The Old Man and the Fish

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

"Who?" McKeon asks.

"Was it Lowell who got thrown out at second, or was it [catcher Paul] Lo Duca? Sorry, Lo Duca."

McKeon's voice takes on a harsh edge. "Guy gets thrown out, he misses a sign?"

Josh Beckett's having a fine year.
Josh Beckett's having a fine year.
A.J. Burnett has had his troubles.
A.J. Burnett has had his troubles.

"Well, he's pretty slow, no?"

"Beg your pardon?" the manager replies, only it comes out more like begrpardn?

"I said, Lo Duca's a pretty slow guy; he misses ..."

"Well, he got a stolen base last night, if you were watching the game," McKeon bites back. "This time, we tried a delayed steal. Didn't work. I should send up signs to you guys in the press box when we miss a sign. 'Hey, he missed a sign! Whoa!' Guys get thrown out. They don't miss signs. C'mon."

Then, to the whole room: "What else?"

All considered, McKeon's retirement from 2000 to 2003 wasn't such bad times. He was back at home in North Carolina, and in a way, he was getting to be the grandfather that he never could be as a father. The man who missed three of his four kids' high school graduations was there to tutor Kristi's son, Zach, who's now a pitcher at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington.

McKeon threw batting practice at the local high school. He fed the fish in his pond so regularly that they knew dinner was between 5:30 and 6 p.m... to the chagrin of anyone who wanted to actually catch fish there. His kids noticed him watering the fake houseplants but said nothing, knowing he was only trying to help. He would mow the lawn often, even when the grass was too brown to care, even injuring himself at one point when his pants caught the gearshift on his lawn tractor and dragged him along the ground until the mower hit the side of the house. "That was something," says McKeon's 37-year-old son, Kasey, who scouts for the Rockies, "that led us to believe he needed to get back into baseball."

Luckily for McKeon, the Marlins were tanking. Bill Beck, a friend of McKeon's from the Padres and Royals, suggested that new owner Jeffrey Loria take a look at the retired manager. In his recent book I'm Just Getting Started, McKeon writes that he visited Loria to talk shop but clearly didn't think he was interviewing for a job, because he addressed Loria as "Jerry" after the meeting.

The rest of the season became sports lore in South Florida, where only two previous head coaches, the Marlins' Jim Leyland and the Dolphins' Don Shula, have ever won a pro sports title.

When McKeon got the offer, he left for Florida immediately. His bon mots and propensity for calling players by their positions or wrong names endeared him to the media. He told his players that he didn't need the money or the job, that he wanted them to win. Told them to grow up. Guided the team from its 16-22 record down to 19-29, then to 91 wins against 71 losses. Beat the favored San Francisco Giants in the Wild Card, the favored Chicago Cubs in the Division Series, and the New York Yankees in the World Series, gambling in the decisive Game 6 that 23-year-old Josh Beckett, on just three days' rest, could beat the Bronx Bombers. Beckett went out and threw the first complete-game shutout in a deciding World Series game since 1991.

McKeon was not only the oldest manager ever to win a Series but he was the first skipper hired in midseason to win Manager of the Year honors. It was the first time he had managed a big-league team to the playoffs: The Marlins slid in as a Wild Card team, ten games behind the Braves. And for all his success, McKeon (now reportedly earning $1 million per year) has yet to manage a team to first place.

Last year, the Marlins finished third in the National League East, hindered in part by injuries and a spate of hurricanes that mangled the club's late-season scheduling. This year, they're locked in a battle for first place with the Atlanta Braves, who for the past 13 years have won the division, the National League's most free-spending. The Marlins' $60 million player payroll is half of what the rival Mets are blowing on this season, about two-thirds of what the Phillies have doled out for less talent, and less than three-quarters of the Braves' salaries.

Despite their successes -- World Series titles in 1997 and 2003 -- the Marlins don't draw well. Their home attendance has been in the bottom tenth of the major leagues during the past three full seasons. A financing deal for a new stadium unraveled in Tallahassee last month. Two of their best players, Willis and Cabrera, are also the Marlins' youngest and together this year will make less than $750,000, a fraction of the salaries they'll command in their next contracts. When you consider what the organization stands to earn in South Florida and what the players will soon be paid, it becomes clear that the team must win while the winning's good -- appropriate for a manager in the last chapter (shucks, the back cover) of his career.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help