Saturday, October 18, 2003

McKeon: An old man and his team

Affable skipper has Marlins making waves

The Associated Press

NEW YORK - Jack McKeon's wife flew from the couple's home in North Carolina to Miami last month and joined her husband for the final homestand of the Florida Marlins' regular season, when they were immersed in a tight NL wild-card race.

She has been with the team - and short on clothes - ever since.

"I didn't pack enough," Carol McKeon said with a laugh. "I wasn't prepared for this. I thought I'd be going home in three or four days."

It's nice to know Mrs. McKeon sold the Marlins short, because so did nearly everyone else.

Not her husband, though. He was lured out of retirement May 11 and, in his first team meeting, McKeon told the Marlins they were good enough to play in October. Now here they are in New York, preparing to face the Yankees in the World Series tonight.

At a World Series-record 72 years old, McKeon is a cinch to become a big hit in the Big Apple. He's part Yogi Berra and part Casey Stengel, which New Yorkers will appreciate, and he's a big part of the Marlins' astounding success.

"We have blue-collar, working-hard, keep-pushing guys," infielder Mike Mordecai said. "We don't give up. And a lot of that comes from the manager."

McKeon calls this season the highlight of his career, which he began in 1949 as a minor-league catcher. He managed at Kansas City, Oakland, San Diego and Cincinnati, going 770-733 in 12 seasons, and was general manager of the San Diego Padres when they went to the World Series in 1984.

But this is his first postseason as a manager.

"This has been the most rewarding year of my career," McKeon said, puffing on one of his ever-present cigars. Earlier this season, he smoked even while jogging. Then he hurt his back and decided jogging was bad for his health.

The Marlins fired Jeff Torborg 38 games into the season, and there were snickers when McKeon was introduced as the new manager at a news conference. Hard of hearing, he frequently responded to questions by saying, "Beg pardon?" That made it difficult to envision him turning around a franchise with just one winning season in its 10-year history.

Even now, McKeon is easy to underestimate as a kindly grandfather, which he is. He leans forward in conversation to hear better and enjoys telling stories about the old days - such as his trip to Yankee Stadium at age 11 to attend his first major-league game.

McKeon, who grew up a fan of the Yankees and Giants in nearby South Amboy, N.J., remembers catching a foul ball Phil Rizzuto hit in batting practice.

"Well, I didn't catch it," McKeon said. "It probably hit a chair and rolled around, and I picked it up."

He attended the game with his Aunt Kitty.

"That was her name," McKeon said. "Aunt Kitty. Aunt Kathleen. I don't know. Yeah, Aunt Kitty."

McKeon struggles with names, even those of his players. Closer Ugueth Urbina's nickname is Ugie, but to McKeon he's Yogi. Right fielder Juan Encarnacion is Encarcion. Pitcher Mark Redman and catcher Mike Redmond are easy - McKeon calls them both Red. And general manager Larry Beinfest, who hired McKeon, becomes Beinseft.

The morning after the Marlins clinched a playoff berth, several writers drafted a mock lineup for that day's meaningless game and showed it to McKeon. Leading off was a benchwarming veteran of more than 1,000 major-league games. To protect his feelings, we'll call him Joe Jones.

McKeon studied the lineup.

"Looks good," he said. "But who's Jones?"

Despite his charming, disarming foibles, McKeon has proved an excellent motivator and talent evaluator. When angry he'll "lower the boom," as he puts it, and the Marlins play hard for him, whether it's backup catcher Redmond or $10 million-a-year catcher Ivan Rodriguez.

And they've benefited from his knack of finding the best role for each player. Rookie Miguel Cabrera was a shortstop in the minors, played left field when he joined the Marlins in June, moved to third base when All-Star Mike Lowell broke his hand, and has become a postseason sensation in right field - a position he last played in Little League.

Utility infielder Mordecai hit two game-winning home runs this season and a three-run homer in the NL Championship Series. Third-string catcher Ramon Castro hit two pinch-hit homers. Lowell, frustrated to be riding the bench in the NLCS, nonetheless delivered a pinch-hit homer to beat the Cubs in Game 1.

"There's a little magic there," McKeon said.

The lucky, plucky Marlins are quick to credit McKeon's role in their success.

During a celebration in the clubhouse after they won the pennant, 10-time All-Star Rodriguez paid tribute to his skipper.

"This gentleman does a lot of good things for us," Rodriguez told his teammates. "He gives us a lot of good example."

And in the World Series, McKeon gives the Marlins an edge in experience. Yankees manager Joe Torre is only 63.

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