Critics of George Steinbrenner liked to say that the late, bombastic New York Yankees owner was born on third base and thought he hit a triple. No one will ever be able to fire a similar high, hard one at new Miami Marlins co-owner Derek Jeter because he actually knows what it’s like to hit a triple. In fact, he smacked 66 of them while collecting paychecks from Boss Steinbrenner for 20-plus years. Now, after trading one set of pinstripes for another, Jeter finds himself in search of players capable of hitting triples, and homers, doubles and singles, too.
On a college campus, in the shadow of the Washington Monument, several hundred miles north of South Beach, another legendary athlete is attempting a similar player-to-boss transition. Patrick Ewing, the center who shot, rebounded and blocked Georgetown University basketball to national prominence, has returned to his alma mater in hopes of recruiting and developing young men who can restore a moribund program to its former glory. By being true to his school, Ewing wants to prove that you can go home again.
It will be fascinating to watch these second acts play out because the transition from beloved athlete to calculating boss usually winds up being the equivalent of a dribbler to the mound or an air ball. Jeter and Ewing were sublimely gifted athletes. They were naturals, and naturals often have a difficult time understanding why mere mortals can’t do what came effortlessly to them.
Wayne Gretzky was “The Great One” on the ice, but not-so-great in the front office. In 2000, he became part owner of the Phoenix Coyotes. Nine years later, the National Hockey League franchise declared bankruptcy. Now, that certainly wasn’t all on Gretzky. He was “The Great One,” not a miracle worker. Phoenix just wasn’t a good hockey town, but the point is that it can be a lot tougher when you can’t control things the way you’d been able to with the puck on the end of your stick.
Ted Williams, the “Splendid Splinter,” wasn’t so splendid when he came out of retirement to manage the old Washington Senators and Texas Rangers. Admittedly, those woeful ballclubs did show modest improvement under Teddy Ballgame’s tutelage. But he never could fathom why his players couldn’t grasp his Einsteinian understanding of hitting a baseball. Legend has it that one day he became so frustrated that he grabbed the bat out of a player’s hands, stormed into the cage and proceeded to smack four practice pitches into the bleachers before tossing the Louisville Slugger to the ground and grousing: “That’s how you hit a (bleeping) baseball.”
“His Airness,” Michael Jordan, has been more like “His Err-ness” as owner of the Charlotte Hornets. The National Basketball Association franchise has been a financial success, adding to Jordan’s billionaire portfolio, but has experienced plenty of hard knocks on the hardcourt. The player who guided the Chicago Bulls to six NBA titles has experienced only three winning seasons in 12 years as an executive. And those three winning seasons ended with the Hornets being eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.
If Jeter and Ewing are looking for role models, they should follow the leads of Jerry West, Lenny Wilkens, Mario Lemieux and John Elway. West was one of the greatest basketball players of all-time, so good that the NBA logo is a red, white and blue silhouette of him dribbling. As a general manager, he might be even better, leading teams to six championships and twice earning executive-of-the-year honors. While with the Los Angeles Lakers, he traded Vlade Divac for Kobe Bryant (one of the all-time steals in sports history), acquired Hall of Fame center Shaquille O’Neal and hired Phil Jackson to coach. West also had a hand in developing the roster that’s helped the Golden State Warriors win two titles in recent years. Wilkens, meanwhile, was so good as a player and as a coach that he made the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in both categories, so he has two plaques.
Elway went from being a two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback to a Super Bowl-winning executive with the Denver Broncos — though, he hasn’t been much of a genius lately, with his fumbling team losing four straight, including its last two by a combined score of 92-39. Lemieux won two National Hockey League titles as a player and three as an owner for the Pittsburgh Penguins. “Super Mario” is the only person to have his named inscribed on Lord Stanley’s cup as a player and owner.
Jeter was a cornerstone of the Yankees dynasty, winning five World Series titles. Ewing put Georgetown hoops on the map, carrying the Hoyas to a national championship and three Final Four appearances in four years. And he might have added some NBA titles had he not had the misfortune of playing in the same era as Jordan.
Jeter and Ewing never backed down from challenges on the ball diamond or basketball court, and their perseverance should come in handy because they are inheriting messes. Jeter never played for a team with a losing record in his 20 seasons in the Bronx. The Marlins haven’t had a winning season since 2009. The Hoyas were 121-23 during Ewing’s four seasons as a player. It’s been a decade since they’ve reached the Final Four. They are coming off a 14-18 season which included six losses at the end.
So both men’s championship pedigrees will be severely tested. As legendary athletes, Jeter and Ewing had more control of their destinies. Now, they must find and develop players who share their fire, work ethic, sports IQ and ability to deliver in the clutch. It’s going to take more than diving into the bloody stands to catch a foul ball or swatting a shot into the fifth row to succeed in their new jobs.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.