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I'm Just Getting Started
Baseball's Best Storyteller on Old School Baseball, Defying the Odds, and Good Cigars
By Jack McKeon, Kevin Kernan
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2005 Jack McKeon and Kevin Kernan
All rights reserved.
Don't Move the Wrecker
I've been fired six times. That's not bad. The way I figure it, that's once every 12 years. Hell, I'm only 74.
Smoking cigars and staying in shape are important to me, so I take a few puffs and I work out every day. Five hours before the game you'll see me walking around the ballpark with that cigar in my hand, walking two or three miles, doing it my way.
One day in the spring of 2003 I was working out at the YMCA back home in Elon, North Carolina, and I noticed this young gentleman bouncing a basketball. He had to be 77 or 78 years old, and we got to talkin'. He told me the North Carolina Senior Games were coming up and said, "I'm with the senior softball and basketball teams. We need another player. Can you play?"
"OK," I said. "I can handle both of those. I'll help you out. How old are these guys we're playing?"
He said, "Seventy-two and above."
"OK, but I'm not going to hurt one of these guys if I hit them with a softball, am I?"
"No, no, they know what they're doing," he said.
"How long do you practice?"
"About an hour, some of these guys can't go too long," he said. "We practice on Tuesday and Thursday nights."
I laughed and told him my grandson played baseball on those nights. I couldn't go, but I didn't need the practice. I'd be all right. Sign me up, I thought, this old catcher can still play a little.
"Hey, when are those Senior Games?" I asked.
"August," he told me.
You know, I never did show up. Something came up. I had to go back to managing in the Major Leagues with the Florida Marlins ... and win the World Series against the Yankees. As for that old guy back in North Carolina, it turned out that his team won the championship, too. They didn't need me after all, but the Marlins sure did.
Three days after that World Series, I signed a one-year extension. Then, after that season, I signed another extension. I don't know how long I can manage, but in my mind I'm just getting started. Casey Stengel went to 75. If I decide to stay, I won't turn 75 until the 2006 season, so I have two more seasons to go to tie Casey. I don't think I can catch Connie Mack. He went all the way until 88. I don't think I want to do that.
My wife Carol is the happiest one of all now that I'm back in the dugout. She said, "Jack, you drove me crazy being at home after being away all those years. The best thing about having you back managing is that I get the TV clicker back. That and shopping."
When Carol found out we were going to the White House to meet with President Bush after beating the Yankees, she raised her champagne bottle in the manager's office of the visiting clubhouse at Yankee Stadium and offered this toast, "Yeah! More shopping!"
Carol likes to shop as much as I like to manage. And after 55 years in the pro game, I like to manage a certain way. Too many players today are coddled. I don't play favorites, but I will bend a little, that's something I learned how to do. Darn right I'm old style, it works. You have fun, but you play hard. Too many managers want robots out there. You've got to give the players some freedom to think on their feet. You can't call every pitch and then expect your pitchers to know how to get out of jams.
I took over the Marlins on May 11, 2003. One game soon after, the guys were horsing around in the dugout, and I blew my stack. "Look at you guys," I screamed. "You guys talk the talk, but you don't know how to walk the walk. You're a bunch of babies."
They rallied to win that game and as they came back into the clubhouse they were yelling, "We walked the walk." I knew at that moment that we had something going.
Another lesson I've learned as a manager is you can't be afraid to make the tough decision. Early in my career as a manager, I'd worry about what the writers or the owners said. I wouldn't have done it this way before, but now I've got the guts to do it. I've learned to manage my way. Like a lot of people, I've gotten smarter with age.
Now I've got my first World Series ring. And it's a big, beautiful one, the biggest of all time. Our owner, Jeffrey Loria, knows how to do things right.
Managing a team is really about managing people, and it's all I ever wanted to do. From the time I was 12 years old in South Amboy, New Jersey, I was managing a baseball team. I'd set up the roster, set the schedule, and arrange the transportation.
My father, his first name was Aloysius but we called him Bill, was in the garage, taxi, and wrecking business. He supplied the bus for the games and sponsored us: we were called the "McKeon's Boys Club." It was a great setup for me. In the winter, we practiced in the garage. We hung chicken wire over the windows and lights so nothing would get broken when we knocked the baseball around. This was in the forties, so if you think about it, I had the first indoor baseball facility and batting cage. I was ahead of my time even back then.
At night, we practiced near the traffic cloverleaf, where there was a grassy area and the lights from the highway gave us enough light to hit by. We'd play baseball day and night, summer and winter. It was never too cold to go hit.
When I wasn't playing sports, I was up in the garage, hanging out and helping my dad or driving a wrecker (even though I was underage). The garage is where I got a real education, the best kind of education, an education in life's lessons.
My father taught me how to deal with people, business smarts, and street smarts. I learned a lot just watching him operate. And the man could operate. I saw the way he could manipulate the city council, the police, and the business leaders in town. I saw how shrewd he was.
He was one tough SOB.
