The Old Man and the Fish

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

"Well, I went home three months later, Christmastime. The scouts came back in the house. My father called me in the room when he talked to the scouts, called me outside the room, and we talked. He said, 'You really want to play?' I said, 'Yeah.' He said, 'OK, I'll make a deal with you. You promise me you'll get a college education and I'll let you sign.' I said, 'Piece of cake. '"

So it was that a few days after his 18th birthday, the young catcher signed with the Pirates. After two seasons of minor-league ball under his belt and with a war raging in Korea, McKeon enlisted in the Air Force. He wound up running intramural sports and coaching the baseball team at his upstate New York base. The team suffered through a couple of scares on airplanes during the playoffs, McKeon recalls, so after winning the title in San Antonio, the brave Air Force ballplayers took a train home.

In 1953, he was back in the minors, batting in Burlington, North Carolina, when he got into a tussle at the plate with the opposing catcher. The ump tossed McKeon, who showered, dressed, and met his wife-to-be, Carol, in the stands. They married in 1954 and bought a home in Burlington that they still own.

Marlins manager Jack McKeon's gut has forgotten more about baseball than most people could hope to know.
Marlins manager Jack McKeon's gut has forgotten more about baseball than most people could hope to know.
This year, he's piloting a formidable team stocked with veterans such as Carlos Delgado.
This year, he's piloting a formidable team stocked with veterans such as Carlos Delgado.

McKeon at the time played for the Fayetteville Highlanders, where management cut him, hired him back as a player-manager, then cut him again when he got hurt. The owner of a team in Missoula got his name from Branch Rickey, the Hall of Fame executive who signed Jackie Robinson to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Those were the days he remembers as fondly as any: the player who ate a frog for $50; wiring his pitcher to receive radio signals on the mound; smuggling pistols (loaded with blanks) onto the field to make a point with headstrong players. The showman sensibility never left him. In all, McKeon played ten years and managed 17 (some years doing both) in the minors before the 4-season-old Kansas City Royals hired him from their Omaha minor-league affiliate.

McKeon not only spent the summer on the road but managed in Puerto Rico during the winters, so time with his family tended to be short. His wife recalls a year when he was home precisely 92 days. His eldest daughter, Kristi Booker, now 44 years old and living in Elon College, North Carolina, remembers her dad returning home in wintertime with gifts (one year, it was carnival-sized, stuffed animals) and the holiday drives to New Jersey -- her father smoking a cigar in the front seat, the children huddled like hobos under blankets in the back, thankful that the smoke was sucked out the open window.

"He would call home about every night," Carol says of her husband's time on the road. "Of course, I always had complaints -- 'The kids did this; one did that.' He'd say, 'I don't want to hear it. I don't want to hear anything negative.' When I had four small kids all the time, there was a whole lot negative."

One of the only times Carol didn't move with her husband was when famed madman Charlie Finley hired him to manage the Oakland A's during parts of the dreadful 1977 and 1978 seasons. Her rationale for staying put was Finley's capriciousness. Sure enough, McKeon managed, was fired after 53 games, was hired right back as an assistant, and wound up a de facto rung below a teenaged vice president whom Finley called "Hammer" -- and who later called himself M.C. Hammer and sold about a zillion pop albums. When McKeon's replacement as manager, Bobby Winkles, resigned midseason, McKeon finished the season as skipper and then left to manage a minor-league team in Denver. Getting fired from the bigs was becoming so routine that upon learning of his dismissal, McKeon says, his wife and kids went to play on the beach.

Of course, these days, it doesn't appear that McKeon will be fired any time soon. Pulled in a dozen different directions, the Marlins skip somehow satisfies everyone. Among the permitted visitors on the field before a mid-May game are a couple of knee-high tykes who ask McKeon to sign a scrap of paper and a Marlins pocket schedule. When he bends down, one of them asks if he could have a ball. So McKeon grabs a couple from the batting practice cart just as an equipment manager wheels it into the dugout. The boys say thanks.

A middle-aged woman in a motorized wheelchair waits at the edge of the field, her scalp a patchwork of wispy hair. McKeon welcomes her, and she beams. He smiles until one of the woman's friends, a redhead, asks McKeon to sign her T-shirt. It's a black shirt with a Marlins emblem over the heart, which means the only place to sign is right over the redhead's breasts. As McKeon scribbles his name on the shirt, he looks tired. The women giggle.

He turns to head back inside when a voice calls from atop the dugout: "Jack! Look up! Look up!" McKeon pauses near the front of the dugout, obliges with a glance up at the voice, which belongs to a young man with a digital camera. "Oh, there you go!" the guy shouts as the manager disappears from view. "He's the man!"

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