No fish story: McKeon best move of '03
By Jeff Merron
Page 2 staff

    "The sweetest of all sounds is praise."

The best moves of 2003 ...

1. Marlins hire Jack McKeon
Jack McKeon
Marlins GM Larry Beinfest handed the managerial reins to Jack McKeon on May 11.
When the Marlins fired Jeff Torborg and hired McKeon in mid-May, it didn't look like a risky move -- but it sure didn't appear inspired. McKeon, 72, was the oldest manager ever hired for a new job, and the third-oldest manager in MLB history (after Connie Mack and Casey Stengel).

McKeon had been named Manager of the Year for the Reds in 1999 but became ex-manager of the Reds after 2000. Before he came on board, the Marlins were 16-22; after he took over, they became the best team in baseball, going 75-49 the rest of the way, clinching a wild-card playoff spot, and beating the Yankees in the World Series.

As Rob Neyer pointed out in an August column, McKeon has a gift for improving teams, and his fifth time making a team better was the charm.

1A. McKeon, second-guessed like crazy, started Josh Beckett on three days' rest in Game 6 of the World Series, and Beckett beat the Yankees 2-0 to clinch the title.

2. Mo Cheeks gives the year's best assist
Sometimes the best moves are, well, moving. Last April, 13-year-old Natalie Gilbert stood in front of 20,000 fans in Portland, with the national TV cameras rolling to sing the national anthem prior to a Blazers-Mavs playoff game. Midway through, she froze, struggling to find the words. Cheeks to the rescue: he left the bench area, put his arm around her shoulders, and finished the song with her.

It was one of the classiest gestures sports has seen in a long time. "For 20 years, Marvin Gaye's version of 'The Star-Spangled Banner' has been, for my money, the most compelling rendition ever," wrote Michael Wilbon in the Washington Post. "But now, I've got a new favorite, the duet of Gilbert & Cheeks, impromptu, off-key, slapped together as it was. I get goose bumps every time I see the clip of Cheeks hugging Gilbert, telling her everything is going to be okay."

3. Bengals hire Marvin Lewis
Lewis, the Redskins' defensive coordinator in 2002, became one of three African-American head coaches in the NFL when he was hired by Bengals president/mismanager Mike Brown in mid-January. But that was just part of the story. The other part was transformation. "This is about hard work," said Lewis. "Places don't lose. People win and lose. I have a plan."

A few days after he being hired, Lewis spoke, with Brown in the room: "I have the ability to direct the program, OK? Any decisions being made are because of my direction. I have the ability to shape everything we do."

It turned out to be true, and what a turnaround for the Bengals, the perennial laughingstocks who were 2-14 in 2002. They're now 7-6, right in the middle of the playoff race.

3A. Lewis decided to stick with veteran Jon Kitna at QB after a 1-3 start, resisting the temptation to start first pick Carson Palmer. It's paid off, as Kitna is having an All-Pro year.

4. Lakers sign Gary Payton and Karl Malone
Gary Payton, Karl Malone
"Watchu talkin' bout Mailman?"
Basketball may be the one major sport where "team chemistry" really makes a difference, and let's face it -- the Lakers of last year and this summer were starting to look like one of those high school lab experiments that you just know is going to spew all kinds of nasty acid.

But by acquiring veteran All-Stars Gary Payton and Karl Malone, convincing the two greats to take a reduced paycheck for the chance to winning a ring, the Lakers altered the experiment. Even though much attention is focused on Kobe's trial and Kobe-Shaq, Lakers fans know they're being treated to what is probably the NBA's best starting five of all time. With or without Kobe, it won't surprise anyone if Payton and Malone help bring one or two more titles to Tinseltown before they hang it up.

5. Red Sox sign David Ortiz
Ortiz, a first baseman and DH who had a lifetime batting average of .266 in six years with the Twins, had suffered lots of injuries and never topped 130 games in a season. But new Red Sox GM Theo Epstein saw only upside in the free agent. Ortiz could be a solid bench player, but he would also compete with Jeremy Giambi for a lineup spot.

"We think, all the scouts think, he has a very high ceiling," Epstein told the Boston Globe after signing Ortiz last winter. "You're looking at a player with the potential to be a middle-of-the-lineup bat in the big leagues."

Epstein got Ortiz for just $1.25 million -- chump change. And Ortiz? He played 128 games and hit .288 with 31 HR and 101 RBI. He drew 58 walks, finishing with an .369 OBP. He led the hitter-heavy Red Sox in slugging percentage (.592), and had the fifth-highest OPS in the AL.

Ortiz became a cult hero in Boston, often came through in the clutch, and finished fifth in the MVP voting. Though he had a poor postseason, no doubt the Red Sox wouldn't have made it as far as they did without Ortiz.

