When we heard embattled Marlins CEO Derek Jeter granted an extended TV interview to HBO Real Sports' Bryant Gumbel (airing Tuesday at 10 p.m.), we asked why? The former Yankee great is media savvy and could have selected a less challenging interviewer, especially at a time where his image is taking a beating.
But we also wondered why Gumbel would risk doing a long-one-on-one with a guy who has a reputation of revealing nothing. We put some of these questions, and other Jeter inquiries, to Gumbel in the following exclusive interview.
DN: Many a reporter has talked to Jeter only to — in terms of compelling material — come away empty. Did you worry about that at all?
BG: It's something I knew about going in. But the best parts of this interview were when we had contentious exchanges on camera. They are not your usual 'here's a question, here's an answer.' Instead, they are tense, argumentative. People talking over each other, saying: 'That's what you think' and 'no, that's what you think.' It's a different kind of Derek Jeter than I have seen.
DN: What subjects did you two get combative over?
BG: The one people will get a kick out of is when I asked him: 'If you were tanking would you admit it?' What proceeds from there I think you will find makes for pretty good television. It was an honest exchange between a guy who believes the Marlins are tanking and another guy trying to put the best face on what they are trying to do with the organization.
DN: What was your feeling when you were getting that kind of stuff?
BG: I rarely look at myself in these things. I've been doing this almost 50 years and I never look at myself in it. I'm always preoccupied with what the person is saying and whether it needs clarification or justification. I'm always thinking about how does that compute with what you just said? Does the viewer want me to say: 'Wait a second pal, that's delusional.' That's where my head is at.
DN: Did his current negative situation make him break character, so to speak?
BG: I don't know about 'break character.' Derek is so iconic that his character is already defined. I was interested in how the character of the person changed and whether a change has been forced upon him. It will be left for the viewer to judge. After all, we never thought we would see the day when A-Rod, arguably, has a better image than Derek in the minds of some fans.
DN: How was his mood going into the interview?
BG: Better than I thought it would be, really. You will be struck when you see some of the exchanges. He was somewhat more combative than I thought he would be, but still very upbeat. And while we exchanged tension-filled conversation, it was never angry, never personalized. It was mainly about conflicting points of view.
DN: Jeter could have picked softer places to land but he decided to sit down with you, a persistent interviewer who pushes back and asks pointed questions. Why do you think Jeter took the hot-seat route?
BG: I can only speculate ... It's not for me to say. But people, other than Derek, who are facing difficult public judgments, their best way to get out of it, or get past it, is to face things head on. I think it's an intelligent way to do things.
DN: Most of his interviews throughout the Yankee years were done during good times. Now he's going through turmoil, facing ridicule, in his new job as Marlins CEO. Did you find him different in that respect? Did you get him to open up?
BG: It's interesting. I've spoken with Derek many times over the years. I don't want to suggest he was different this time because I think people tend to be the same at various stages of their life. But I do think he had more to offer this time. It's difficult to speak about yourself objectively. It's another thing when you're speaking about an organization or a business you're in charge of. To that extent he was able to talk about other things more than just talking about himself.
DN: Did you find him to be defensive in any way?
BG: Yes and no. He had an answer for everything I fired at him, whether that's viewed as defensive or explanatory I guess that's in the eye of the beholder. He rebutted many of the points I offered. He had answers to other things. But I don't know if he came off defensive. At one point the word 'delusional' was exchanged.
DN: Did he seem as confident as he normally is?
BG: That hasn't changed and frankly that surprised me a little bit. I would have thought the difficulties that are clearly staring him in the face, that he would take if not a humbled approach certainly an approach that didn't ooze confidence. He firmly believes that each and every day is a day unto itself and you should go out with the belief you can win. And that hasn't changed about Derek.
DN: But he's at a point now where he's not living up to the expectations, expectations he used to be able to deliver on. What were you looking to emerge from that state of mind he must be in?
BG: Here's a man who for 20 years was an iconic superstar on the field and off the field never had a hint of controversy. He could do no wrong. Now suddenly in what is a brief tenure as a Marlins chief executive it seems he can do no right in the public's eye. How somebody adapts to that change was to me a fascinating thing. That kind of change has to play tricks with your head. To me, that was the draw.
DN: How long were you and your crew with him?
BG: Our group spent two days and an evening with him. Tape wasn't rolling all the time and we knew each other going in.
DN: Did you ever get the feeling that he is in over his head in his new gig?
BG: I do not. I even asked him: 'What qualifies you to run a baseball team?' I don't get the feeling that he believes he's in over his head. Whether or not he is, I think it's way, way early to tell.
DN: You've observed the arc of his career, from rookie to Yankee icon, to Marlins CEO. Is his story kind of surreal?
BG: You've touched on something that I hope isn't a footnote. Derek Jeter has become the first major league chief executive of color in baseball history. As we just passed the anniversary of Jackie Robinson that's worthy of note. It is interesting that he is such a big name, and his story has become so complex now, that it has become a sub-note. I had a conversation with his father, doctor (Charles) Jeter and it's something he is very proud of and something I sense has not been lost on Derek. It's something we try to bring up in the piece. We're not just talking about a former baseball player who has taken control of a team and doing a questionable job, it also is a milestone. One could say in many ways Derek is the perfect standard bearer.
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