Jack McKeon didn’t root against the Chicago Cubs reaching this year’s World Series. Not exactly. But after twice thwarting the Cubs on the threshold of exorcising their demons, McKeon didn’t mind if Chicago fell short again, keeping alive memories of the exquisite tortures his teams administered.
Now he’s been following the 2016 World Series between the Cubs and Indians from his home in Elon. McKeon doesn’t watch as an ordinary spectator but as a baseball strategist who first directed a team in 1945 as a high school freshman near New York City in South Amboy, New Jersey. “I manage the game,” he says of his viewing habits. “I don’t second-guess, I first-guess.”
He also watches with a critic’s eye, lamenting modern trends from the emphasis on money before winning to the way pitchers are handled. Nor is the holder of an Elon degree in physical education shy about sharing his conclusions, consistent with his official role as special assistant to Jeffrey Luria, the Marlins owner and CEO.
“People say, sometimes you’re a little brazen or a little cocky,” concedes the crusty former minor-league catcher, an annual participant in evaluative team meetings with Luria and top franchise executives. “That’s me. I tell it like it is. I’m not politically correct. I’m not going to sugarcoat everything.”
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McKeon carried that approach throughout a professional career that took him from leagues so minor they no longer exist to stints managing five major league teams: Kansas City, Oakland, San Diego, Cincinnati and Florida. Along the way he worked for some of the quirkiest owners in history, notably Charlie Finley (Oakland) and Marge Schott (Cincinnati), and helped develop Hall of Famers George Brett, Tony Gwynn and Roberto Alomar.
During the 1980s McKeon also served as general manager at San Diego. There he earned the nickname “Trader Jack” with aggressive personnel moves that included an 11-player swap, building a team that beat the Cubs in the 1984 playoffs.
McKeon was a two-time Triple A manager of the year at Omaha and won manager of the year honors twice in the National League, most recently in 2003, when he again stopped Chicago short of redemption. He loved players whose thirst for the game matched his.
“The hardest thing in managing is trying to tell those guys that really have the greatest desire but they lack the talent, chances are you’re not going to make it,” says McKeon, who played pickup baseball in snow and sub-freezing temperatures as a youngster. Work as he might, the stocky, 5-foot-8 McKeon never played in the majors. Of more gifted athletes, he notes, “The sad part today is players take too much for granted.”
Intent on short-circuiting that attitude, McKeon established what he calls “a love-hate relationship” with Marlins players when hired in May 2003 to run a losing club. “I told them I don’t give a damn if they liked me or not,” he says. “I rode the hell out of them. I stayed on them, I stayed on them.”
He immediately reversed the fortunes of a squad led by veterans Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez, Mike Lowell and Jeff Conine, and young pitchers Josh Beckett, Brad Penny and Dontrelle Willis. Florida won a playoff series with San Francisco, rallied to beat Chicago (including the infamous Steve Bartman game), then capped its run with a world championship, besting McKeon’s boyhood favorites, the New York Yankees.
“I managed (16) years in the big leagues – I never had a team that was so unselfish, that had such great character and desire,” McKeon says fondly of those Marlins. They made him the oldest manager to win a World Series, senior by a decade or more to the grizzled veterans involved in the current Series, Chicago’s Joe Maddon and Cleveland’s Terry Francona.
“When Luria brought me back, and I was 72, he got criticized,” says McKeon, his thick trademark cigar – chewed but not smoked – laying beside him. “I wasn’t a senior citizen. I was a seasoned citizen.”
On the go
McKeon returned to the Marlins’ dugout on an interim basis in 2011, at 80 the second-oldest major league manager in history after Cornelius McGillicuddy, winner of 3,731 games and better known as Connie Mack. “I was just as sharp then as I was at 72,” McKeon says. “But you just get tired of it, the bull you have to put up with from the players. It’s almost like they let the inmates run the asylum. There’s no discipline.”
In late November the winner of 1,051 major league games turns 86. He hopes to briefly retake Florida’s helm in 2018 when he’s older than Mack, who retired in 1950 at 87.
The muscular McKeon appears up to the task. He stays on the go. Every morning he hones his spiritual fitness with a visit to a Catholic church. When not traveling he follows with a workout at the Burlington Y. His memory is remarkable; he rarely stumbles recalling a name or the detailed chronology of his serpentine professional journey.
McKeon’s scrutiny of postseason baseball action is comparably keen. He, like many others, was shocked earlier this month when Baltimore manager Buck Showalter failed to bring in Zach Britton, arguably the best reliever in baseball, late in a tied American League wild-card game. With Britton unaccountably marooned in the bullpen, Toronto won in 11 innings.
Showalter’s explanation that he adhered to season-long relief patterns didn’t satisfy anyone, least of all McKeon, who made use of his entire pitching staff, liberally employing starters as relievers, against the Yankees in ’03. “The playoffs, it’s a different animal,” he says flatly.
Plenty of ideas
McKeon was similarly unimpressed when managers for Washington and especially Toronto let players swing for the fences rather than bunt to capitalize on scoring opportunities in 2016 playoff series won by Los Angeles and Cleveland, respectively.
“Close games. Low scoring. They had runners on first and second. Do you think they’d have somebody bunt them over?” McKeon asks rhetorically, knowing power hitting is valued above all in the modern game. “No. No. We’re going to let them hit away. Don’t want to take the bat out of (a batter’s) hands. Because the managers have got to the point today, they don’t want to hurt your feelings, to put on a bunt. They’ve got your back.”
McKeon has plenty of ideas about pitching too. Florida’s Penny was so obsessed with throwing in the mid-90s, the manager had a display tracking his speed turned off in the Marlins’ stadium so the right-hander couldn’t check it. Then he encouraged Penny to emulate Atlanta Hall of Famer Greg Maddux in a trade of accuracy for slightly reduced velocity. “At that speed, he had great command,” McKeon says. “He didn’t walk anybody after that.”
McKeon also has an unorthodox theory to explain the devastating arm problems experienced by so many contemporary pitchers. Like everything McKeon says about the game, his analysis is spiced with historical references and delivered with the assurance of a pro who’s studied and managed ballplayers as long as either of this year’s World Series skippers has been alive.
Teams now closely monitor pitch counts and limit outings. But McKeon doesn’t believe young pitchers suffer because they throw too much, too hard or too often, but because they don’t throw enough. “In my opinion, they’re babying them,” McKeon says. “They’re getting hurt because of inaction.”
And in Trader Jack’s baseball universe, inaction is rarely part of a winning strategy.