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These Marlins Are Grandfathered In

McKeon, 72 but young at heart, becomes the oldest manager to win the World Series, winning players' respect along the way.

October 26, 2003|Jason Reid | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — The guy considered too old to lead the young Florida Marlins certainly seemed in step with the times Saturday night at Yankee Stadium.

As the Marlins celebrated in a champagne-soaked clubhouse after clinching the World Series with a 2-0 victory over the New York Yankees, 72-year-old Manager Jack McKeon took the lead in showing the kids how to party.

The grandfather of nine displayed some smooth moves while reveling in the moment, and the Marlins again followed their leader. After what McKeon had accomplished, who could blame them?

The Marlins' surprising turnaround was led by a cigar-puffing farmer who was relaxing at his rural North Carolina home until accepting an offer in May to lead a struggling team for the remainder of the season. The temporary assignment lasted longer than anyone expected, culminating with the Marlins' defeat of the Yankees in Game 6 for a four-games-to-two Series victory before 55,773.

"I hadn't even had time to think about being in the World Series.... It happened so quick," said McKeon, who succeeded the fired Jeff Torborg on May 11. "I took this job with the idea that I can turn this club around and make it a winner. I had no idea we would get to the World Series, and I had no idea that we would win the World Series."

McKeon became the oldest manager to win a World Series, and only the second to lead a team to a championship after taking over during the season. And McKeon accomplished the feats in his first playoff appearance as a manager, making the ride even sweeter.

"Trader Jack" was the general manager of the San Diego Padres when they won the 1984 National League pennant and lost to the Detroit Tigers in the World Series. McKeon prefers the on-field job, and the Marlins are happy he came out of retirement.

"For me, he's the best manager in the world," second baseman Luis Castillo said. "This guy ... every day he comes to the ballpark happy and he lets you play. When you have a manager who says to you, 'Come to the ballpark, smile and play hard,' that's what you want to do.

"The best thing is that he comes to you and says to just keep playing, no matter how it's going for you. I tried so hard because I wanted to do something good for him. He's a great guy and I respect him so much."

The Marlins were 16-22 when owner Jeffrey Loria offered McKeon, who has now managed five teams in the major leagues, a chance to get back in the game. All McKeon did was guide the Marlins to a 75-49 record in the regular season, stunning the NL in earning the wild-card berth.

Then the Marlins shocked the San Francisco Giants in the best-of-five division series. They added to the misery of long-suffering Chicago Cub fans, overcoming a 3-1 deficit in games to win the pennant in Game 7 at Wrigley Field.

So, what's McKeon's secret of success?

"He made it clear who the boss was," said pitching coach Wayne Rosenthal. "Whatever he said, whether you liked it or not, it really didn't matter.

"He just told them how it was. If you liked it you liked it, but if you didn't like it, well, you just didn't. The guys responded."

But McKeon also displayed a softer side when necessary.

"He showed them that he believed in them," third base coach Ozzie Guillen said. "When you show them you believe in them, they will play hard for you."

To hear the Marlins tell it, age was not a barrier for McKeon.

"No matter how old you are, it's not too hard to just go out there and say, 'Give it your all,' " pitcher Dontrelle Willis said.

McKeon's boldest move of the playoffs couldn't have worked out better.

Trying to seize the moment in Game 6, McKeon turned to 23-year-old ace Josh Beckett to start on three days' rest for the first time in his career.

Beckett pitched a five-hitter with nine strikeouts and was selected the World Series most valuable player.

"What about that story that said he shouldn't pitch on three days' rest?" McKeon shouted playfully at a reporter in the clubhouse. "What are you going to write now?"

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