The Old Man and the Fish
A couple of hours before the Florida Marlins are to play the Colorado Rockies on a mild Friday evening at Dolphins Stadium, outfielder Juan Pierre stretches his hammy beside catcher Matt Treanor, himself mere minutes removed from watching TV in the clubhouse while pensively raking his goatee with a fork. First-baseman Carlos Delgado rolls on the ground behind the batting-practice backstop, stretching his legs with an elastic band and laughing with 24-year-old wünderkind Miguel Cabrera. A few feet away, in the shadow of the dugout, sits manager Jack McKeon. Smoke trickles out of both the wet and burning ends of his Padron cigar. He wears rimless glasses, a hearing aid, and a Marlins uniform held together at the waist with a thick, black belt fastened on the innermost hole.
When it is suggested to the skipper that his players might themselves manage someday, his response is swift: "They'll never have the fun that I had."
It's unclear who in baseball is having more fun than McKeon these days, let alone during the rest of his long career, which has -- no kidding -- spanned seven decades. After he signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates organization in 1948, McKeon slogged his way playing and managing in such baseball backwaters as Missoula, Fayetteville, and Omaha. Then in 1973, he got the call to take the helm of the Kansas City Royals, making him one of the few to manage in the majors without having played in them. If his heart is in the big leagues, his soul remains in the minors, because he believes that is where a manager can teach, and that is whence the best stories come, not that it matters much as long as it's baseball. McKeon could make a Little League team's Kool-Aid break sound like Exodus in the retelling.
"You really got to teach in the minor leagues," he says. "And you got to really feel good about maybe helping someone accelerate... to get to the major leagues."
With this, he is off. He tells of the time he bet a steak dinner that a minor-leaguer would make the bigs in two years, only to see the kid ascend in six months; he boasts of drafting future Hall-of-Famer Tony Gwynn with the San Diego Padres; and he roars about the minor-league player who hid the prosthetic leg of a roommate on the road. All the while, he taps a listener on the leg to punctuate what he considers the very best parts.
"People don't understand some of the funny things that happened," he says of the minors. "Like the gal calling me up, wants to know where her boyfriend was that gave her the ring. Said he came over with the ring that night, but he wanted to take it back and get it sized. Next day, he gave it to her girlfriend. And she wanted to know where I could get ahold of the S.O.B. I didn't know -- this is the wintertime. And she paid for the ring. Oh no."
He pauses only a moment: "Got a call, one guy wants to jump off a fuckin' bridge because his girl dissed him, and I'm out all night looking for this guy."
Still, he hurtles along: "Then the time one of my players one night had a bed check. Went to find him, his car was gone, so I went out to Pattee Canyon in Missoula, like Lover's Lane. Spotted this guy's car. And we parked away from him. I wanted to go see who was in the car. Well, I was walking up along the weeds, in the bushes. And I was with another guy, and the bushes were rustling. I say to him, 'Would you quit making so damn much noise?' And proceed another 25 feet, and the bushes are at it again. 'I ain't doing anything,' the guy says. Just about that time, a big black bear comes up. Ho-leee shit. If they'd have had a record for how fast you could run, you bet your ass I'da broke it."
To illustrate the precise flavor of terror that McKeon felt that night, he gathers his full five feet, eight-or-so inches and 200-odd pounds, stands on the floor of the dugout, and raises his hands above his head, arching his fingers in the universal pose of a monster. Less than an hour before game time, Jack McKeon, who is 74 years old, is imitating a bear that by any reasonable estimate probably died 40 years ago in the hills of Montana but could have, were it not for the skip's record speed, meant his premature demise. Instead, McKeon has survived long enough to prove himself impervious to toil, firings, cigars, Yankees, retirement, carnivorous mammals, what have you, and, most important, can relive every daft second of it any time he pleases.
More than any other unscripted cultural phenomenon, baseball has produced quotesmiths. Yogi Berra said that if you come to a fork in the road, take it. After Casey Stengel managed the Yankees to victory in the 1958 World Series, he said he couldn't have done it without his players. Author Bruce Catton wrote that baseball is the greatest conversation piece America has ever produced and, in so doing, unnecessarily confined his statement to a single nation.
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?'
"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.
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!"
And that is all it takes to be the man when you are Jack McKeon, at least when you are on top. "I look at it this way," he says of autographs. "The day they don't want it, then I'm in trouble."
McKeon's quasi-exile in Denver turned out to be brief. San Diego called in 1979. Then, as now, the Padres were not a free-spending club and thus relied on shrewd trades and drafting. McKeon joined as a scout, overseeing some of the club's farm system. Soon, he worked his way up to general manager. Perks included puffing stogies during games with team owner and McDonald's founder Ray Kroc.
McKeon didn't necessarily make more trades than the next guy, but he developed a reputation as "Trader Jack," a persona that wound up on T-shirts, hats, mugs, and key chains and in commercials, with the GM gnawing a huge cigar and dealing bubble-gum cards of his players. It's rare in the history of baseball that a general manager garners such a cult of personality.
"I would say he was the central figure of our ballclub in the '80s," says Dick Freeman, the Padres president. "To people who weren't here then, it's hard to understand. I try and describe to them the days of Trader Jack. It was a different world."
With McKeon at the helm, the Padres drafted future stars Kevin McReynolds, Tony Gwynn, and John Kruk -- in 1981 alone. The Padres had finished above .500 only once in their 12 seasons before McKeon arrived. In 1984, his players finished first in their division and lost the World Series to a Detroit Tigers team considered among the finest ever. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, who had dealt with McKeon, wrote in congratulations: "You made some great moves. You took me to the cleaners."