One New Year's Eve there was a three-car accident out on Route 35. There was no assignment for the wreckers — it was first come, first served. We got to the scene first, and then two other companies came by. The cop on the scene gave two of the cars to the wrecking company that brought two wreckers, and the other car was given to the other guy. My father didn't get any. He was shut out.
He looked at me and said, "We're going to city hall."
He pulled right in front of city hall in the circle — right in front of the steps where all the police cars have to go through — and parked the wrecker right there. He blocked the driveway so nobody could get past. Then he went inside and told the cops, "I dare you to move that wrecker." He walked out, and we went home.
The next morning the chief of police called. I answered the phone, and the chief asked, "Where's your father?"
"In bed," I said.
"Would you have him call me right away? I want him to move the wrecker."
"He ain't gonna move that wrecker," I said.
Later on, the chief called again, and this time my father answered the phone. He told the chief, "Yeah, I'll move the wrecker — when you put it in writing that I get every wreck in South Amboy."
They did just that, and he went down and moved the wrecker. That was the first big deal I ever saw. Anyone else they would have locked up, but my father had a legitimate gripe. That's when I learned, if you're right, you go for it. You don't move the wrecker.
The baseball business is just like dealing with the city council. Instead of councilmen and councilwomen, I got ballplayers, management, and umpires. The biggest thing I learned from my father was to never give up on a deal. He kept working until he got what he wanted, whether it was a taxi route with the school system or a deal with the Pennsylvania railroad during the war hauling railroad workers to trouble spots.
I've done it all and I've been everywhere. I handled the books for my father's taxi business, I handled the food stamps, the gas stamps, and all the regulations. I learned by doing.
I've had all kinds of jobs. I opened the first sports bar back in the fifties in Burlington, North Carolina. I taught school; pumped gas; drove the wrecker and a taxi; fixed cars; delivered mail; sold tires, TVs, and refrigerators; was a basketball referee; and worked the night shift in a hosiery mill. I've been in the Air Force, where I played baseball and I became a sharpshooter, medal and all, even though I never went to the range. In 1951 I managed the baseball team that won the Air Force Championship. I played baseball all over the place and hit three ways: righty, lefty, and seldom.
I've managed everywhere from Missoula, Montana, to Puerto Rico.
I've been a GM. I built the Padres team that won the club's first pennant in 1984, beating the Cubs back then just like the Marlins beat them in 2003. And I've always been a scout. People ask me, "Jack, how do you do it? How do you stay so young? How do you have so much fun? How did you become the oldest manager to ever win the World Series?"
I do it by just being myself, by not being a phony. And I've been blessed in so many ways.
I've been able to meet Presidents H. W. and George W. Bush, Nixon, and Carter, and I've received telegrams from Presidents Reagan and Nixon, all because of baseball. Baseball owes me nothing, but I sure owe a lot to baseball.
Most of all, I'm here to tell people the game is never over, it's just like Yogi Berra said, it ain't over till it's over. I first saw Yogi in 1947 with the Newark Bears. Who knew we'd both be still working on a baseball field more than half a century later? Every spring training, Yogi is there with the Yankees. You gotta keep plugging along. Persistence is the key to success. When you look back and see my career, it was a carbon copy of persistence.
For every disappointing thing, something positive came after it. Every time I got fired, I eventually ended up getting a better job until one day I'm named Manager of the Year with the Reds in 1999 and then I'm winning the World Series with the Marlins four years later. The reason for that is my attitude. The same goes in business, if you're fired or something goes wrong, it's not the end of the world. I always thought there are people in a lot worse shape than I am. And I never put my failures onto someone else.
Your attitude determines your altitude.
The first time I was supposed to get a managing job, the league folded, but I didn't quit. I finally did get a managing job at Fayetteville, I got hurt, I got fired again, I went out and scouted, then I got another managing job, this time at Missoula. I kept getting fired and I kept bouncing back. I always knew how to get a job — just keep pounding away like a salesman. You've got to sell yourself.
How do you do that? You've got to keep making contacts and keep coming back and beating the doors down until someone opens the door for you. It's like my old Oakland A's owner Charlie Finley used to say, "When Mr. Opportunity knocks. Open up the door and say, C'moooooooon in!"
You gotta have fun. You gotta laugh. Just the other day I called up my owner, Jeffrey Loria, disguised my voice, and told him it was President Bush's secretary calling. He thought it really was, and when I finally told him it was me, he laughed and said, "You got me, Jack."
I sometimes call the ticket office, change my voice, and see if I can get a discount on three thousand tickets for the Cub Scouts, the Girl Scouts, or the Boy Scouts. It takes the pressure off when you can have a good laugh.
Even walking down the street you can have fun. I was in the minors in 1969, in Oklahoma City, and Bill Beck, the team's broadcaster and traveling secretary, and I went to get something to eat after a ballgame. We were walking down the street and kept getting stopped by panhandlers. After the third panhandler came by, I figured it was time to have a little fun. The next guy came up to me and asked for money. I grabbed him by the shirt and said, "Look buddy, I'm working this side of the street, get your tail on the other side." The guy hustled over to the other side of the street.
