I was a junior at Rollins College and attended the Major League Baseball winter meetings in December 1981 at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Hollywood, Fla. As I approached the lobby, Jack McKeon, then the general manager of the San Diego Padres, was in the midst of making a blockbuster deal that would send shortstop Ozzie Smith to the St. Louis Cardinals in exchange for shortstop Garry Templeton in a complicated six-player deal. Although McKeon announced that right fielder Sixto Lezcano would be involved in the transaction, he would not let the media know who the other three players would be. When asked why a deal of this magnitude would have three players to be named later, McKeon responded, “so that the media has something to do here.” He said it with humor, but was also making a statement. I never forgot that moment.
Almost 11 years later, on October 16, 1992, I was named GM of the Cincinnati Reds at an age that made it obvious that I was not ready for the position. I also had learned, however, that if you surround yourself with the best people in what you do, you have the best chance to succeed. McKeon had successfully managed off and on from 1973 to 1990. He also had success as GM of the Padres, a position in which he held from 1981-1990. I liked his aggressiveness, passion and love for the game.
I hired McKeon as a special assistant to the GM in 1997. He wanted to teach, and I wanted to learn. He told me he liked that I had the guts to hire a guy that might take his job someday. I told him that I just wanted to win and wanted to be surrounded with the best people and proven talent in the game.
McKeon, 80, made me laugh, he taught me wisdom, how to bluff, how to show patience and the ability to close a deal. He was never afraid of the deal, which is the reason he was nicknamed "Trader Jack."
I got Jack involved in all of the trades and top draft choices for the Reds until he did me the favor of taking over as the Reds' manager in the summer of 1997. Our club was 43-56, 13 games under .500 when he was hired. He didn’t want to take anyone’s job, but after the decision was made to relieve Ray Knight of his duties, McKeon agreed to take the job. He finished the season 33-30 as the Reds rose to third place in the National League Central with a roster more likely deserving to finish at the bottom of the division. Jack brought to the club enthusiasm and a sense of humor and he made sure the players knew it was fun to play baseball. He was also very structured and disciplined in playing the game the right way. Jack really stressed the fundamentals of the game, and he has a great sense of humor, from his smelly cigars, to ugly blazers. But he loves the game, and just loves to win. His sarcasm is funny at times, hurtful at other times.
His stories regarding former A's owner Charlie Finley and former Reds owner Marge Schott are priceless. His under-the-breath comments from players are heard by all, laughed by some, feelings hurt by others. Jack can deal with tough times, and he can bring calm to a situation that needs it.
McKeon represents the AARP, the retired, the senior citizens. He gives hope and faith to so many people.
He led the Reds to a 96-win season in 1999 despite having one of the lower payrolls in baseball. But my superiors with the Reds wanted to make a managerial change after the 2000 season, and after disagreeing, I finally relented. Jack was missed after that, and so was his cigar smoke.
In 2003, McKeon led the Marlins to a world championship. Can he do it eight years later? I doubt it because of the competition, namely the Phillies and Braves. I do believe, however, that he will repeat what he did in Cincinnati, when he finished with a winning record after taking over in '97.
McKeon will stress playing fundamental baseball. He’s old-school when it comes to bunting, he’s not afraid to make a quick hook and he’ll have two relievers ready to eat the innings in a losing game.
He'll be close to the media and most club leaks will be from his office. It’s a way of life for Jack; the media are his friends. He will smoke his cigars if the GM is heading down to the office, hoping the GM will go away. But he’ll always carry out the organization's policies with respect and dignity.
McKeon is a baseball lifer. His stories are just as funny now as they were three decades ago. His passion for the game remains. His love of winning continues. The Marlins have a new 80-year-old manager who quite frankly will soon have a better record than his successor. And that's because that’s how McKeon rolls.
Congratulations to Jack McKeon, the new manager of the Florida Marlins for the second time. Connie Mack ... be concerned.
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