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Published: Monday, 10/27/2003

McKeon just what the Fish needed

Sorry, but this wasn't about the fat-cat New York Yankees and their $180-million payroll not winning their 27th World Series - poor things.

Nope. This had everything to do with how the resurgent Florida Marlins escaped from relative baseball poverty ($54 million payroll) and followed their 72-year-old Pied Piper of a manager to the organization's second championship in seven years.

It was May in South Florida. Jack McKeon was new on the job. Grandpa Jack had just blown into town after a period of semi-retirement.

McKeon was full of ideas and energy. But, beyond that, a baseball manager is not a baseball manager until he shares his vision with his players.

Back in the saddle and taking over a team with a 16-22 record, McKeon let 'er rip.

Under McKeon, the Marlins were better, by far, than the manager he replaced, Jeff Torborg.

After dropping 10 games under .500 and still in last place in the National League East in June, the Marlins became the best team in baseball.

McKeon's message to his players was that the old way wasn't working.

When you reach McKeon's age, you no longer care what people think. Time is of the essence.

The choice was was simple: McKeon's way or the highway.

Take your pick.

McKeon didn't care, one way or the other.

Eventually, the Marlins came around to McKeon's way of thinking. Of course, the turnaround was accomplished through considerable trial-and-error.

The Marlins, remember, were an unsettled mix of youth and aging veterans. Since a number of players weren't carrying their weight, McKeon saw little harm in giving his kids the opportunity of a lifetime.

The Marlins were already in last place. They couldn't get any worse.

What the heck, McKeon figured.

Here it is, five months later, and the Marlins, remarkably, are the last team standing.

Yes, McKeon made it clear to his players you don't get to be 72 by acting and thinking foolishly.

Listen up, guys, because you just might learn something.

Nowhere was it more evident that McKeon was on top of his game than immediately after Florida beat the Yankees to go up 3-2 in the series.

McKeon confidently announced that 23-year-old right-hander Josh Beckett would start Game 6 in Yankee Stadium (gasp!) with only three days rest.

McKeon was not happy with the media's critical eye of his decision to start Beckett. Actually, he was quite angry, since some members of the media wolf pack concluded the old man had panicked and flipped his lid.

For what it's worth, McKeon, the oldest manager to win a World Series, was right.

Beckett five-hit the Yankees to seal the deal in Florida's 2-0 clinching victory and was named World Series MVP.

As for McKeon, playing such a hunch with his long-shot Marlins was another shining example of his all-or-nothing managerial philosophy that should go over big on the lecture circuit this winter.

John Harris is The Blade's sports columnist. Contact him by e-mail at jharris@theblade.com



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