Hey, an 80-year-old shouldn’t have to motivate

June 26, 2011 

Jack McKeon, who at the age of 80 has pretty much been everywhere on the baseball map, rarely scans a diamond he hasn’t seen before. But when the Florida manager took a seat in the third-base dugout the other day, a few hours before the opener of the Marlins’ three-game series against the Mariners, it was his first glimpse of Safeco Field.

“Never been here,” said McKeon. “I do remember the Kingdome, and Seals Stadium.”

He meant Sick’s Stadium, the longtime home of Seattle’s Pacific Coast League franchise. That McKeon confused Sick’s Stadium with another vanished ballpark, San Francisco’s Seals Stadium, is a charming quirk: Names don’t always correspond with the places and people he’s talking about, but he knows what he means, and you know what he means, and he knows that you know what he means.

Last week the Marlins, losers of 10 in a row and 18 out of 19, asked McKeon if he was interested in resuming a managerial career that began with the Class B Fayetteville (N.C.) Highlanders in 1955. The idea of an octogenarian skipper might seem crazy, but the move made some sense: McKeon already was on the organizational payroll as a consultant, and he had a history of reviving lost causes. He took over the 2003 Marlins when they were 16-22 on May 11, and they went on to win the World Series.

Besides, he was familiar with the Florida players, if not, ahem, their names.

So when McKeon took the call at his North Carolina residence, there was “about 20 seconds” of deliberation before he began packing his bags.

“I’m honored to be managing in my sixth decade,” he said in the Safeco Field dugout, “and to be the second oldest manager in the history of the game. But I don’t know whether I’ll catch Connie Mack.”

That won’t happen – Mack was 87 when he retired as manager of the Philadelphia Athletics, the team he owned, after the 1950 season – but McKeon still owns the distinction as oldest major league manager to wear a uniform. (Mack worked in a business suit topped with a trademark bowler, using a scorecard to fan himself on hot days.)

If McKeon isn’t up to the task of managing players the ages of his grandchildren, it won’t be due to any physical limitations.

Hip-replacement surgery in 2006 has curtailed his daily three-mile jog, but he works out on a treadmill and lifts weights at least six days a week, and ascribes his energy to “clean living and lots of salads.”

Negotiating the generation gap with the Marlins is another matter.

McKeon recalls the baseball-is-life hunger he brought to the game as a minor-league catcher in 1949, when even the most talented prospects grasped a fundamental clubhouse principle: be seen and not heard.

“The players now are bigger, stronger and more intelligent, probably, with television,” he said. “But they want answers today.

“I was just talking with Johnny and Eddie O’Brien,” continued McKeon, referring to the Seattle University legends who grew up a few blocks from him in South Amboy, N.J. “We were afraid to talk to the manager.

“Now the players think that we should come to them. We were afraid the manager was gonna say, ‘Here’s a bus ticket to Appleton, Wisconsin, kid.’

“Times have changed. Everybody wants to know why – ‘Why did you do this?’ ‘Why are you taking me out?’ ‘Why am I taking you out? Because you’re hitting .160. Go look in the mirror.’ You think I would go to the manager when I was breaking in and ask him why I wasn’t playing? No way.”

McKeon admits he’s an expert on the challenge of acquiring at-bats while struggling at the plate. A switch-hitting catcher whose scouting report might’ve read “good glove, will travel,” he likes to joke that he batted three ways: “Right, left and seldom.”

That he never advanced beyond the low minors as a player didn’t faze him. He was born to run things on the field. The bug to manage came early, at the age of 13, when the son of a taxi-service operator put together summer league teams that competed in regional and national tournaments during the 1940s.

It wouldn’t be until 1973, when McKeon was 42, that he got the chance to manage the Royals in the big leagues. McKeon’s first game that season – the opener, on the road, against the Angels – found five future managers on the field: Lou Piniella, Hal McRae, Frank Robinson, Cookie Rojas and Bobby Valentine.

McKeon has outlasted all of them, although nobody will be shocked if the Marlins, who’ll want to make a splashy managerial hire that coincides with the scheduled opening of the new ballpark in Miami next year, entice Valentine out of the television booth.

In the meantime, the task of waking up such erstwhile All-Stars as Hanley Ramirez belongs to a man who was born in 1930, the year patents were awarded to the inventors of Scotch tape and flashbulbs. McKeon’s first order of business last week was to give his underachieving shortstop, who showed up in Seattle hitting .211 – or .95 points below his career average of .306 – a temporary seat on the bench.

A motivational device?

“I think that word ‘motivated’ is sometimes overrated,” McKeon said. “You’re sitting here with a major-league uniform, in the highest level of baseball, they’re paying you one-tenth (actually 10 times) of what they’re paying me, and I’ve got to motivate you? Just having ‘Marlins’ across their jersey should be motivation for all of them. If I had the opportunity, when I was a young kid, to come to a big-league camp and play? I wouldn’t need any motivation. That was enough for me. It’s a different world today.”

It’s a world that last summer ate up and spit out Piniella, whose passion for baseball was gone before he could complete his third full season in Chicago. But McKeon keeps on trucking as a link to Connie Mack and the very roots of baseball. Born during the Civil War, Mack was winding down his career in Philadelphia just as McKeon was beginning his.

“I’d like to pass him and get myself some hats … and a contract with a clothing company,” said McKeon. “Then I could sit in the dugout and wave my scorecard.”

He isn’t serious. The proud gleam in McKeon’s eyes as he points out “Marlins” on the front of his jersey might be the secret to his longevity.

Well, that and lots of salads.

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.com

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