AT AGE 72, MCKEON IS HERE TO SAVE THE FISH

Monday was a travel day for the Marlins. Florida manager Jack McKeon used the flight from San Francisco to Pittsburgh to plot his strategy for September — and if McKeon gets his way – – October and a National League Wild Card slot.

When the plane lands in Pittsburgh, McKeon will need to re-charge the Marlins. They have lost 5 of 6 to Colorado and San Francisco on the west coast and now have a stop in Pittsburgh before returning to Pro Player Stadium for Labor Day weekend to start a pivotal seven game home stand, including a four-game weekend series against the Montreal Expos. Despite the recent skid, the Marlins and McKeon are a great story.

Wednesday, May 7, 2003. While the Florida Marlins were busy losing their fifth straight (3-2 vs. San Francisco) and pitcher Josh Beckett (left after one inning complaining of discomfort in his elbow), Florida general manager Larry Beinfest was busy on the phone with McKeon, crafting a deal that would make the 72-year old the Marlins new manager.

It happened quickly. McKeon said he got the call about 9pm at his home in Elon, North Carolina. The next morning he was on a flight to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, for lunch with Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria and Beinfest. The meeting led to an offer. McKeon, 72, accepted and after three years after he last managed in Cincinnati, McKeon would be back in the dugout by the weekend.

Saturday, May 10, 2003, Pro Player Stadium, South Florida. A small crowd of 9,025 watched the Marlins fall 5-4 to the Rockies. Fans, media and the Marlins team all left the park confused. The third-place Marlins were 16-22, had lost 7 of 8 and they were falling fast in the National League East standings.

As players showered and ducked out quietly one-by-one, Loria and Beinfest were preparing to deliver the news: Jeff Torborg was fired, along with pitching coach Brad Arnsberg and Dale Torborg, the manager’s son and strength and conditioning director.

The meeting with Arnsberg was quick, but not pretty. Arnsberg told reporters Loria and Beinfest showed up at his apartment to deliver the word. Arnsberg said the meeting lasted 90 seconds. Beinfest later told reporters that Arnsberg was “abusive and clearly unprofessional … bordering on violent.” When Arnsberg showed up Sunday to collect his belongings, the former Marlins pitching coach was now allowed in.

Torborg, the first managerial casualty of the 2003 season, took the news peacefully. The meeting ended and Torborg and Loria hugged and said goodbye. A manager was gone but their friendship remained intact.

Executing the move created some chaos and confusion in the organization. Some Marlins woke up to the news on television, others saw the headline in the Sunday newspaper. Marlins first baseman Derek Lee did know it at all. Lee reportedly showed up at Pro Player Stadium with no idea and when teammates told him the news in the clubhouse, Lee told the Miami Herald, “I though they were joking.”

The media criticized the move. In the May 11 issue of the Miami Herald reporter Dan Lebatard wrote: Jack McKeon? The Marlins have replaced manager Jeff Torborg, a good man, with Jack McKeon, and old man (age 72), and that really oughta fix everything. The small crowds? The injured pitching elbows? Last place? All Torborg’s fault. The fact Marlins management brought in a catcher who now leads the league in past balls? An outfield that won’t hit as many home runs this season as Preston Wilson does alone?

The fans were unhappy. One Fish fan wrote on a team message board:

Larry Beinfest is killing the Florida Marlins. Too bad a couple of good baseball people had to lose their jobs. Beinfest should have resigned. – Michael H./Honolulu

“The fans here in South Florida deserve to have hope this summer. There is enough time left to turn it around and get back in it,” said Beinfest, the morning after the move. Despite the early season rash of injuries to the pitching staff, Loria and Beinfest still saw a competitive, balanced roster of experience and youth. They expected the Marlins to compensate and pick up the slack until A.J. Burnett, Mark Redman and Josh Beckett were healthy.

August 25, 2003. The Marlins have “hope” this summer. It was restored shortly after McKeon arrived. Going into Tuesday night’s series opener against the Pirates, the Marlins are tied for second place in the NL East, 10 games above .500 (70-60) and in a dead heat with their division foes, the Philadelphia Phillies, for the NL Wild Card.

