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At 74, McKeon is where he belongs

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You guessed it, here comes ANOTHER feel good McKeon story :lol .


Jack McKeon is back in the Florida Marlins' dugout at 74, opening a new season today with all the old vinegar of his youth.


This comes as no great shock to Carol, his bride of 50 years. It was just a few months after their wedding day that he started managing in the minor leagues.


Then there were the "off-seasons," for McKeon likely was to be away from their North Carolina home managing winter-league teams in Puerto Rico. And what about those newlywed years when Jack stepped out of the dugout in October and into "The Dugout?" That was the name given to a cement blockhouse of a bar McKeon bought for $800 cash and proceeded to run himself, passing suds over the counter to customers all night and talking sports with the guys.


"Oh, I never went in there," Carol said the other day, seated behind home plate to watch one of the Marlins' final spring games at Roger Dean Stadium. "No women allowed. Back then women didn't go into beer joints."


She sounds perturbed, but don't believe it. McKeon is no different today than he's ever been. A sports nut. A fountain of confidence and good cheer. A New Jersey guy who makes himself at home wherever the stadium lights beckon. A winner.


The stories of how they met vary slightly. He says he settled next to Carol in the stands after being ejected from a minor-league ballgame for fighting, quickly cleaning up his act with a clubhouse shower and shave. She says that Jack never actually talked to her that afternoon, but immediately went to work during the course of several days, wheedling the family phone number out of her sister. No matter. Those are just details.


The heart of this story is shaped like a diamond.


Carol admits she really didn't have much of an idea what she was getting into half a century ago. Who could have foreseen the raising of four kids as a baseball widow, or the interruption of her well-earned retirement with Jack by a shocking job offer from the Marlins, or the joyous gathering of the whole McKeon clan at the 2003 World Series celebration?


"I liked him from the first," she said. "I didn't care what he did for a living."


It had to be baseball, says McKeon, whether it be playing or coaching or managing or scouting or front-office deal-making. Turns out, he's touched all those bases, working at different times for Charlie Finley and Marge Schott and hamburger mogul Ray Kroc. Now he's just two seasons away from passing Casey Stengel as the second-oldest manager in major-league history, trailing only the monumental Connie Mack, who finally retired as a manager in 1950 at the age of 87.


"I was at a fan gathering a little while ago at the stadium in Miami," McKeon said, "and David Samson, our team president, was doing a question-and-answer thing. One lady takes the microphone and says: 'Hey, why don't you sign Jack up for another five years?' Well, I jumped right down off the stage and gave her a big hug."


Truth is, McKeon who is in his third season as Marlins manager prefers to keep it simple, assessing at the conclusion of each season the enthusiasm of team owner Jeffrey Loria for putting a competitive team on the field. So far, so good, as signaled by January's free-agent signing of Carlos Delgado, but all the same McKeon is signed only through this season. His first contract extension came a couple of days after the Marlins' stunning World Series upset of the New York Yankees. The negotiations were brief and so understandably agreeable that Carol sat in on them, beaming.


"I'd have to say she's probably enjoyed the lifestyle," McKeon said, "but I know it's been tough on her."


Could have been tougher, or at least gloomier. McKeon's father, Bill, who operated a garage, taxi and wrecker business in South Amboy, N.J., wanted Jack to go to college and become a funeral director.


Steady work, to be sure, but the customers are so predictable. McKeon, who jogs and walks at the stadium each day before most of his players arrive, craves the give-and-take with athletes whose lives and full potential still are a bit of a mystery. There's still a lot of kid in him, after all, as anyone could see in the giddy, late-night hours of the 2003 post-season. McKeon regularly hung around after home victories to dance and smoke cigars and pound the drums in parking-lot tent parties.


If Josh Beckett pitches a beauty in today's home opener against Atlanta, it will be the continuation of a maturation process that was highlighted by McKeon's choice of the inconsistent young star to pitch the decisive World Series Game 6 on just three days' rest. That worked out pretty well, and McKeon figures this season will, too. If so, it will mark three consecutive winning records as Florida manager for McKeon, whose overall.519 winning percentage includes previous stops in Kansas City, Oakland, San Diego and Cincinnati.


Jim Leyland is the only other manager to have a winning season for Florida and he did it just once, going all the way to a World Series title in 1997.


"We're pretty much a set club," said McKeon, who settled for third place in the NL East a year ago at 83-79. "It all comes down to pitching and how the injuries fall. We would have liked to have a look at what would have happened if we had Beckett for the whole year and A.J. Burnett for the whole year. Maybe that makes a difference of five or six games."


Sounds like Jack is ready to go, all right, not as the oldest manager to win a World Series but as a baseball lifer who got his first taste of the major-league post-season as a septuagenarian and wants more. Lots more. The title of McKeon's recently released book, after all, is I'm Just Getting Started.


"When you first come up," McKeon said, "you want to identify yourself as a big-league manager. I was the same way, a hands-on guy. Now I've learned about delegating authority, having patience. Before, I'd be right in your nose if you didn't have your socks up high enough, all those little petty things.


"You've got to remember I managed in the minor leagues for 17 years. Young guys are the ones I've worked with my whole career. You've got to discipline them, sure, but you've got to show them that you love them, too. I don't like to have robots. I want them to learn for themselves how to handle a situation, and then take chances when they think they're doing the right thing."


That's exactly what Loria did in May 2003, deciding the time had come to fire Jeff Torborg and settling fairly quickly on a time-tested turnaround specialist as his replacement.


"Deep down, after I got let go by Cincinnati, I had pretty much given up hope of managing again," McKeon said. "I was still sharp and physically fit, but I thought the age factor was going to come too much into play."


Today, not only will McKeon be at Dolphins Stadium to claim his undisputed authority over the Marlins' dugout, he'll be sitting next to another old-timer rescued from the age police. Harry Dunlop, who worked under McKeon at San Diego and Cincinnati, is the Marlins' new bench coach. He is 71, and every bit as excited to be back in the game as Jumping Jack.


"To me," Dunlop said, "the greatest picture of that World Series a few years ago was at the end with Jack just sitting there, smiling. It was almost like I was there, watching it on television, because I knew what it meant to him."


So did Carol, who will stick around Miami for the first few Marlins home games and then head back to Elon, N.C., to her grandkids and friends and activities away from the game that grabbed McKeon as a youth.


"We were sitting together watching a baseball game on television the night Mr. Loria called to ask Jack to take over the team," she said. "It was about 10 o'clock at night, and by 5 a.m. he was headed for the airport."


It's the story of a baseball life, all right. Going, going, gone.



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