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Elderly Enthusiasm

McKeon, 72, has Marlins in wild-card chase since taking over

August 24, 2003|Ken Rosenthal | Sporting News

Manager Jack McKeon is smoking a victory cigar, which is no big deal, considering he lights up for most every occasion, even his own workouts. This stogie, though, is particularly satisfying. For the second consecutive night, a little-used Marlin reserve has hit a game-winning home run in extra innings.

"Nothing to it," McKeon cracks over his cell phone to his son-in-law, former Padre pitching coach Greg Booker. "We play a little longer, but we always get them."

McKeon, 72, is entitled to the last laugh, and so is his surprising team. Mocked as a senior-citizen has-been after taking over May 11, McKeon could be voted National League Manager of the Year for the second time in five seasons. Dismissed as frauds by skeptical outsiders, the Marlins might steal the NL wild card.

This isn't merely a case of the Marlins responding to a needed kick in the rear; McKeon, their fourth manager since 1999, also was in the right place at the right time.

Mike Lowell reached career highs in home runs and RBIs with 40 games left. Ivan Rodriguez recovered from a two-month slump and, beginning last week, led the National League in batting average with runners in scoring position. And, two days before McKeon replaced Jeff Torborg, Dontrelle Willis joined the rotation. He has emerged as a leading candidate for Rookie of the Year.

The decision to keep Lowell, the promotion of outfielder Miguel Cabrera, the trade for right-hander Ugueth Urbina -- it all came together so perfectly. But after a 3-7 start under McKeon, the Marlins began last week with a major league-best 49-26 record since May 23.

Although staff ace Brad Penny says, "I think we would have won with Jeff," the rotation's performance, in particular, suggests otherwise. Before May 23, Marlin starters were 11-20 with a 4.39 earned-run average. They were 39-22 with a 3.56 ERA since.

"He has been especially good for our pitchers, a lot of the starters, the younger guys," backup catcher Mike Redmond says. "He's an old-school manager. He's not going to sugarcoat anything. For sure, we needed somebody to come in and force us to realize how good we are and not to let us underachieve."

Torborg told the Marlins they were ready to win. McKeon shows them how. He locked the clubhouse during games so that players couldn't watch the action on TV in air-conditioned comfort. One week into his tenure, he ripped into the team after a listless 7-1 loss against the Dodgers. His message, according to veteran utilityman Mike Mordecai: "You want to keep enjoying this lifestyle, then wake up, look in the mirror and make some adjustments."

From publicly rebuking Penny for questioning an early removal to sparring verbally with reliever Tim Spooneybarger over an elbow injury, McKeon acts as if he's a crusty elder who has earned the right to speak his mind. He has managed professionally in six decades and held virtually every baseball position imaginable, including general manager of the NL champion Padres in 1984.

In his early days, McKeon would challenge a player who was ticked off about being replaced. "Today, I turn my head," he says. "I don't even see him or hear him. It all blows over in five minutes."

McKeon plays the role of stern parent but also makes the game simple, creating a loose environment by giving his players the freedom to perform.

He respects all players; he just hates to see major league talent go to waste. A former minor league catcher, he made $215 a month at the start of his 10-year playing career in 1949. More than a half-century later, after getting fired by the Reds, he spent time mentoring his grandson, Zachary Booker, a pitcher/catcher headed to North Carolina Wilmington.

"I've got nine grandkids," McKeon says. "I love watching them play, but I was getting tired of Little League softball and baseball. It's a little bit below the caliber I'm used to."

So, he's back one last time, the third-oldest manager in major league history behind Connie Mack (88) and Casey Stengel (75). McKeon attends church every morning and often arrives at the ballpark by 9:30 a.m. He works out by walking, jogging and puffing on a cigar for four or five miles. Then he'll relax, read the newspaper and smoke a few more cigars.

"I marvel at that man," says Dodger Manager Jim Tracy, 47. "When I get to his age, I hope the walleye are biting, the salmon are running and my outboard is working. I will not be managing."

McKeon is managing. And winning. And vowing to keep going as long as he can. "I've had more fun this year than I've ever had in my career," he says.

That cloud you see over Pro Player Stadium? It's not the Marlins' uncertain future. It's McKeon puffing away in the dugout, savoring one more ride.

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