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Jack of Diamonds

After winning his first World Series last year, 73-year-old Jack McKeon looks forward to another season of success and cigars with the Marlins.
Kenneth Shouler
From the Print Edition:
Andy Garcia, Mar/April 2004

Jack McKeon is swinging in a chair on the back porch of his home in Elon, North Carolina, savoring a Padrón Millennium, which rarely leaves his mouth. It is a rural, religious area: a billboard on nearby Route 40 reads, "Let's meet at my house before the game on Sunday.—God." McKeon, the 73-year-old manager of the Florida Marlins, looks out to the pond on his 14-acre spread and recalls a particular Friday in the Bronx, a day before Game 6 of the 2003 World Series. The Marlins were leading the Yankees three games to two, but were still supposed to be intimidated by the perennial champions. In the pressroom, McKeon fielded questions from skeptical scribes who were sure that his decision to pitch Josh Beckett on only three days' rest was the wrong one. Why not throw Carl Pavano or Mark Redman instead, and save Beckett for Game 7? Wasn't he aware that over the last five postseasons, pitchers working on three days' rest had a record of six wins and 20 losses?

"We figured we might as well go with our best," McKeon explained to the packed room. "We're not looking to Game 7. We're looking to Game 6." Relishing that moment now, with a championship in one pocket and a new contract from the Marlins in the other, McKeon draws on his Padrón and says, "It took about 15 seconds to decide to pitch Beckett."  

In a baseball life that spans 55 years, McKeon has earned the right to take chances. And while he attends church every morning on the road or at home, he follows his own creed when it comes to the national pastime: play the game with guts and don't run scared; roll the dice if that gives you the best chance to win and trust your decisions even when the critics second-guess them.

The story of the 2003 Marlins is that they didn't win the World Series on talent alone, but because McKeon made them understand the work ethic they needed to win. It was a lesson that John "Jack" Aloysius McKeon had learned seven decades before as a child in South Amboy, New Jersey, during the Great Depression. "I learned discipline," he says. "I learned that you had to earn everything you got. I learned to be tough mentally from my father."

Bill McKeon never got past the seventh grade, but was a business wunderkind. He ran a taxi company, a parking garage and a towing service, and, by the grand age of 20, owned a Ford dealership. "Guys [in their teens] would be out running around at night, but I might come home a little bit early and my father would come from the garage," McKeon recalls. "I would sit around the table and pick his brain about business. I got a lot of street smarts from him. I learned how to deal with people from just sitting there."

Growing up a sniff away from Yankee Stadium, Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds, McKeon fell in love with baseball. As a youth, McKeon played on local Boys Club teams and traveled around New Jersey, developing into a worthy professional catcher.

In 1948, McKeon, then 18, was offered a minor league contract by the Pittsburgh Pirates, but a pro career almost passed him by. "My father kept telling me, 'I want you to get a college education. I don't want you to have to go through the hard work that I had to do to support a family.' And he wouldn't let me sign." McKeon prayed every night that his father would come around. Finally, his dad cut him a deal. "If you get your college education," he told him,  "I'll let you sign." McKeon promised, eventually earning his degree from Elon College in 1963.

McKeon's first year of professional ball was 1949, where he played for the Greenville Pirates in the Alabama State League. He also began smoking cigars, buying Tampa Nuggets, two for 15 cents. "In South Amboy, there was a White Owl factory and a neighbor up the street used to work there," says McKeon. "He would give my father all the seconds. So we had boxes of cigars in the garage, but it was a couple of years before I smoked in front of my father."

Though McKeon may have been smoking cigars, his bat wasn't. "I was the only player to hit three ways," McKeon says. "Left, right and seldom." After five seasons, McKeon made a self-effacing discovery that would pay dividends: if he couldn't make it as a player in baseball, he would make it as a manager.

In 1955, McKeon was appointed player-manager for the Fayetteville Highlanders in the Carolina League. "I guess it was because I had some leadership qualities that I was able to communicate and could direct these guys at an early age," McKeon recalls. "I was only 24. With only two guys on the club younger than me, I had the opportunity to manage a lot of veteran players." McKeon continued to move up the baseball ladder, and during 17 years as a minor league manager, he ran up a record of 1,146-1,123 and earned four Manager of the Year awards.

McKeon's first big league job came in 1973 with the Kansas City Royals, a team that featured a rookie named George Brett and another future Hall of Famer, Harmon Killebrew. The only thing missing from his triumph was his father, who had died in 1966. "My philosophy," says McKeon, "was, 'Do something to make your parents proud.' In the minors, it was, 'Hey, if they're proud now, I'm going to really make them proud.' And I worked harder and harder."

