse. It was refreshing to see.
Then it hit me.
Jeter is in charge here.
Manager Don Mattingly is in charge here.
VP of player development and scouting Gary Denbo is in charge here.
Jeter learned to run in spring training because you never know who is watching.
October 2, 2020: Lewis Brinson slides home to score the Marlins' second run in their 2-0 series clinching win against the Chicago Cubs. Photo: David Banks, USA TODAY Sports
Here is how that happened.
In 2014 Mattingly told the story to Al Santasiere, senior director publications for the Yankees.
“I first met Derek when he was in the minors,’’ Mattingly began. “He had a long way to go at that point, but I liked the way he went about his business. One morning during spring training, we were both coming off a back field together. I was running off the field, and I noticed that he wasn’t. I quietly told him to always run onto and off the field because you never know who’s watching you. At first, Derek thought I was referring to fans watching him, but I knew that Mr. Steinbrenner had his eyes on us.”
“Derek picked up his pace that day, and I never saw him walk onto or off the field again. He ran on and off the field before and after every practice and every inning of every game for the rest of his career. Over the years, I’ve also heard Derek talk about that conversation and explain that he took something out of it.’’
Now the Marlins were doing the same Jeter/Mattingly thing. An impact was made.
The first step of progress. Now look where Jeter’s Marlins are today, heading to the NLDS against the Braves at Minute Maid Park after shocking the big money Cubs at Wrigley Field in two games to advance.
The Marlins did it with pitching and defense, holding the Cubs to one run, and hustle and determination, with the baseball world watching.
It is the biggest surprise of the postseason. So far.
But not to all.
Over at Barstool Sports, honcho Dave Portnoy is always touting his picks, from pizza to ballgames. Good for him. Love all the personality.
But here at BallNine, our founder Chris Vitali made a pretty good pick, too. In Vegas before the season he put $100 on the Marlins to win the whole thing at 1,000 to 1 odds.
Vitali is still in the hunt.
That first day of spring training this year I could see the Marlins beginning to evolve as a team by the way they hustled on an off the field.
There were buying into Jeter Ball.
I was there in Jupiter too in the spring of 2018 when Jeter first took over. He told me then there was no five-year plan.
Derek Jeter and Don Mattingly have brought their brand of baseball to Miami and it's starting to pay off for the Fish.
There was just a winning plan. How refreshing.
All these teams have five and seven year plans. How about a winning plan ASAP.
Jeter was learning the ins and outs of beefing up the organization, including analytics, but he told me this was the challenge of the job: “It’s been a passion of mine. I have an opportunity to build something. I knew coming in it’s going to take a lot of work and it’s going to take some time, but I’m enjoying it. We’ve got some quality people here and we are going to turn this around and get this right.’’
Of Mattingly, Denbo and the staff he put together, Jeter offered: “People are excited about what we are doing here. We have the chance to build a first-class organization and we will do it.’’
No matter how this NLDS turns out, progress is being made in leaps and bounds for the Marlins.
Remember, this team lost 105 games last year.
“For Derek, it’s all about that championship mentality,’’ Mattingly told me. “With Derek, you always talk about competitiveness, that’s No. 1, but also be a professional, handle yourself the right way and we are doing that here now from the very beginning. That’s how you start.’’
Jeter played with a competitive chip on his shoulder and so do his Marlins. It’s a beautiful thing.
With a 60-game schedule anything could happen this season, especially with the rotation the Marlins put together and the bullpen additions they made.
Then they got some help from the Phillies the first series of the year when post-game analyst and former Phillies reliever Ricky Bottalico referred to the Marlins as “Bottom Feeders’’ after the Marlins beat his Phillies Opening Day.
Not bad for a bunch of ``Bottom Feeders``: The Marlins celebrate their series win over the Cubs at Wrigley Field, October 2, 2020
“You got to beat the bottom feeders”, Bottalico implored.
The Marlins took that to heart and had “Bottom Feeders’’ T-shirts made up and even hang one in the dugout for inspiration. That is the shirt they were all wearing when they took their celebration picture at Wrigley Field.
The Phillies flopped again.
Phillies GM Matt Klentak is out.
The Marlins flourished.
It didn’t hurt the Marlins that when they traded catcher J.T. Realmuto to the Phillies they got back young stud Sixto Sanchez who was so impressive against the Cubs on Friday. In the opener of the series Sandy Alcantara was electric as well.
Remember, it starts with pitching. And somehow the Marlins made it through an explosion of Covid that wrecked their roster.
The Marlins play defense, too.
Matt Joyce made a perfect throw from right field to throw out Willson Contreras, who got a bad jump on a single and took a wide turn at third base in the Marlins 2-0 win in Game 2.
The Marlins run the bases well and that puts them two steps ahead of many other teams. The stolen base is a weapon, not something to be frowned upon by front office Nerds.
Jeter has his analytics department, part of the game these days, but not the whole game. He lets Mattingly manage.
