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Tuesday, June 21, 2011
Jack McKeon's message

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

How long has that cigar-store legend, Jack McKeon, been managing in the big leagues? Here's how long:

The first time he managed a major league game -- way back on April 6, 1973 -- five future big league managers (Lou Piniella, Bobby Valentine, Frank Robinson, Hal McRae and Cookie Rojas) played in it.

The youngest player in McKeon's lineup that day (John Mayberry) is now 62 years old.

His fellow managers back then included Walter Alston, Ralph Houk, Gene Mauch and Leo Durocher.

And not a single player on the roster of the Marlins team McKeon managed Monday night had made his debut yet -- on Planet Earth.

So nobody quite like Jack McKeon has set foot in a manager's office in this millennium. That we know. What we don't know -- what nobody knows -- is whether he's the cure for the historic collapse of the Florida Marlins.

Just 22 days ago, the Marlins rolled into June at nine games over .500 (31-22). They had a better record than the Red Sox, the Braves, the Brewers or the Yankees. Three weeks later, the Fish are nine games under .500 (32-41). Their manager (Edwin Rodriguez) quit and went home. And they've done something no team in the history of baseball had ever done:

In their past 20 games, they've gone 1-19. And, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, no team had ever gone through a 20-game stretch that bad after being nine games or more over .500 when the streak began.

Youch.

Jack McKeon
Are the youthful Marlins ready for Jack McKeon's old-school approach to managing?

So what's an 80-year-old guy doing walking into a mess like this? The answer is simple:

• The Marlins needed somebody with no aspirations to do this job long term. And even though McKeon quipped Monday that he would like to manage 'til he's 95, he wasn't exactly pressing for a 10-year contract.

• They also needed somebody who could move into the job immediately. And nobody on their list had a more wide-open schedule than McKeon.

• And McKeon fit in every other way: He was already on the payroll. He knew what he was getting himself into. He'd been around these players in spring training. And he had won a World Series, as the manager of this very franchise.

Oh. And one more thing, said an NL executive who has been a longtime friend of McKeon: "He's a guy who could deliver some messages that need to be delivered and not have to worry about, 'Do I have the backing of the front office?' -- because he doesn't give a crap."

So, it shouldn't shock anybody who has watched McKeon in action that, within an hour of his introductory news conference, he posted the first lineup card of his latest managerial administration -- and Hanley Ramirez's name wasn't on it.

On McKeon's watch, guys who don't think it's mandatory to be on time or run hard to first base are going to get an education on how to play and how to act in the big leagues. And that includes superstar talents with a lot of growing up to do.

Between the quips and the hugs and the clouds of cigar smoke, this is the way McKeon has always done it. In fact, it reminded one former member of McKeon's 2003 Marlins of an equally eye-opening managerial moment in the life of that 2003 team.

"I still remember him pulling Brad Penny out of a game in '03 because he didn't like the way Brad was pitching," said Penny's catcher that day, Mike Redmond. "It was one out before he was going to qualify for a win, and Jack went out and yanked him. I'll never forget it. … You see something like that happen, it wakes you up, man. I remember walking into the dugout after that inning and saying, 'Do you believe that?' He wasn't afraid to send a tough message -- and everyone got it."

But what Penny, Redmond and all those 2003 Marlins learned about McKeon was that the manager could play the tough guy, send those messages and still spread enough love to keep his players on board.

"He was also a guy who could put his arm around you and be confident, be positive," Redmond told Rumblings. "He'd say, 'Don't worry, kid. You're my man.' He'd do that with Luis Castillo, and he didn't even know his name. He called him 'Juan,' and he called Juan Pierre 'Louie.' He never got their names straight. Luis would be hitting, and he'd be yelling, 'C'mon, Juan. Get a hit.' And Juan would be hitting, and he'd yell, 'C'mon, Louie. Get a hit.' But it didn't matter. We all laughed about it. It was a running joke. He called everybody by the wrong name."

So naturally, when McKeon showed up for work for his latest gig this week, he called Mike Stanton "Wally" and called team president David Samson "George." And nobody viewed it as a sign that, at 80, the new manager had lost his fastball. It's just part of the inimitable Jack McKeon nightclub act. And at this point, if he can inspire this team to laugh about anything, in the middle of a 1-19 cliff dive, that can only be a good thing.

We wouldn't advise betting the winter home in Boca that McKeon can do for this team what he did for that '03 outfit, which went from 10 games under .500 to winning a World Series in Yankee Stadium. That team eight years ago was closer both to first place (9 games out rather than 12½) and to the wild-card leader (7 games out instead of 7½) when McKeon took over than this team was. And that team, other than its starting rotation, was older -- with no everyday players younger than 25 -- than this group.

But it was fascinating to hear so many people in baseball predict this week that, even at age 80, McKeon was a great choice for this job. (One typical reaction, from a veteran scout: "I love Jack. I think he pushes that team back in the right direction. They're a lot better than the way they've been playing.")

Even if he can't wave his magic wand and inspire the Marlins to charge back into the race, though, McKeon will still be presiding over as important a 90-game stretch as this franchise has ever played.

In the rest of this season, this team has to build enough momentum to make the South Beach crowd care about the opening of a spectacular new ballpark in April 2012. The only thing riding on it is the future of the franchise.

Jack McKeon won't be the manager when that park opens. He knows it. We know it. In the Marlins' perfect world, he'll be replaced by a much bigger name with a charismatic presence. Ozzie Guillen would be their dream hire. Larry Bowa wouldn't be out of the question. And you can't ever rule out Bobby Valentine as long as owner Jeffrey Loria has a vote.

