At 80 years of age, Marlins' Jack McKeon still has his fastball
By Dave Sheinin,
Jack McKeon is older than Frank Robinson and Hank Aaron. He’s older than Willie Mays, older than Ernie Banks. He’s older than Jim Bunning. He’s older than Whitey Herzog.
He’s even older than Matt Stairs.
He’s older than night baseball, older than televised baseball, older than the ground-rule double, older than the All-Star Game.
He’s older than Bobby Cox — by 10 years. He’s older than Davey Johnson — by 12.
We could do this all day. How about deceased people, you say? McKeon is older than Sparky Anderson, older than Mickey Mantle, older than Ted Kennedy, older than Barack Obama Sr.
We point all this out not with derision, but with awe. Jack McKeon is 80 years old, and he is the manager of the Florida Marlins, a job for which his four immediate predecessors, in reverse chronological order, were 37, 49, 43 and 41, respectively, at the time they started. Only one player on McKeon’s 25-man roster, 38-year-old outfielder Mike Cameron, had been born when McKeon first managed in the big leagues, with Kansas City in 1973. None was with the Marlins when McKeon last managed there, in 2005 — having led the franchise to a World Series title two years earlier.
The oldest manager in baseball, and the oldest since Connie Mack hung it up at age 87 in 1950, McKeon endures rain-delayed games that end at 1 a.m. and cross-country flights that end at 6 a.m. He endures 27-year-old multimillionaire shortstops who don’t always run out groundballs and don’t always show up on time — though “endure” may be the wrong word. On June 20, McKeon’s first day on the job after the Marlins named him interim manager to replace the departed Edwin Rodriguez, he unceremoniously benched star shortstop Hanley Ramirez for tardiness.
What was the reason for Ramirez’s absence from the lineup, McKeon was asked that night?
“Because I didn’t put him in there,” McKeon shot back.
On Tuesday morning, McKeon sat at a small table off the lobby of the Marlins’ team hotel in Washington. Nobody seemed to recognize him. Due to flight delays, the Marlins didn’t arrive at the hotel until nearly 1 a.m., but McKeon still asked for a 7 a.m. wake-up call and was seated at a Catholic church around the corner — he attends Mass daily, without fail — by 8:30.
He was at church, in fact, the June morning that the call came from the Marlins. His wife, Carol, gave him the message — Rodriguez has resigned, call us — when he got home.
“Oh,” McKeon told her, “they probably want me to take over.”
“Aw, come on,” Carol said. “You’re crazy.”
He called the Marlins back. They offered him the job. The next day, he called back and said yes.
“I said yes because I love it,” he said Tuesday. “I was out [of the game] for five years. The first couple of years I really enjoyed it. But after about two years, I was getting bored. I had the itch again. There's nothing that replaces that adrenaline rush, that fire in your belly that comes from the competition, the decision-making, the pressure. That’s what I missed.”
The McKeons have four children and nine grandchildren, and some of them voiced concern over his taking the job. But none tried to stop him — they knew it would be no use.
“The only question I asked him was whether he was sure he wanted to do it,” said Kasey McKeon, Jack’s son and the Washington Nationals’ director of player procurement. “If I thought he was in bad health or couldn’t handle it, I probably would’ve had some reservations. But knowing how sharp as he is, and his passion for the game, I knew it wasn’t something that was going to give him any problems.”
It may not qualify as a problem — and McKeon certainly doesn’t see it as one — but his arrival to the Marlins’ clubhouse has been something of a culture shock to his players. He is decidedly not a “players’ manager.” He isn’t interested in stroking egos, or “relating” to players, or granting second chances.
“Someone’s got to come in and show them some discipline,” McKeon said. “These guys are rushed to the big leagues. They’re babied all their lives. They don’t know how to play the game, because of the inexperience. But they’ve been rewarded for mediocrity. It’s just like having kids or grandkids. There’s a certain amount of discipline that’s necessary. You can’t get rid of them, but you can put them on the bench.”
He also isn’t afraid to be unconventional. Twice already this year, he has yanked veteran lefty reliever Randy Choate in the middle of an at-bat with a 2-0 count on the batter. Choate said the first time, against a right-handed batter, didn’t bother him too much, but the second instance, against a left-handed batter — precisely the job he is hired to perform — “kind of fired me up.”
Asked about McKeon’s handling of players, Choate said, “He knows what he’s doing. I think he tries to play the ‘old’ card to his advantage. And there’s a lot of times he tries to create the [persona of the] authority guy — being in charge. I think a lot of guys respect him for that, but I also think a lot of guys can get frustrated. It’s just not necessarily the way it’s done. But that’s Jack’s attitude: ‘I don’t care how it’s done. This is my way.’ It’s so radically different from what we had, it takes some getting used to. But I think guys are starting to settle in.”
It helps that McKeon, after taking over a team that had lost 18 of its previous 19 games (Rodriguez, in fact, had simply walked away, saying he couldn’t take all the losing), has led the Marlins to a 19-13 record after Wednesday night’s 7-5 win over the Nationals. He took over too late, and the Marlins’ hole was too deep, for him to entertain thoughts of a repeat of 2003 — when McKeon took over a fourth-place team on May 10 and led it to the NL wild card and, eventually, the World Series title.
His goals this time are more modest: Change the culture of mediocrity he believes has pervaded the organization. Get the players to play unselfish baseball. Light a fire under some underperformers. Indeed, Ramirez, considered among the most talented players in baseball, was hitting .201 with a .596 OPS on the day McKeon took over. Entering Wednesday, those numbers were .245 and .723.
The benching of Ramirez on June 20 “was made into a big issue because it was him,” McKeon said. “But basically, it was just a matter of: ‘Here are my rules. We’re going to operate this way. You want to win? Here’s how you have to do it.’ I think they rolled their eyes initially. But I think the more you get your message across — and you start winning — they see the real value in it.”
He’s loving every second of this. He loves being a hero to the AARP set, loves the fact he gets as many as 20 letters a day, mostly from folks his age telling him what an inspiration he is. He gets several e-mails a day, too, but since he doesn’t do e-mail (“Or Tweeter, or whatever it’s called,” he said), someone with the Marlins prints out the e-mails and hands them to him. He loves sitting around telling stories to reporters — a dying art in the modern game.
He would do this forever, but he knows the gig is probably up at the end of September. Even if the Marlins wanted him back in 2012, his family probably wouldn’t let him do the job, at age 81, for a full season. But he plans to stay close to the phone in the coming years, just in case.