After two seasons with the Royals, McKeon was fired in July 1975; two years later, he began his tenure with the Oakland Athletics as an assistant general manager, scout and coach. The A's had won the World Series from 1972 to 1974, but Charles O. Finley, the club's mercurial owner, had devastated the team by paying them as little as possible, belittling them to the press, and forcing them into free agency. McKeon went on to manage Oakland for parts of the 1977 and 1978 seasons, after which he was let go. In 1980, he became general manager for the San Diego Padres.

While the Padres were finishing fifth and last in 1980 and 1981 in the National League West, McKeon was morphing into "Trader Jack," a barter-happy GM who made a promise to owner Ray Kroc to get the team to the World Series. At the outset, the trades yielded little. The Yankees acquired Jerry Mumphrey, an everyday center fielder who hit .307 in 1981, while the Padres landed four underachievers in return: Ruppert Jones, Joe Lefebvre, Tim Lollar and Chris Welsh. The Yankees went to the World Series in '81; San Diego went 41-69 in a strike-shortened season and finished last.

 But by 1984 McKeon had fetched Gary Templeton, and Terry Kennedy, Carmelo Martinez and Steve Garvey, and, from the Yankees, Graig Nettles and Goose Gossage. The Padres won 92 games in '84 and beat the Cubs for the National League pennant before losing the World Series to Detroit. Then McKeon received a telegram from the Yankees' owner. "The lion's share of the credit has to go to you," it read. "You were patient. You made great moves. You took me to the cleaners and I am happy for you. You should be very proud of the job you did. Sincerely, George Steinbrenner."

By the 1988 season, McKeon was back in the dugout, managing the Padres for three seasons but never reaching the playoffs. In 1993, he joined the Cincinnati Reds in the front office, but midway through 1997, he descended to the field once again. Two years later, his team won 96 games and just missed a wild-card spot by losing to the New York Mets in a one-game playoff. McKeon was named Manager of the Year. The following year the Reds finished 85-77, but McKeon was fired anyway.

Fitting out the 2001 and 2002 seasons, McKeon spent time watching his nine grandchildren grow up. He also smoked plenty of cigars. At age 72, he began to think his managerial career was finished. "I wasn't retired," McKeon cracks. "Just unemployed." Being a religious man, he began praying to St. Teresa of Jesus, the Prodigy of Miracles. The prayers worked.

Florida started the 2003 season below .500 and a call came from the Marlins' offices. McKeon was summoned to Miami to meet with club owner Jeffrey Loria and general manager Larry Beinfest. "I had a two-hour meeting, talked philosophy, talked strategy, but never talked about replacing [Jeff Torborg]," McKeon remembers. "I went home and three days later I got a call [from the Marlins] about 10:45 a.m. saying, 'We're going to let the manager go tonight.'" When they asked what it would take for him to take the job, McKeon replied, "An ashtray in my office."

When news spread that McKeon had been hired, the original notices were unkind. One beat writer suggested that the team's new marketing slogan should be: "These are not your grandfather's Marlins. However, they are managed by your grandfather." Another concluded, "The word 'interim' is stamped on McKeon's head." Bobby Cox, manager of the Atlanta Braves, called the firing of Torborg "foolish and completely wrong"; he said he "didn't even know that Jack McKeon still existed in the baseball world." All were exceedingly odd sentiments, given that the Marlins were floundering under Torborg. As for the age issue, Loria had the last word: "Why should I penalize experience?" he said, creating a phrase that begs to show up on an AARP banner.

  On his first day as manager, McKeon said to his players, "I believe in you guys. I believe you can make the playoffs." The team seemed to respond, winning McKeon's first game before settling back into their underachieving ways. McKeon was not going to let that continue.

Unlike Torborg, when someone screwed up, McKeon pounced on him. "This group of young players needed more authority, direction and a kick in the ass," wrote Tom Angelo of the Palm Beach Post.  "McKeon didn't care who liked him; he was going to do what he wanted." What could management do? Fire him? McKeon didn't care. He had been through the wars before.

At one point, McKeon called out Ivan Rodriguez and a few other players in front of the team to remind them who ran the club and, more than once, he told Beckett to "grow the fuck up." One day, he couldn't find two players in the dugout and discovered them watching TV in the clubhouse. He yanked the cord out of the wall and groused about the "country club atmosphere" that pervaded the Florida clubhouse.  

