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Fish gear up to defend title


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Fish gear up to defend titile

By Joe Frisaro / MLB.com

 

JUPITER, Fla. -- When it comes to the Marlins, where there is smoke, Jack McKeon usually follows.

 

Under puffs of cigar smoke, McKeon reported to the Marlins' Spring Training facility at Roger Dean Stadium eager to interact and get the ball rolling for another shot at a World Series title.

 

The amiable 73-year-old manager of the defending champions shook hands and signed autographs for a couple of dozen fans waiting outside the iron gates that separate the parking lot and the entrance to clubhouse. All the while, he chomped down on one of his trademark cigars.

 

McKeon, the oldest manager or coach in any of the four major professional team sports to win a championship, has been itching to get started for months. And it's been a hectic past three months for the 2003 NL Manager of the Year.

 

Since the World Series, McKeon cracked jokes with David Letterman, rubbed elbows with President Bush, joined the motivational speaker circuit and become a poster man for senior citizens.

 

He's been flooded with letters all across the country from senior citizens who thanked him for setting an example to remain active.

 

"They've been very complimentary," said McKeon, who is recognized in the AARP magazine. "People are telling me I energized them to get the maximum out of life."

 

McKeon isn't ready to let his 2003 dream season go up in smoke either. He is riding his fame and will be featured on the cover of an upcoming issue of Cigar Aficionado magazine.

 

Marlins pitchers and catchers officially reported Saturday, and excitement continues to build around camp that last year wasn't a fluke. Physicals will be held on Sunday and the first workouts are set for Monday morning.

 

Scenic Roger Dean Stadium, home of the Marlins and Cardinals, remains one of the nicest spring facilities in the league. Nestled next to a golf course and one of Florida Atlantic University's satellite campuses, the complex has baseball fever 12 months a year. Now, in their second season in Jupiter, Marlins' mania is gaining momentum.

 

According to Roger Dean Stadium general manager Rob Robenecker, overall Spring Training tickets are up 53 percent.

 

Other increases are:

 

 

Spring season ticket sales (58 percent)

Group tickets (142 percent)

Mini-plans (30 percent)

Individual game tickets (51 percent)

For the next six weeks, the stadium and the surrounding shops will be swarmed with fans wearing Cardinal red and Marlin teal and black.

 

A number of prominent Marlins have been routinely working out in Jupiter for days or weeks, including World Series MVP Josh Beckett, Carl Pavano, Chad Fox, center fielder Juan Pierre and new first baseman Hee Seop Choi, obtained from the Cubs for Derrek Lee.

 

Arguably the hardest working player in the league, Pierre has been itching to get started since the Super Bowl ended.

 

"The Super Bowl marks the end of the football season, and the first baseball thoughts," Pierre said.

 

In many ways, the overachieving Pierre epitomized the Marlins' remarkable and improbable World Series run. Even after winning it all, Pierre notes how the Marlins once again are considered heavy underdogs. It's understandable with the losses of Lee, catcher Ivan Rodriguez, pitcher Mark Redman, right fielder Juan Encarnacion, and relievers Ugueth Urbina and Braden Looper.

 

"All the talk is about the Yankees losing the World Series and there is no talk about the Marlins winning the World Series," Pierre said. "People are still not giving us the credit. But that's cool."

 

Pierre praises the Yankees and Red Sox for generating a giant baseball buzz with their off-season acquisitions.

 

"Everybody wants to see what they can do," Pierre said. "The World Series is going to go through Miami this year. We've got to go out and defend it."

 

Despite being a low-revenue team, the Marlins aren't conceding anything.

 

McKeon applauds the Yankees for landing Alex Rodriguez and Gary Sheffield, and he credits the Cubs for signing Greg Maddux.

 

Yet, he chimes: "I think payroll don't mean a darn thing. It's the players that you got. I think we had good players. They had the heart, the synergy and the desire to win last year. The Yankees had the talent. In a short series, we outplayed them, even though we didn't out-stat them. We knew how to win.

 

"Some clubs are fortunate to have the money to go out and get a Sheffield or a Maddux, players in that category. I think you have to mix-and-match and bring a couple of guys up like we did last year. I'm not afraid of that. I campaigned to bring [phenom Miguel] Cabrera up here when we needed an extra bat. Let's find out. What do you have to lose?"

 

Joe Frisaro is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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