In 1988, with the Padres at 16 and 30, McKeon ejected Larry Bowa, took over the manager position, and finished the season on a 67-48 tear.
"His meetings were always the same: 'You guys are playing like a bunch of drunken sailors,'" says Tim Flannery, who pitched for the Padres from 1979 to 1989. McKeon's bluntness back then was the stuff of legend. The manager told Flannery that the Padres probably wouldn't extend the pitcher's contract while the two men were in a sauna. "Not many people in baseball are like that," Flannery says. "That's the great thing about Jack. You go away thinking, 'I can't believe what he just told me, but it's the truth. '"
The Padres canned him after the 1990 season, and a couple of years later, McKeon, who always prided himself on his eye for talent, accepted a job scouting for the Cincinnati Reds. When the Reds bumbled in 1997, famed anti-Semitic owner Marge "Money-Grubbing Jews" Schott installed McKeon for the final 63 games of the season. In 1999, the Reds finished 96-67, earning McKeon his first Manager of the Year award -- 50 years after his first season in professional baseball. In 2000, when General Manager Jim Bowden acquired Ken Griffey Jr., the Reds finished 85-77, and that was the end of McKeon in Cincinnati. The Reds haven't finished even .500 since.
Marlins bench coach Harry Dunlop, who has worked for four big league teams with McKeon and who was also ousted from the Reds in 2000, considers himself one of McKeon's closest friends. The lanky septuagenarian has spent so much time with McKeon that Miami Herald columnist Greg Cote recently compared them to "an old married couple." The two attend Mass every day together on the road; it was McKeon, in fact, who introduced Dunlop to Catholicism decades ago, when Dunlop needed a ride to the stadium and McKeon stopped at a church along the way. To Dunlop, the idea of McKeon fired by the Reds at age 70 is grim indeed.
"I've never talked with him about it," he says. "But I suspect those two years he spent out of baseball were some of the hardest of his life."
McKeon describes his retirement thusly: "Now I'm out of baseball in 2000. I get fired with the Reds. I was enjoying doing nothing, seeing my grandkids, working with them. And I'd go to church every morning. I'd pray. 'Course, Saint Theresa's one of my favorite saints, the Little Flower, and she's the prodigy of miracles in the Catholic Church. I kept praying to her, 'Can you intercede with the good Lord and see if there's any way... I don't know what his plans are with me, but I'd like to have one more chance. I don't think my career's been fulfilled. I'd like to have one more chance. '"
In other words, McKeon in 2000 was a great deal like McKeon in 1948.
In a buoyant postgame reporters mob in the manager's office on April 13, with his papal blessing from John Paul II on the wall and the stench of victory cigar blocking the usual bacteria-stink of the post-game locker room, McKeon holds court: "You know why Wrigley made his fortune?"
Someone mumbles: "I think you gave us this one already."
McKeon, undeterred: "By sticking to his gums. Ha ha haaa heh heh!"
Then there's the time, some weeks ago, that the radio guy flubs a question: "Was that a missed sign with [third-baseman Mike] Lowell? On the stolen base? Did he miss the sign?"
"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?"
"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.
"They haven't reached where I want them to be yet," McKeon says of his players. "But at least I've got them on the right track. Now it's constantly trying to guide them to stay that way."
With McKeon, it's tough to tell where the awareness begins and ends, when he's kidding, when he's serious, how much is calculated, how much is him channeling Casey Stengel, and how much is him calling up another old episode, another battle story, and how much is just him enjoying the hell out of whatever he's doing.
Example: the day in early May that Barry University gave the clown sage an honorary law doctorate. After the Marlins buzzed through the Colorado Rockies on May 8 and the usual band of scribes jostled into McKeon's office, there was McKeon, wearing a long, white medical coat, dismissing the nitpickers who pointed out that he was actually a doctor of law.
"I'm all kinds of doctors," he said. "Shit, too bad TV wasn't here tonight, huh? But that's OK. You guys can have a laugh."
He held court in the manner of a practiced manager, going through the usual motions, the "we're thankful we've got pitchers who throw plenty of strikes" and so forth. Sound bites, then a pause. And McKeon springs: "Yeah, you guys take two aspirins and get lots of fluids and get some rest," which comes out as high-grade gibberish, what with the huge cigar occupying the center of his mouth and him chortling so much that he can barely talk. "You guys are great -- I love it. You've got to have a couple of laughs, right?"
McKeon arrives a few minutes before the May 21 Sunday Mass at Saint Matthew Catholic Church in Hallandale Beach, sits on the end of a middle pew next to Harry Dunlop, and listens as Father James Quinn delivers a liturgy on the Holy Trinity. "It is impossible for you and I to understand," Quinn says, which is reassuring in a way.
Outside, after the service, an usher takes a baseball from a plastic Publix sack and asks McKeon to sign it. "Guy gives me a ball, and it's a wet ball," McKeon grouses. "God almighty."
He takes a Bic lighter from his pocket and lights a half-cigar. He succeeds in pressing his name into the dingy leather with a pen. "Well," McKeon says, "we gotta go to work."
That afternoon, in a game against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, McKeon gets ejected for the first time in two years after critiquing an umpire's interpretation of the strike zone. He is sent back to the clubhouse in the fourth inning. In the sixth, seven Marlins score, earning the team its first three-game series sweep of the year. And if there's any question as to whether this man McKeon is blessed, consider that he smoked and blasphemed at church, got tossed in the afternoon game, and still wound up extending the lead over the filthy-rich Atlanta Braves to a game and a half, solidifying his hold on first place -- a position that, if the Marlins can so finish, would be one final unlikely first for their manager.
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