"He is definitely competitive," said first baseman Derrek Lee. "It was our time to play better. Jack may have helped push it along." Mike Lowell, the third baseman and team home run leader last year with 32,  said, "With some guys you needed to stick a firecracker in their ass to motivate them; I liked it. I'm a fiery guy."

Along with tough love and authority, McKeon also brought cigars. While smoke is a problem at most Florida venues, the anti-cigar types in McKeon's range didn't complain. "We got used to the smoke," Beinfest explains. "He staked out an area in the bullpen, where he has a pregame ritual in the afternoon." During this ritual, McKeon would light a cigar and meet with the press hours before the game, regaling them with stories going back half a century. Writers joked that to find McKeon, all you needed to do was follow the smell of cigar smoke.

The Marlins finished the season with a 91-71 record, the best winning percentage in baseball from May 21 on, and the National League wild-card berth. Still overlooked, the Marlins hid in the post-season pack. The Braves had won 101 games and the San Francisco Giants 100. But Florida held Barry Bonds in check during the Divisional Series and came back from a 1-0 deficit to win three straight. As McKeon put it, San Francisco ace Jason Schmidt, the winner of Game 1, was "being saved for a fifth game that never came."

Anyone not yet believing in Marlins destiny got more evidence in the National League Championship Series. The Chicago Cubs—the lovable losers who hadn't won a World Series since 1908—built a three-games-to-one lead and appeared headed to their first fall classic since 1945. Beckett stymied Chicago on two hits in Game 5 and the series shifted to Wrigley Field where the Cubs took a 3-0 lead to the eighth inning in Game 6. But Florida calmly rallied for eight runs, highlighted by a slew of line-drive hits, a fan interfering with a foul fly down the left-field line and an error by shortstop Alex Gonzalez. The Marlins also came from behind to win Game 7 and the franchise had won its second pennant.

"I want to play the Yankees," McKeon had said. And now he had his wish. It was his $50 million payroll against their $180 million, and if New York thought it was anticlimax time after beating Boston in seven games, it was in for a rude awakening. The series began when Juan Pierre dragged a bunt past pitcher David Wells. A hit and a sacrifice fly followed, and the Fish we hardly knew were ahead 1-0. After capitalizing on only six other singles, the Marlins had won, 3-2.

The Marlins dropped Game 2, and after Game 3, which Beckett lost while surrendering only three hits, McKeon asked his star pitcher about starting Game 6. Beckett said he would toss the next day and see how his arm felt.  

Florida won the next two games and the Yankees trailed 3-2, but few counted them out. Then Josh Beckett threw his masterpiece—a complete-game shutout—and McKeon, who sat teary-eyed in the dugout, thought of the first major league game he had attended at Yankee Stadium in 1939. Now he had become the oldest manager in baseball history to ever win a World Series.

Since winning the World Series, McKeon has received plenty of attention. He was given a Mercedes by Loria with "Champs '03" on the plates, was named Manager of the Year for a second time, and even made a guest appearance on "Late Night with David Letterman." He's also become the darling of the AARP, with his can-do message for all ages. "He's getting a lot of attention, and he loves the publicity," his wife, Carol, says. "But I haven't seen any changes in him."

One thing that certainly hasn't changed is McKeon's love of cigars. His kitchen is filled with boxes of Fuente Fuente OpusX and the dining room boasts a humidor full of Padrón Anniversaries, all courtesy of admirers during his run to baseball glory. "I smoke about 10 a day now," he says, looking off into the horizon, aware that spring training is only weeks away.

This year Florida faces the usual challenges following a championship. The team finished 2003 with a $53 million payroll and hoped to keep it around $60 million for 2004. But to sign everyone would have taken more than $80 million. The Marlins have lost Lee, Redman and Rodriguez, plus outfielder Juan Encarnacion and relievers Ugueth Urbina and Braden Looper. In large part, Florida's fortunes will depend on how the acquisitions of first baseman Hee Seop Choi, closer Armando Benitez and right fielder Miguel Cabrera pan out.

But McKeon is ready. He signed a $900,000 one-year contract with the Marlins in the off-season and is looking forward to managing both the Marlins and the National League All-Star team. And at 73, he trails only Casey Stengel (75) and Connie Mack (88) as the oldest manager ever. "Maybe I can catch Casey," he says with a laugh. "But Connie Mack? That will take some good years."


Kenneth Shouler, from Harrison, New York, is managing editor and a writer of Total Basketball: The Ultimate Basketball Encyclopedia.

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