You run into all kinds of situations managing. One winter in the seventies I was managing in Puerto Rico. The team wasn't very good, but they could cook. In the middle of the game I smelled something fishy, and there in the back of the dugout, a bunch of players were cooking crabs and fish. I soon made short order cooks of those players.
Every single day in the minors and in winter ball I had fun. It's a good thing I took that approach because it was 25 years before I stepped foot on a major league field. I started in pro ball in 1949 and didn't make it to the majors until 1973 as manager of the Royals. Then came major league managing jobs with the A's, Padres, Reds, and, 30 years after getting my first major league managing job, I got the job with the Marlins. Then all my baseball dreams came true.
You've got to have faith. I go to church every day. You keep moving, you keep going forward.
The best thing about all this is that it has been a real plus for all the senior citizens out there. You should see the letters I get. People say I've been an inspiration to them. They say they've gotten up out of the chair they've been sitting in just watching TV and have gone out, gotten a job, and are having fun again with their lives. That's what you gotta do. I can't sit on no rocking chair on a porch.
I can't sit and watch TV. I get ticked off sitting in that chair. But every day when I wasn't working I watched all the major league games I could at home in North Carolina, just to stay in touch. Then one night in May of 2003 around 10:45, the phone rings. It's the Marlins. They want me to come down to Florida. They want to talk a little baseball philosophy with me. At the time, I had no idea I would become manager.
The only thing I was sure of was that in this meeting, I was going to be myself. Through the years I've learned that you have to be yourself. It's the only way to survive in baseball. So when I went down to meet Jeffrey Loria, I went down there in a very businesslike way to discuss the philosophies of the organization. To me, I was just giving him a scouting report, being as helpful as I could possibly be.
When I left that meeting I said, "Thank you Jerry. It was a nice meeting. I enjoyed talking with you." Later, he told my old friend Bill Beck, who was and still is the traveling secretary of the Marlins, "Well, I know one thing, Jack sure wasn't trying to impress me. He didn't even know my name." But something must have impressed him because they called me back two nights later. I was managing in the big leagues again.
John Boggs, who helps in my business deals, said it best. "Jack does it his way," he said. "If Frank Sinatra were alive, he'd love Jack."
Regardless of your age, keep fighting. Don't give up. You might think you're too old or too poor or too sick to go on, but if you have faith, anything is possible. Look at me, I was out of work for three years, 72 years old and all signed up for the North Carolina Senior Games, and a few months later I've got the biggest World Series ring ever made.
If this job didn't come along, I would have managed in a rookie league. It's like I tell kids when I go out to the schools: you can be whatever you want to be. I still feel that way at 74. If it doesn't work today, keep at it. Don't quit. It might work tomorrow.
Don't ever give up.
Don't move the wrecker.CHAPTER 2
The cigar is my trademark. People wouldn't know it's me if I didn't have my cigar. They even gave away this Jack in the Box figure one night at Pro Player Stadium, a little toy where I pop up with a cigar. They had forty-one thousand fans that night.
I've been on the cover of Cigar Aficionado, so I must know something about cigars.
Padron Cigars are my favorite, and I don't smoke anything but the Anniversary Series. They are the best cigars I've ever smoked and they're made right here in Miami. Jorge Padron is president of the company. I started out smoking Tampa Nuggets, two for 15 cents, but now I've graduated to Padrons. When we went to the White House, I even gave President George W. Bush some Padrons. We had a great time.
When I go for my walk around the ballpark each day, I carry two cigars. I always carry a backup. I have to hide in the tunnel to light them. Most of the time it's a one-cigar walk, but at home in Florida I start around 11:30 and it can be a two-cigar walk. People get a big kick out of seeing me walking around the field with puffs of smoke trailing behind me.
When I was in New York to do the Letterman show after we won the World Series, I didn't keep a cigar in my hotel room, I kept one on the street. That's what I usually do. I found a good hiding place for it right in front of the hotel where they were doing some construction work. I stuck it right in a scaffolding pipe, a perfect fit. Whenever I wanted a smoke, I went out on the street, pulled my cigar out of the pipe, lit up, and took a few puffs.
When the Marlins are home, I go to St. Matthew's Church every morning in Hallandale Beach. I set my stogie on a metal post just before I walk in the door and pick it up on the way out, after I've made sure to bless myself.
I started smoking cigars in 1949 and never stopped. That was my first year in pro baseball. We could never smoke or drink around my father. So once I got down to Greenville, Alabama, that year without my father around, I started smoking those Tampa Nuggets. I'd come home during the off-season and I wouldn't smoke, even though my father was a big cigar smoker. I didn't want to take the chance of smoking in front of him.
Excerpted from I'm Just Getting Started by Jack McKeon, Kevin Kernan. Copyright © 2005 Jack McKeon and Kevin Kernan. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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