6. Panthers pick up Stephen Davis
For the Redskins, it was a cap move -- they let go of Davis, the third-leading rusher in Redskins history, in February, saving $5.2 million. For the Panthers, it was a very smart deal -- they got Davis for a modest amount (a reported base value of $15.5 million for five years), thanks to a hometown discount, as Davis lives not far from Charlotte.

Without Davis, the Panthers wouldn't be leading the NFC South with an 8-5 record. In just 12 games, he's rushed for 1,339 yards -- 100+ yards seven times (150+ four times), and has already broken the franchise single-game rushing record (178 yards vs. the Saints in an OT win) and single-season rushing record.

When the Panthers gave him the ball against his former employers a few weeks ago, he got the sweetest revenge, scoring the winning TD with just 69 seconds left. Head coach John Fox knew Davis would be the centerpiece of the Panthers' running offense, and he turned out to be much more. "No matter how you look at it, Stephen Davis is a flat-out superstar," Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme told USA Today. "But he doesn't want to be one. He doesn't require that attention; he doesn't need it I'd say that's the healthiest thing about this football team, that our star doesn't act like a star."

7. Tom Watson donates prize money to charity
In January, Bruce Edwards, Watson's caddie since the early 1970s, was diagnosed with ALS --- Lou Gehrig's disease. Since then, Watson has dedicated himself to a variety of ALS charities, especially through the Driving 4 Life campaign. Watson's phenomenal 65 in the first round of the U.S. Open helped draw attention to Edwards, giving the stricken caddy and his friend plenty of air time, which translated into emotional and financial support.

After the round, Edwards was surrounded by the press. "Emotionally, I'm drained," he said. "This was something special because you never know if it's going to be my last one."

Watson ended the year by winning the 2003 Charles Schwab Cup, given to the best player on the Champions Tour. The Cup came with $1 million in prize money, which Watson gave entirely to charity. Watson also set up the Bruce Edwards Trust to help pay directly for his caddie's treatment.

8. Jerry Jones hires Bill Parcells
Bill Parcells
Parcells has the Cowboys thinking playoffs.
For three straight seasons, the Cowboys went 5-11, a huge comedown from their Super Bowl years of the 1990s. Give the Dallas owner credit for finally accepting the obvious -- that he needed to give up some power and control to a powerful head coach. Enter the unretired Parcells, who has turned the Cowboys around. Under the Tuna, the Boys are playoff contenders (8-5), second in the NFC East.

9. MLS signs Freddy Adu
DC United inked the 14-year-old phenom to a six-year deal in mid-November, winning out in a bidding war that involved world soccer powers Manchester United, Inter Milan, and Barcelona., among others.

Adu will reportedly be the highest-paid player in MLS, and for good reason -- he's sure to raise the league's visibility, draw lots of curious fans to pitches across the land, and give the world's best soccer leagues notice that the U.S. is taking the beautiful game seriously.

Even if Adu eventually leaves MLS for Europe, the league will benefit; it owns his rights, and would get tens of millions in return. And Adu? He's also got a good deal: he gets to live at home in Potomac, Md., while playing pro soccer against very good -- but not overwhelming -- talent.

10. Andy Roddick hires Brad Gilbert
After Roddick lost in the first round of the French Open, he bid farewell to his longtime coach, Tarik Benhabiles. Four days later he asked Gilbert, Andre Agassi's former mentor, to be his new coach.

Gilbert accepted and made an immediate difference. Roddick won 19 straight matches on the way to winning his first major title, the U.S. Open. Since hiring Gilbert, he's also won four other titles, going 47-8 in the process. And he ended the year ranked No. 1 in the world. Not a bad turnaround for the 21-year-old.

After winning the Open, Roddick said Gilbert's influence "was huge. We have a great camaraderie. We just click. He knows what to say to me, when to say it. He makes things simple for me, which helps a lot."

Also receiving votes:

  • Buccaneers release Keyshawn Johnson.

  • Nuggets sign Voshon Lenard, Andre Miller, Earl Boykins and draft Carmelo Anthony, moving into first place for the first time since Dec. 6, 1989.

  • Patriots sign Rodney Harrison and dump Lawyer Milloy.

  • Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne team up as free agents, agreeing with each other to sign at less than market value so they can play together with the Avalanche.

  • Marlins don't trade Mike Lowell.

  • Larry Bird, back with Indianapolis, moves Isiah Thomas out and Rick Carlisle in as head coach.

  • Tim Howard signs with Manchester United.

  • Sonics pick up Ronald Murray as throw-in in Gary Payton-Ray Allen trade.

    Thanks to ESPN studio production and ESPN Radio for their nominations.



    Jeff Merron Archive

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