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BASEBALL PLAYOFFS | Ross Newhan / ON BASEBALL

Managing October Baseball in Their September Years

September 30, 2003|Ross Newhan

SAN FRANCISCO — With a cigar in his hand and a beat in his step, Jack McKeon will attend Mass this morning, praying to St. Therese, whom he calls the prodigy of miracles.

If the question is whether to pitch to Barry Bonds -- as it is often likely to be in this division series with the San Francisco Giants -- who can blame the manager of the Florida Marlins for seeking a little divine guidance during his daily visit to church?

St. Therese has been part of McKeon's life for as long as baseball has been, and it has now been 53 years since he began his professional career, which gives him six years in that regard on Felipe Alou, his San Francisco counterpart.

Make no mistake: This National League matchup is a series for the ages.

McKeon is 72, Alou 68. They are baseball's oldest managers. Should the AARP be proud or what?

"There was a big deal made about Felipe's age when he got the Giants job and a big deal made about mine when I took over the Marlins," McKeon said.

"Well, Felipe said it right. He showed them and I think we both showed them, and I think it's a real plus for all the senior citizens in the world.

"Regardless of your age, if you're still capable of being out there, fight on. Go for it."

Awake from start to finish, Alou succeeded the popular Dusty Baker and led the remodeled Giants to 100 wins and a runaway title in the NL West. McKeon replaced Jeff Torborg with the Marlins 16-22 and led them to a 75-49 record and the NL's wild-card berth.

"We were underachieving," Florida owner Jeffrey Loria said as he watched his team's workout Monday and reflected on the decision to fire close friend Torborg.

"Jack had a lot of experience and ability in turning teams around. I don't care if he's 72, 82 or 142, his mind is young, he knows the game and he brought a certain attitude.

"I mean, people had talked about the Marlins in terms of potential for several years. It was time to make it happen, to get beyond that. As Jack said many times, leave your stats and egos at home."

There is an underlying theme to this series in that Loria owned the Montreal Expos when Alou was unceremoniously fired after 53 games in 2001 and nine-plus years of developing players who would achieve their potential elsewhere.

Despite that annual frustration, he had decided at the 11th hour to see his Montreal commitment out after agreeing during the previous winter to accept a three-year managerial offer from the Dodgers ... only to have his loyalty rewarded by hearing about his dismissal from a reporter.

Alou has not talked to Loria or the owner's son-in-law, Marlin President David Samson, since, and when asked about that situation Monday, whether the opportunity now to eliminate Loria's team provided another incentive, he said that he didn't want to talk about it. He said that he would talk only about the Florida players, manager and coaches, all of whom "I like very much. As for the owner

Of course, what isn't in the eye of the beholder?

McKeon considers Loria to be the best owner he has worked for during a career in which he also managed Kansas City, Oakland, San Diego and Cincinnati.

He was fired by the Reds after the 2000 season despite a second-place finish that year and a manager of the year title in 1999, when Cincinnati lost the wild card in a one-game playoff with the New York Mets.

A grandfather of nine, McKeon said he would probably be at his home in Elon, N.C., sitting on the porch with a cigar in his hand, "if Mr. Loria hadn't had the guts to hire an old goat like me. I was out for almost three years. I didn't think I'd ever get another chance to fulfill a dream of managing in the playoffs."

McKeon was here once before, but it was in another lifetime and another role.

He negotiated some 45 trades during a 10-year stint as general manager of the Padres, earning the nickname Trader Jack and helping the Padres reach the 1984 World Series.

Now, he has qualified as the oldest manager ever to reach the postseason -- only Connie Mack (88) and Casey Stengel (75), in fact, managed at an older age -- and he says the credit belongs to the players.

"I don't have to get my ego boosted," he said. "The only thing I did was encourage them to work hard, stay focused and have fun.

"I told them from the start they could enjoy playing in October if they did that."

He told them that more than once, and he didn't coddle them.

If some predecessors had handled the young Marlins with, well, kid gloves, McKeon didn't mind occasionally calling them out on unfulfilled potential in comments to reporters.

Of course, he might mangle their names a bit -- Braden Looper often becoming Branden, for instance, or Ugie Urbina becoming Ubie or Yogi, or relievers Chad Fox and Nate Bump getting him confused as to which was which to the point that he once brought in Fox and said "go get 'em Bumper" -- but the message was generally clear.

In fact, outfielder Brian Banks suspects McKeon "may have intentionally messed up the names to create a laugh and help keep the atmosphere relaxed."

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