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May 27, 2007

Prospectus Q&A

Jack McKeon

by David Laurila

Jack McKeon has spent over 50 years in the game, and has led teams to the World Series both as a manager and as a general manager. He was known as "Trader Jack" when he put together the Padres team that made the franchise's first World Series appearance in 1984. When his Marlins team won the 2003 World Series, he was simply known as the oldest manager in the game. Now 76 years old, McKeon is currently working for the Marlins as a special assistant.

David talked to McKeon about his 2003 Florida team, the smartest moves he's ever made, and about working for Charlie Finley in Oakland and Marge Schott in Cincinnati.

David Laurila: There was a lot more statistical data available when you managed the Marlins than there was when you managed in the 1970s. Did that have a notable impact on how you did your job?

Jack McKeon: Not really. Certain things are helpful, but in some situations someone will say, "He's hitting .444 against this pitcher, and he's a switch hitter, so we'll put him on the right side." And all of a sudden he beats you with a home run or a double. There's no guarantee. Even though the stats say someone isn't as good right-handed doesn't mean something is going to happen. Now, percentage-wise, over the long course it will probably play out, but not on a daily basis. For example, when I got to Florida I had Pudge Rodriguez and Mike Redmond as catchers. We're playing New York, and Tom Glavine is pitching against us. I had an executive call to ask me who was catching, and I told him Pudge. He asked if I knew that Redmond was hitting .780 against Glavine. I said I didn't give a shit; I don't care what he's hitting--Pudge is my catcher. So what happens? Pudge hits a two-run homer in the first inning and we win 2-0. Just because a guy hit someone in the past doesn't guarantee it will happen again. Not that I don't think stats aren't good--they're good to a certain degree, but they don't tell you the emotional state of the guy that's pitching or the young kid you're thinking of putting in. So a guy has two hits in 50 at-bats, or maybe he has 40 hits. That's great, but it's no guarantee. What about today?

DL: Why did the 2003 Marlins win the World Series?

JM: We had good players. We had a bunch of unselfish, dedicated guys who were willing to go the extra mile. They were willing to stay focused, they left their egos at the door, and they had a tremendous desire to succeed. That's why we won.

DL: Don't a lot of teams have players with those qualities?

JM: I'll tell you what; if you were there living with those guys...nobody's ever going to have a club like that again. I mean, the extra guys...when I took over that club, I knew that if I was going to win, I'd have to do it with my starting lineup. I knew I'd have to play them into the ground, because my backups weren't that sharp. But to make a long story short, when I'd have team meetings I'd apologize to the extra guys. Mike Redmond, Brian Banks, Andy Fox, Mickey Mordecai; I mean, these aren't household names. But to a man, after the meetings they'd come over and say, "Hey Skip, don't worry about us. We're fine. Just keep doing what you're doing." You don't find that in the game today, because there's jealousy where guys want to play because that's the only way they're going to make any money. People ask me who the leaders were on that team, and I say, "Hell, my leaders were those extra guys." They were the guys who gave the team support. They were the guys who never cried, or complained, or bitched about anything. They just pulled hard for the nine guys on the field.

DL: Who was the most important pitcher on your staff that year?

JM: That's hard to say. They were a young staff with one veteran: Mark Redman. But when you have Willis, and Beckett, and Penny--they were all valuable. Willis gave us a tremendous lift. He came out of Double-A and went, I think, 11-2 for us in one stretch. That was a real key to the season. He gave us a real lift when we needed it. I think we had three guys who won 14 games for us. We had some horses in the bullpen too, like Looper and Almanza. And a guy we got who was a real key in the bullpen was Chad Fox. We picked him up in August after the Red Sox released him, and I'll tell you what, he was lights-out for us over the last two months. He was a perfect set-up guy.

DL: Did the blowout loss at Fenway Park, when you lost 25-8, have any impact on the team?

JM: Well, that's part of the game. You realize that you're going to have routs like that once in awhile, but I guess it did kind of make us mad. The thing that got us mad was their third base coach. They were up by 16 or 17 runs and he was scoring guys from third base on short fly balls. But you saw what happened the next day. We scored eight runs between the eighth and ninth innings and pulled it out. Mike Lowell hit the home run and we won. I think that coming back from that deficit was one of the turning points of our season.

DL: What was the smartest thing you did in 2003?

JM: I let the players play and stayed out of their way. That's always been my philosophy: Let the players play and let the coaches coach. That, and tell the players to have fun. Go out and give it your best shot. That's what I told them going into the postseason. Nobody expected us to be there, so there was no pressure on us. The other club was the one that was supposed to win.

DL: The Cardinals won the World Series last year with the fewest regular season wins of any championship team in history. Was that bad for baseball?

JM: No, I don't think so. Go back to 1999 when I was managing the Reds. We won 96 games that year and didn't even get into the playoffs. Do you think that was that bad for baseball? There was parity in the league last year and the Cardinals got hot at the right time. In our case, in 1999, there was parity with a couple of clubs at the top of two divisions, and it made for a good battle. I think the playoff system we have is good for baseball. It keeps the interest in a lot of cities right down to the middle of September, and if you get hot at the right time, you can win it.

DL: Was your 1999 Cincinnati team as good as your championship Marlins team?

JM: The chemistry was entirely different. We had a good ballclub in '99, but we didn't have the same tremendous desire to win--everybody playing as a unit. Don't get me wrong, we had good players. We probably had as good, if not better, players than we did in Florida. But we didn't seem to have the same type of "coming together" like we did in Florida.

DL: Is Barry Larkin the best player you've managed that's not in the Hall of Fame?

JM: Well, he was a very good player. But when you look at guys I managed, like Jim Kaat--Kaat definitely belongs in the Hall of Fame. He has more wins than a lot of guys who are in. Tony Oliva is another. That's two, but Larkin is right in there.