Since his arrival on May 11, McKeon has the Marlins playing great baseball. They were 16-22 (.421) under Torborg and 54-38 (.587) under McKeon. The drama and media circus has been replaced with drama and more media, only this time the drama plays out in the late innings wherever the Marlins happen to be playing and the media is only interested in rookie phenom Dontrelle Willis and his band of exciting, young teammates who are zeroing in on a post season bid.

The Marlins struggled early under McKeon, losing 7 of their first 10 and battling the pressure of a MLB investigation for possible minority-hiring violations. Allegations surfaced May 14, just three days after McKeon won his first game in a Marlins uniform. MLB president Bob DuPuy requested documentation about the hiring process from the Marlins management. DuPuy told reporters he was making sure Florida had complied with Bud Selig’s directive to notify the commissioner’s office with a list of minority candidates when filling high-level position.

While Loria and Beinfest scrambled to prepare documents for MLB, a sparse crowd of 10,935 witnessed Dontrelle Willis’ first major league win, 10-3. Willis threw 100 pitches in five innings and struck out seven. He left the game with a 7-3 lead and living, breathing proof that “hope” was still alive for the summer.

Then, on May 30, the issue was resolved. MLB announced the Marlins were fined for violating Selig’s rule, no details were revealed and the issue was dead. The Marlins celebrated by activating Mark Redman from the DL. Still, the Marlins were under .500 at 25-31, after a heart-breaking extra inning lose to the Reds. Ken Griffey Jr. hit a game-tying solo homer in the ninth inning and a go-ahead shot in the top of the 11th and the Reds won 4-3.

The Marlins started July activating Josh Beckett. After starting the month winning 2 of 3 from the division-leading Braves, the Marlins traveled to Philadelphia for the 4th of July and swept the rival Phillies three-straight on the road. After the All Star break, the Marlins swept the Phillies again in Florida. Florida finished the month red-hot, going 17-7.

The Marlins still have their “hopes” up going into the fall. So maybe Loria and Beinfest knew something we didn’t. They had the media fooled too. I couldn’t find a retraction from Dan Lebatard anywhere in the Miami Herald archives (see statement above), still he thinks McKeon has not made a difference.

Lebatard credits the “unprecedented confluence of excellence” from Mike Lowell, Juan Pierre, Mark Redman, Brad Penny, Carl Pavano, Braden Looper, Alex Gonzalez, Juan Encarnacion and Pudge Rodriguez. Everyone on the list, except Redman, played for Torborg too. So, this “confluence of excellence” didn’t exist before? They are the same core of players. I don’t understand?

I tend to think McKeon deserves some credit. He adopted a young, talented team. The team makeup resembled the Reds team he inherited in 1997. McKeon took the Reds job 99 games into the 1997 season. The third-place Reds were 43-56 and going nowhere under Ray Knight. McKeon revived the Reds, finishing the season at 76-86 (McKeon was 33-30). After stumbling in 1998, McKeon turned it around with winning years in 1999 and 2000.

McKeon went on to win 96 games in 1999 and later lost to the Mets in a one-game playoff to decide the Wild Card winner. He was later named Major League Baseball Manager of the Year.After a second place 85-77 finish in 2000 the Reds did not renew his contract and McKeon quietly bowed out, bought a satellite dish and spent the last few summers watching and waiting for the call. At age 72, his phone rang.

Now, the Marlins control their own destiny. They will finish out 2003 playing 26 of their 32 against the NL East. In the final 32 games the Marlins will play Montreal seven times (4 home, 3 road), Philadelphia six times (3 home, 3 road), Atlanta seven times (3 home, 4 road) and New York six times (3 home, 3 road). The pennant race is on and McKeon has done his job. he has restored “hope” to Marlins fans.

McKeon, the oldest active manager, followed by Felipe Alou (68) and Frank Robinson (67), has already completed his mission, he has restored “hope” in South Florida. More importantly he has Loria and Beinfest believing and “hoping” the Marlins will continue their winning ways well into October. As the Marlins filed out of Pac Bell Stadium and boarded a bus taking them to the airport, team owner Jeffrey Loria turned to a clubhouse attendant at Pacific Bell Park and said: “See you in October.”

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