- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 19, 2003

NEW YORK - The one star who may emerge from this World Series and capture the hearts of the nation is a 72-year-old, cigar-smoking, wise man who acts like he is having way too much fun as a baseball manager.

That is what Florida Marlins manager Jack McKeon brings to the game and to this World Series against the New York Yankees — joy. It’s a rare commodity in a game often filled with stars who act as if they are tortured souls.

McKeon, in uniform for the World Series for the first time in 54 years in professional baseball as a player, coach, manager and general manager, has reminded everyone that getting paid loads of money and getting the chance to play championship baseball is supposed to be fun, not some sort of burden. And last night’s Game 1 should have been fun for all the Marlins, considering their 3-2 victory.

“I take this as a gift for my family and my wife of almost 50 years who sacrificed so many things … my kids and my grandkids through the years, not having a father and a grandfather around,” McKeon said. “I’m happy for them. For this first time, they may be able to enjoy something special.”

Yankees manager Joe Torre is a wonderful and articulate man, but you know he’s not having fun working for a guy like Boss Steinbrenner. Did you see the tears from Torre after they clinched the American League title in the 11th inning of Game7? Those weren’t tears of joy. They were tears of relief, as if the weight of the entire season under Boss Steinbrenner’s thumb finally had been lifted.

No one has a thumb pressing on Jack McKeon.

“This is the most enjoyable year I’ve ever had in baseball,” McKeon said. “I’ve been very fortunate, and I hope the Good Lord keeps looking after me. He’s done a good job so far.”

If the Good Lord has been keeping an eye on McKeon, then he has had a few laughs. When McKeon was managing a minor league club in Atlanta, he gave his pitcher a walkie-talkie so he didn’t have to walk to the mound. And once he used a handgun loaded with blanks to shoot at a minor league player who kept running through his stop signs at third base.

He is no clown, though — far from it. As a general manager, McKeon built the San Diego Padres team that won the 1984 National League pennant.

He has won 845 games as a manager with five organizations, the last Cincinnati, where he was named National League Manager of the Year in 1999. He led the Reds to a 96-67 record, falling one game shy of the postseason by losing to the New York Mets in a one-game playoff for the wild card berth. The next year the Reds won 85 games, and McKeon was fired, and figured, at the age of 69, he was finished in the major leagues.

But Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria, looking for someone to revive his club after a 16-22 start, fired Jeff Torborg and turned to McKeon because he had a history of turning clubs around. Florida went 75-49 under McKeon.

“I give Jack all the credit because numbers don’t lie,” said Marlins third baseman Mike Lowell. “Jack is very fiery. The first thing he said when he took the job was, ‘I don’t need this job. I don’t care about this job. But I think we can win.’ His total focus was to do what was best for the team to get us to win.”

Part of McKeon’s appeal is that he’s got the George Foreman thing working for him as well — the old man beating Father Time.

“I’m telling you, it’s been a tremendous blessing to me because I don’t feel my age,” he said. “I think it’s because I’ve been hanging around, dealing with young guys, aggressive, young enthusiastic players that have made it much easier to enjoy life and feel young again.”

And, of course, there are the cigars.

McKeon is a man after my own heart, a man who enjoys a good cigar. And we share the same approach to staying fit (well, at least one approach). When McKeon goes for his daily walk, he lights up a cigar. “Sometimes two,” he said. That is almost Zen-like in its nature, seeking out a balance in life.

When he goes to church — which he does every morning — he will put his cigar on a ledge in between the bricks, and then light it back up when he comes out. My father did the same thing. It is a sense of appreciation, even for a small pleasure like a cigar, or a very big pleasure, like managing in the World Series.

It turns out that Jack McKeon, in a cloud of cigar smoke, is a breath of fresh air.

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