DL: Were you a better manager or a better general manager?

JM: That's hard to say. I know I was a better manager my third and fourth times around, and that comes from experience. I certainly made enough mistakes in my early years. I liked being a general manger, but I think I liked managing better. I enjoyed the pressure and the daily challenge. I loved the competition. You were under constant scrutiny all the time.

DL: Who gave you the nickname "Trader Jack"?

JM: Some writer out in San Diego when I was making a lot of moves after I got hired at the end of the 1980 season. We had a bunch of older players on the team, and Ray Kroc told me to do whatever I thought was right to get the club righted. I knew we weren't going anywhere with older players like Aurelio Rodriguez and Willie Montanez, so I decided to start trading them for younger players. I continued to make those kinds of trades, and I made so many that someone nicknamed me "Trader Jack."

DL: What was the smartest move you made as a general manager?

JM: Signing Tony Gwynn was one. So was signing free agents Steve Garvey and Goose Gossage, and trading for Graig Nettles to get to the World Series in '84.

DL: Dick Williams was your manager in 1984. Just how big of an impact did he have on the Padres reaching the World Series, and why was he gone two years later?

JM: Dick was Dick. He was a good manager with a world of experience, and he was a no-nonsense guy. He was the perfect guy for that '84 club. Dick had been a successful manager in a number of places, and he won, and he had his style. And the players blend into your style. It's when they don't that you have problems, and that happens with a lot of managers. You're the perfect guy for one, or two, or three years, and then the players decide if you're still the perfect guy.

DL: What was it like working for Charlie Finley?

JM: Finley was an innovator. He introduced things like designated runners; guys like Herb Washington. He was intrigued with speed, and he didn't care if they could play. As long as they could run, he wanted them to be part of his team. So I'm managing, and we bring up this kid from Jersey City in the Eastern League who is leading the league in steals with something like 62. His name was Darrell Woodard. Charlie told me, "You don't know anything about this guy, but I'll fill you in. He's a rabbit, and you should try to use him every day to pinch-run if you can." Charlie used to call guys who could run "rabbits" and guys who couldn't run were "trucks." He added that in the event that I had to play Woodard in the field, I should only put him at second base. So one day we're playing the Indians, it's 3-2 in the eighth inning, and Wayne Gross is my third baseman. Gross is a truck, and he gets a base hit, so I put the rabbit in to run for him. I'm out of bench players, so that means I have to play Woodard in the ninth inning. When the inning starts I put him at second base and move my second baseman, Pee Wee Edwards, over to third. We get the first guy out, but then they get the next two on and bring Johnny Grubb in to pinch-hit. I go to the mound to bring in a left-hander, Bob Lacey, and while I'm out there decide to move Edwards back to second and Woodard over to third. I want to have my regular double-play combination together, hoping we can get Grubb to hit into a double play. I also don't think it's likely that Grubb will hit the ball to third. So what happens? Grubb lines Lacey's first pitch to third, Woodard jumps up and spears it, throws to second to double off the runner and the game is over. Of course, the writers ask me what was behind the move, and I tell them that I wanted a taller third baseman.

DL: What was Finley's reaction?

JM: The next morning, at six o'clock, Charlie is in Chicago and he calls. He called me every morning at six o'clock. The conversation goes like this: "McKeon, Finley. The players are laughing at you. The media is laughing at you. Your peers are laughing at you. Fans are laughing at you." I asked him, "What the hell are they laughing at, Charlie?" He said, "Dammit, I'm trying to help you manage. I told you not to play this guy anyplace but second base." He had picked up the newspaper, which only showed him at the last position he played, so he assumed I had him at third all along. So I told Charlie, "Yeah, I used him third base for one pitch." Charlie said, "What do you mean?!" I explained what had happened, and Charlie paused for about 15 or 20 seconds. Then he finally said, "So, I bet you think you're a damn genius now?!" That's what you'd get every day from Charlie. I liked Charlie, and I had a good time with him, but you couldn't do anything right--with Charlie, you were always wrong. Even when you were right, you were wrong.

DL: What was Marge Schott like?

JM: Marge was great. I loved Marge. She was a very dedicated lady. She had two loves: her dog, Schottzie, and the baseball team. Every night, she'd come down to the batting cage and pat me on the back and say "Hiya honey, pat Schottzie for good luck." So I'd have to reach down and pat Schottzie for good luck. Of course, that was Schottzie Number Two. Schottzie Number One had died, and she'd had all the hair shaved off of Schottzie Number One. Now one time we had lost four or five in a row, and Marge comes down and sticks an envelope in my pocket and says, "Good luck honey." So I go into the clubhouse and take it out, and it's filled with dog hair. Then we lose three or four more, and here comes another envelope in my pocket. After awhile I had more hair in the clubhouse than there is in a dog pound. But she was a good lady. She said a few wrong things, but she wasn't malicious or racist like some people made her out to be--she wasn't that type of gal. Marge wasn't recognized for all the good she did for children's homes, either, or for all the charity events she put on for children's hospitals. A lot of people don't know about those things. She loved cigars, too.

DL: Are you looking to manage again?

JM: No. I'm not soliciting for a managerial job. I'm happy with what I'm doing. Of course, once you're a manager, you're always a manager. If somebody called, I'd probably talk to them. That's what happened the last time: I hadn't even met the guy that called me up and hired me. He said he wanted to meet to have a philosophical discussion, and not once did he mention the possibility of me managing the team. We just talked baseball. Two nights later I'm watching a game on TV and my phone rings. I was asked if I wanted to take over the team, and I said "Heck, yeah." A few months later we won the World Series.

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