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the fun factor

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and it was fun reading this :shifty


Thursday, September 25, 2003



By Jayson Stark



MIAMI -- Come on down, everybody, and play our Playoff-Team-Word-Association Game. Trust us, you can get most of these answers by heart. Just tell us what word you think of first when you think of these teams:



Rick Helling and the Marlins are not afraid to show their emotions.

Yankees -- "money." Red Sox -- "curse." Giants -- "Barry." Braves -- "chop." A's -- "HudsonMulderZito."


And then there are the Florida Marlins, a club whose 8-4 wipeout of the Phillies on Thursday left them on the verge (magic number: one) of becoming a playoff team unlike any to zip through our planet for a long, long time.


So what's the word that best describes these Marlins? Spend 15 minutes around them, and that one's easy:




They're a fun team living a fun, real-life story. That's one thing. Once upon a time, they were 10 games under .500. Once upon a time, they were a big enough mess to get their manager fired. And now they're laughing all the way to the playoffs. Amazing.


But these Marlins do more than just use that word, "fun," every 15 minutes. They exude that fun.


They're a bunch of guys who, for the most part, have never won anything bigger than an instant-lottery ticket. But here they are, in the most important games of their lives, and you would never know. Not by the way they play. Not by the way they act. This is one big chuckle fest every day. "I've never played on a team like this," said the newest Marlin, Jeff Conine, currently playing for his fifth club, in his 13th big-league season. "It's a reflection of the personality of this team and a reflection of how loose these guys are every day. But it's also a reflection of how much fun the manager wants you to have playing the game."


The manager, as you might have heard someplace, is Jack McKeon, age 72. It isn't quite true that he's older than his entire starting rotation put together. But it's close enough that even Trader Jack would be afraid to do the math.


You would think a 72-year-old manager would be so old-school, he'd have some kind of team rule against fun. But it tells you something about these Marlins that they brought in a senior-citizen manager who actually thinks fun is more important than a double-switch.


"To be honest," McKeon said, "that was my No. 1 key when I took over this ball club. I wanted these guys to have fun. But the only way to really have fun, and relax and do your thing, is to win. And that's my motto:


"Winning is fun. And fun is winning." McKeon swears he made that motto up one day, all by himself, back when he was managing at Fox Cities or High Point or Missoula, deep in his minor-league past. He's managed five big-league teams since, over the last three decades. And they've all heard it at one time or other.


"I remember when I took over that Cincinnati club in 1997," McKeon said. "We went out to play the Padres, and Tim Flannery, who played for me in San Diego, was one of their coaches. He said, 'Hey, Jack. Did you have that meeting when you got hired and say, 'Winning is fun, and fun is winning?' And I said, 'Hell, yeah, I did.'"


But it's not as if he said it once and then packed it up for next time. McKeon says he actually eyeballs his players regularly, just to make sure they're not taking the game too seriously. And when he sees guys who "look too serious, who aren't being their usual selves," he makes sure to remind them to "hey, have fun."


"I like to say, 'Look, go out and do the best you can, and if you go 0 for 4, don't worry about it. Just have fun,'" McKeon said. "To me, when you're having fun, you have a more relaxed atmosphere, and it's easier to play."


What has made this all so striking is that the Marlins have spent the last two weeks playing exclusively against the Braves and Phillies -- two weeks they knew would essentially determine the fate of their season. That's supposed to be pressure time. But the Marlins went 9-5 in that critical stretch. And it was impossible not to notice how much looser they were than the teams they were playing.


The Braves, of course, play under the burden of constant expectations. The Phillies, meanwhile, play under the glare of a tough town and a winning-is-all-that-matters manager (Admin Bowa). So they are teams with more to lose than this team. And given that, the atmosphere around the Braves and Phillies can't ever quite be Comedy Central.


"You know, I think we've had fun," said Phillies catcher Mike Lieberthal, on the night his team was eliminated. "It's been fun the last two weeks, coming to the field and playing for something, having that extra adrenaline. But I look at them. I see the emotion they have on the field and the excitement. And I really think we'd be the same way if we were in their position. You watch them, and you realize how good that feeling can be."


To the Braves, winning beats the alternative, too, obviously. But the thrill of all that April-to-September winning wore off years ago. You can describe the Braves as professional. But no one would ever describe them as loose.


Mike Mordecai is a man who has seen them from both sides. He was once a utility man for the Braves. He is now a utility man for these Marlins. He understands better than anyone how different winning feels to each of these teams.


"Those guys in Atlanta, to me, are on such a pedestal, because year-in, year-out, for the last 10-12 years, they've been grinding it out and winning every season, with all those expectations," Mordecai said. "A team like us, we're just the guys coming from the back of the pack with our shirt tails hanging out. It's kind of like those guys are driving a NASCAR, while we're driving a little cart, with everyone hanging onto the back, having a blast."


Yes, there is no winning more fun than winning for the first time. And in many ways, the Marlins are just the latest, greatest example of that. But many of them also lived through the agonizing history of their long-beleaguered franchise. And that is a part of this story that no one should underestimate.


"I think there's a little bit of, 'We're young, so we don't really know the quote-unquote, RIGHT way to act,'" said Mike Lowell, who has been with this team since 1999. "But a lot of us are also the same guys who were on those teams in 2000 and '01 and '02. So we lost together, and now we're winning together. And this is what we all thought we could do. So when it finally happens, you can't help but enjoy it."


But they are also a fascinating mix of other characters. Two of their most important figures (Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Cabrera) started this year with the Carolina Mudcats, in double-A. So "I guess," Mordecai laughed, "they think it's always supposed to be like this."


They rescued three more players (Conine, Ugueth Urbina and Rick Helling) from teams on a long spiral to nowhere. They brought in Chad Fox from Boston, where he'd grown weary of a place where "there's pressure on every pitch." And they "also got a couple of clowns, like Lenny Harris," said Juan Pierre, "who know how to keep us all loose."


But it starts with the manager -- because it always does. And by now -- more than four months after McKeon first walked through the clubhouse door, after three years of waiting for somebody, anybody, to call -- they have come to realize that just as he has helped make it fun for them, they've helped make it more fun for him.


"If you really think about this," said Mordecai, "you understand that Jack is 72. And when he got let go by the Reds (in 2000), I really believe that Jack thought that was probably it for him -- as far as being a guy in the dugout. So then to all of a sudden have this new lease on life, he figures he's going to have fun with it while he can.


"He's in a great spot here. The players are having fun and winning games. So the manager is going to look good. He gets to answer all the good questions. He doesn't have to answer the tough ones. So it's a two-way street. He's thinking, 'There I was, sitting home in North Carolina when the season started, and who'd think I'd be here now, one game away from the playoffs?'"


Well, nobody, as a matter of fact. Even if they thought the Marlins might be where they are right now, who would have thought the 72-year-old guy with the smile and the cigar would be the guy with the magic baton?


"Aw, it's just fun," McKeon said this week. "So who cares? Winning is fun, and fun is winning, right? And it's been fun so far."


Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.



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