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Marlins reassemble as champions this time


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Marlins reassemble as champions this time

Jim Souhan, Star Tribune


Published February 23, 2004 MARL23


JUPITER, FLA. -- The septuagenarian sits on a bench in the Florida sunshine, puffing on a cigar the size of a Louisville Slugger, reviewing the best days of his prosperous life.


Happens every day on the east coast of Florida. It's just that on Sunday morning the 73-year-old was Jack McKeon, the cigar evoked images of his intuitive manuevering during the 2003 World Series, and the best days of his life started arriving, like one long conga line, just last summer.


The bench McKeon perches upon as he retells his stories and relights his cigar is a picnic table beside the Marlins' spring training complex in Jupiter. Saturday, he got lost while trying to navigate Roger Dean Stadium for the first time as the manager of the Florida Marlins, even though he guided that team to one of the biggest upsets in World Series history last fall.


Sunday, as his still-young Series stars joked in the nearby clubhouse, McKeon reveled in his newfound, latter-life fame.


"I went to do the David Letterman show up in New York this winter," he said. "I'm standing outside a deli, and people are coming up to me saying, 'You beat my Yankees!'


"So I converted them."


McKeon visited the White House with the Marlins. He spent the winter meetings, and New Year's, in New Orleans. He was feted and honored in his home state of New Jersey and became a well-paid motivational speaker.


"Everywhere I went, people recognized me, wanted to congratulate me," he said. "I've never had that happen before. I even put on sunglasses at one point, to hide, and that didn't work.


"In New Orleans, I had 10 or 12 Red Sox fans thank me for beating the Yankees. That happened all winter."


As stunning as it was to watch the Marlins celebrate in Yankee Stadium last October, it's even more remarkable to contemplate what they accomplished.


A team that was 16-22 on May 11 hired McKeon out of retirement, then went 75-49, winning McKeon the National League Manager of the Year award.


This winter, the Marlins lost catcher Ivan Rodriguez to the Tigers and traded first baseman Derrek Lee to the Cubs. But those moves should not evoke comparisons to the overhaul of the '97 World Series champion Marlins, who were gutted by former owner Wayne Huizenga.


The Marlins re-signed Mike Lowell and Luis Castillo and will have Jeff Conine, whom they acquired for the pennant drive, for a full season. They will not be favored to win the NL East but are capable of doing so if the Phillies' pitching or manager (the combustible Admin Bowa) implodes.


No NL team has repeated as World Series champs since the Reds in 1975-76.


For the Marlins to thrive, their young rotation -- Josh Beckett, Brad Penny, Carl Pavano and Dontrelle Willis, with A.J. Burnett expected to return from arm surgery by May -- will have to be more dominant during the grind of a regular season than it was during a postseason in which the Marlins bullpen thrived.


"It's all about us," Pavano said. "We have to do the job. But I think confidence is 90 percent of the game, and if we can't be confident after doing what we did last year . . ."


Pavano said he expects Beckett, whose career total of 17 regular-season victories was belied by his shutout victory in Game 6 of the World Series, to become an ace.


As he praised Beckett, Pavano saw him sitting in the clubhouse, wearing a black hat, baggy dress shirt, floppy shorts and bushy goatee. "I just wish," Pavano said, "he would learn to dress better."


Sunday, the Marlins looked as loose as, well, they did during the World Series, even as they adapt to newfound fame.


Beckett has been dating Leeann Tweeden, a lingerie model-turned-broadcaster, since meeting her on the set of a Fox Sports show. Pavano has become famous to the People magazine crowd for dating actress Alyssa Milano.


And McKeon? He's the focus of the Marlins' spring marketing campaign and, to hear him tell it, an inspiration to seasoned citizens everywhere.


"You can't believe the letters I get from senior citizens all over the country," he said. "One says, 'You energized me. I'm 76 years old, and just seeing the way you went about it, I'm going back to work.' "


Conine, like McKeon, joined the Marlins during the season. He became the only player to play on both of the Marlins' championship teams.


"It's a different feeling this time," he said. "A lot of us are coming back to defend this title, which wasn't the case last time."


"We've got our pitching staff back, so I like our chances."


McKeon is too experienced to make predictions. "I'm just ready to get out there and smell the grass and hear the ball coming off the bat," he said. "This, here, is all new to me."


He waved a hand at men 50 years his junior, and took another contented puff.


Jim Souhan is at [email protected].

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Ahh, Jack...like Patton...gotta love it.


I have mixed feelings though - it is good that the national media seems to be picking up stories about our team and giving it the credit it is due. But the media back home hasnt really done that. But then again, should they be doing pieces now about how we didnt dismantle? That may seem tongue-in-cheek.

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