The Old Man and the Fish

Did Marlins skipper Jack McKeon ever tell you about the time... ?

It helps a great deal that the pace and quantity of games allow ample time to jabber. At this playful art, McKeon is a master. Usually without revealing much of true gravity, he fills reporters' notebooks and microphones with names, dates, quips, quotes.

The rapport between McKeon and South Florida baseball writers is like something out of an early radio comedy routine. There was the time in a post-game interview that a reporter's cell phone rang, and McKeon defused an awkward moment by saying: "I'll get it -- the president's calling. Tell him I'm busy with writers."

Then there was this, in late April, when the Miami Herald's Clark Spencer asked McKeon about a young-looking 30-year-old pitcher:

Spencer: He said he still gets carded.

McKeon: He does?

Spencer: He looks like he's 14.

McKeon: I got carded once.

Also that day, the Herald writer inquired after an injured pitcher:

Spencer: "Stress fracture. I know you're not a doctor..."

McKeon: "No, that's true. But I will be soon."

Here's what his players say about McKeon:

"It's kind of like playing for your granddad, in the regard that you don't want to do bad because you feel like you're one of his grandkids." This is Todd Jones, one of the Marlins' top relievers. "If you pitch bad, he won't say nothing to you that day. But he'll come up to you the next day and he'll pat you on the back and say, 'Ah, kid, I'm sorry. We'll get 'em tomorrow.' You're just like, 'Thanks. '"

"He wants you to be a man." This is Juan Pierre, the outfielder who elevates scrappiness to an art, shortly after a game in which he was hit in the leg by a pitch so hard that he fell to the ground and, in pain, rolled several feet along the first-base line. McKeon stepped out and told Pierre to rub some tobacco juice on it. "If you go about your business the right way, you won't have any problems with him. If you dog it or don't be focused or something, he'll get on you."

"He's the most storytelling guy I've ever met in my life." This is Dontrelle Willis, standing in front of his locker before a game on Mother's Day. Willis has had a better 2005 than perhaps any other player in the major leagues, starting the year 7 and 0 (he's now 8 and 2). And while the 23-year-old ace's perpetual good cheer gives his success the appearance of providence, he, perhaps more than any other Marlin, works hard on days off and in the offseason, largely at McKeon's urging. "He keeps it loose, and we stay fired up," Willis says of McKeon.

As Willis talks, an impromptu game of hackey sack springs up. Jeff Conine's 7-year-old son, Griffin, brought the little foot bag, and some players -- Mike Lowell, A.J. Burnett, Matt Perisho, Miguel Cabrera -- have formed a circle to keep the thing aloft. They are pro athletes, and even at this kids' pastime, they are adept. The bag makes a couple of rounds before someone pops it into a wire laundry cart. "It's still in play! It's still in play!" Burnett says. He grabs the cart, dumps the bag out, and manages to kick it a couple of times before overreaching and knocking it to the ceiling.

Watching this, Willis asks: "See what I mean?"

Minutes later, in the dugout, a reporter asks how McKeon's wife, Carol, is enjoying the holiday. McKeon replies that he hasn't spoken with her yet but offers, "Happy Mother's Day to all you guys" and adds, "Ya bunch of mothers."

Writers like to quote McKeon, and McKeon likes to quote his dad, who would say, "Your attitude determines your altitude." Bill McKeon owned taxis, tow trucks, and a Ford dealership in South Amboy, New Jersey, just across Raritan Bay from Staten Island. (McKeon writes in his 1988 autobiography, Jack of All Trades, that he drove his date to the prom in a cab.)

"When I was a young kid in high school, I was a pretty good player," McKeon says. "Scouts came to the house; they wanted to sign me. My father wouldn't let me sign. He said, 'No, I'm not going to let you guys sign' -- me and my brother -- because, he says, 'I only had a seventh-grade education, and I don't want you kids to have to work as hard as I do. I want you to have an education. '"

As McKeon talks, again in the dugout, again on a beautiful day, the sounds of the stadium throb around him, with loudspeakers echoing in the seats and the first trickle of fans through the turnstiles crying for autographs.

"So he wouldn't let me sign, so I went to Holy Cross College up in Worcester, Mass., on a baseball scholarship," he continues. "And every night I went to dinner, and on the way back, there was a shrine to the blessed virgin. And I'd sit there and pray for 20 minutes: 'Please. Can you help me? Can you intercede with the good Lord to influence my father to let me sign?'

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