Baseball has a beating heart and Jeter always recognized that and told me as much when he explained to me years ago, “This game is more than numbers, there is a human element, there is a heart and soul and sweat to the game,’’ he said in the Yankees clubhouse.
Jeter performed in the regular season and the postseason, that’s how he got to the Hall of Fame. October, he knows, is different. Just like he knows baseball is more than numbers.
Over 20 seasons, Jeter collected 3,465 hits, the sixth most in history and the most ever by a shortstop. He knocked in 1,311 runs and scored 1,923 runs. Not a home run hitter, Jeter managed 260 home runs. He hit .310 with a .377 on-base percentage and .440 slugging percentage over his career.
Interesting that Yankee Stadium opened in 1923, the same amount of runs Jeter wound up with for his career.
In the postseason, over 158 games, Jeter batted .308. Mr. Consistency. He produced a .374 on-base percentage and a higher slugging percentage at .465 as he lashed 20 postseason home runs.
Jeter has made some mistakes, sure, firing Andre Dawson, Tony Perez, Jeff Conine, and Jack McKeon and then alienating them with not much of a comeback offer.
Good scouts lost their jobs too, but when ownership changes and a team hadn’t been in the postseason since 2003, changes are inevitable.
There was talk Dawson and Perez would boycott Jeter’s Hall of Fame ceremony that will now take place next summer, but both HOFers are expected to be there and that has helped calm the situation.
Everything is focused on the field of play.
Against the Cubs, the Marlins showed their beating heart in the two-game sweep. The pitching dominated with a 0.50 ERA and holding the Cubs to a .145 batting average and .479 OPS. The Marlins hit only .203 with a .711 OPS but they got some big hits with three home runs to the Cubs one, none bigger than Garrett Cooper’s solo home run in the seventh off Yu Darvish to give the Marlins a 1-0 lead.
The Marlins stole three bases in the two games. The base-to-base Cubs did not steal a base while their pitchers pitched to a 3.50 ERA. Not bad, but certainly not 0.50.
In the regular season the Marlins finished second in the majors in stolen bases with 51 to the Padres’ 55. Isn’t it great to see the stolen base become a weapon again for some smart teams as opposed to just the Big Swing Offense? The young, talented Padres managed to get by the Cardinals even though the Padres were down their two best starting pitchers.
Find a way.
Can the Marlins continue to find a way and move on, beat the Braves who beat the run-less Reds in two straight?
“Why not us,’’ Mattingly said after knocking off the Cubs. “Don’t be satisfied. Anything can happen. Why not us?’’
You'd celebrate too if your team has yet to lose a postseason series. Ever.
In their history, the Marlins have won all seven postseason series they have played.
This is the third time they have been to the postseason and they have two World Series trophies to show for it, 1997 and 2003.
That 2003 team came back to beat the Cubs in the NLCS. That was the Bartman Series. Steve Bartman got in the way of Moises Alou catching Luis Castillo’s pop fly down the left field line.
That area of Wrigley Field has since been reconfigured to move the bullpens from on the field to under the stands. The Bartman seat is no longer along the line, but the memories linger for the Cubs, who continue to struggle in the postseason after winning the World Series in 2016.
The Cubs can’t blame this Marlins loss on Bartman.
The Marlins deserved their success and when closer Brandon Kintzler struck out Jason Kipnis on a comeback fastball for the last out he celebrated by running his right hand across his jersey, emphasizing the team, Marlins, and not himself. That’s the Jeter way as well. Kintzler, 36, was signed in the off-season as the Marlins rebuilt their bullpen. He’s been around the MLB block and loves the Marlins approach.
“Just to get the last out right there was like, ‘We’re still here. You can’t get rid of us,'” Kintzler said.
“I don’t care if we’re bottom feeders.”
Much like the Yuma Criminals, who were given their nickname by an opponent, the Marlins proudly rock their Bottom Feeders nickname.
Play baseball the Derek Jeter way, do things the right way from the first day of spring training, hustle on and off the field and compete until the last day you play and good things will happen.
Part of that is the aggressive philosophy the Marlins have established with their young starters, they want them to be aggressive, stay aggressive and act like starting pitchers, again, something established by Jeter and Mattingly while so many other teams rely too much on the bullpen.
“We’ve talked about our young guys, we like the power and then you get into the playoffs,’’ Mattingly said. “I’ve been watching the playoffs and it seems like a lot of games are just bullpen games, bullpen games. We’re a little different. We trust our starters. Every guy that goes out there usually has better stuff than anybody else we got in the pen. So you trust those guys to go a little ways. They are young, inexperienced, you know, it’s just baseball and that is what we try to keep in perspective. Go out and stay on the attack, make pitches. If you get hit you get hit. Just compete, that’s all we are asking them to do, just compete.’’
Like Mattingly said, it’s just baseball.
No spin rate talk, barrels or exit velocity.
And one other thing, run on and off the field.