Biertempfel: Pittsburgh native faced quick learning curve as Marlins GM
Miami Marlins assistant general manager Mike Berger was more than a little surprised in mid-May when he found out his boss, Dan Jennings, was moving from the front office to the field manager’s office.
Eight months earlier, then-manager Mike Redmond was given a contract extension. But when the Marlins got off to a slow start, Redmond was fired May 17. Jennings, the team’s GM since 2013, gave up that post to fill Redmond’s old job.
“I don’t think anybody in the organization would have forecast that change coming out of spring training,” said Berger, a Pittsburgh native who’s in his second season with the Marlins.
The move is a gamble. Jennings has worked in pro ball for nearly 30 years, but his only previous experience as a manager came at a high school in Alabama in the early 1980s.
The Marlins did not hire a new GM. Instead, they turned to Berger, a former scout whom Jennings hired away from the Arizona Diamondbacks in November 2013.
“My title has not changed — it’s still vice president and assistant general manager — but my duties have,” Berger said. “There certainly are more phone calls to take than before, but it’s all in a day’s work. The one big change is that I am around the major league club far more often than I was previously. Before, I would divide my time with the major league club and our (farm) system.”
Berger had two months to settle in and prepare for the non-waiver trade deadline. With the Marlins out of playoff contention, they swapped veteran players such as Michael Morse (who subsequently was dealt to the Pirates), Dan Haren and Mat Latos for a handful of younger guys.
“We had everybody in (the office) at the deadline,” Berger said. “It was very active. The Dodgers deal (which sent Morse to Los Angeles) took the better part of three days. There were some deals that weren’t made that went right down to the wire, as well. It’s an exciting time. It tests your mettle by way of your knowledge of not only your system and major league club, but other clubs as well.”
Berger, 52, has been around baseball for as long as he can remember. His father, Jack, worked 33 years for the Pirates as director of group sales and promotions and also as public relations director. Berger’s grandfather was a member of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America as a sports cartoonist for the now-defunct Pittsburgh Press.
In 1980, Berger was drafted by the Pirates in the fourth round out of Central Catholic High School. He played 13 seasons in the minors as a utilityman, making it as high as Triple-A in the Texas Rangers’ system.
Berger managed one year in the minors (which means he has more managerial tenure than Jennings) before becoming a full-time scout in 1996.
A scout’s life often is lonely, spent living out of motels in small towns and major league cities.
Even though his current job is based in South Florida, Berger and his family still live on a tree-lined street in Oakmont. Two sons have graduated college and moved out, but Berger gets home three or four days a month to see his wife and teenage daughter.
“That’s the perfect marriage, anyway — the husband’s gone 200 nights a year and the wife gets direct deposit,” Berger said with a laugh.
The Miami Herald recently reported Jennings likely will return to the front office when this season is over. Could Berger’s role could change again next year?
“I don’t have an answer to that right now,” Berger said. “I think that will be determined by (people at) higher pay grades than me.”
Last week, Berger watched at Marlins Park as the Pirates won three out of four games.
Injuries robbed the Marlins of their best pitcher (Jose Fernandez) and slugger (Giancarlo Stanton), but both are expected back soon.
Whatever job he’s filling with the Marlins next summer, Berger is looking forward to the future.
“(Dee) Gordon and (Adeiny) Hechavarria are maybe the most dynamic middle infield in the game,” Berger said. “With our catcher J.T. Realmuto, I see a mixture of (Jason) Kendall, Russell Martin and Joe Girardi. When our outfield is healthy, it’s as good as Pittsburgh’s outfield. We have an ace in Jose. We have a good rotation.
“If you look at our club objectively, I don’t know of many clubs where I’d like to trade places.”
Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.