But until then, this will be Jack McKeon's team and Jack McKeon's show. And, even at 80 years old, we guarantee he'll have the attention of every 20-something in his clubhouse.

"Young guys have to respect him," said Redmond, now managing himself, for Lansing of the Midwest League. "Look at his track record. Look at what he's done in baseball. He's dedicated his whole life to baseball. And he won the World Series. That's all you've got to say. If you don't respect him, you'd better look in the mirror, because that's a reflection of you, not him."

Ready to Rumble

• We now know that Albert Pujols will be back this year. But even after a decade of being The Best Player Alive, don't minimize how much his free-agent earning power could be riding on how he swings the bat in August and September coming off a wrist injury.

"For a power hitter, that has to factor in," one NL executive told Rumblings. "Before I went out there and gave him a crazy contract this winter, I don't know if I could do that without seeing him out there on the field, re-establishing he was healthy. And if he didn't [prove he was healthy], I don't know how you'd do it. It would be well above the general manager's call, I know that."

• Are the Rays likely to trade B.J. Upton this summer? That would be no, according to clubs that have spoken with them. But the Nationals have sent in multiple scouts to watch Upton all season just in case. And although Washington isn't the only team interested, the one thing it would appear to have going for it on the surface is its surplus of catchers -- a position Tampa Bay has ranked as one of its biggest long-term needs.

But here's where that scenario breaks down: The Rays wouldn't even think about building a deal around the two catchers Washington is dangling: Pudge Rodriguez and Jesus Flores. And the Nationals have made their catcher of the present and future, Wilson Ramos, all but untouchable.

So if there's a deal there to be made, it would have to include much bigger, more compelling names than the ones that have surfaced so far. But the Nationals (and others) are clearly interested. So stay tuned.

Reyes
Reyes

Scott Boras
Boras

• Scott Boras' latest attempt to free-agent-nap another marquee player -- in this case, as first reported by Fox's Ken Rosenthal, Mets dynamo Jose Reyes -- was nothing new, other agents say.

"Scott Boras has done this with every free agent, every year," one agent said.

And is that standard practice? Is it something all agents do routinely, we asked?

"Nope," he replied. "We've never done that. A lot of agents do it, actually. But it's safe to say Scott's the biggest culprit."

We should point out that Reyes announced this weekend that he still is, and will continue to be, represented by Peter Greenberg. And it's admirable that Reyes was able to maintain that loyalty to his longtime agent in the wake of Boras' efforts. The question is why baseball allows this sort of thing.

Now, technically, there is nothing illegal about it, as long as Boras reports all contact with other agents' clients to the players' association, as required by the new agent rules. But it serves as more evidence that it isn't just happenstance when high-profile free agents (such as Rafael Soriano and Jayson Werth this past winter) abruptly switch to Boras on the verge of their free agency. True, it's only business -- but that doesn't mean it's a particularly pretty part of the business.

• You know what else is more than happenstance? The sudden increase in reports of the deteriorating condition of Wrigley Field. Publicly, Cubs management continues to profess its love and reverence for Wrigley. But privately, the same group is making sure people in baseball are well aware that it would take a massive infusion of dollars to keep Wrigley functional for much longer -- and even that might not be enough.

Wrigley Field
Although Wrigley Field is a beloved ballpark, it might not be usable for more than a few more years because of its deteriorating condition.

"Honestly, I don't know if that place can survive for five years," said one of those baseball people. "The infrastructure is in brutal shape."

Asked whether Wrigley was even a candidate for a Fenway-style renovation, the same source replied: "To be honest? I'd have to say no way."

But you won't see anyone in baseball publicly suggesting the Cubs move out of their own little national historic monument. Wrigley is too beloved to mess with -- in any way other than allowing the word to get around that, beneath the ivy and the bleachers, it's no longer the perfect, idyllic ballpark it appears to be. So if you think you've heard the last of this, guess again.

• An update on the ongoing realignment discussions: A source familiar with baseball's schedule making says that if realignment happens, it's "unlikely" to happen by next year. The 2012 schedule needs to be finalized in a little more than two months (by Sept. 1). And there's very little chance that the new labor agreement, or even a separate deal just on realignment, could be completed that quickly.

• One more note on this topic: In the end, you know what's going to determine the fate of realignment more than any other factor? The decision on how -- or even whether -- to expand the postseason.

If there's no expansion of the playoffs, there's next to no chance of realignment. And even if baseball adds a wild-card team in each league and goes to a best-of-three wild-card round, realignment is probably less likely. But if that wild-card round consists of a one-game win-or-else playoff, then realignment, here we come.

What's the explanation for that? It goes like this: Suppose the Cardinals finish second by a game to Milwaukee in the NL Central. They wouldn't be real happy about having their whole season come down to a one-game playoff with the other wild-card team -- say, the Giants. But if baseball's response was, "You had all season to avoid that by winning your division," MLB can make that argument convincingly only if every team in the NL Central plays the same schedule. And that can happen only if there's realignment.

In short, if Bud Selig wants that one-game wild-card showdown, realignment is the complementary piece that almost certainly would have to go along with it.

Mets

• Scouts covering the Mets' system say the team would be making a serious long-term mistake if it didn't replenish its barren prospect pool with a major deal or three before the July trading deadline.

Asked how many legitimate prospects the Mets have in Double-A and Triple-A, with Jenrry Mejia hurt and Ruben Tejada, Lucas Duda and Dillon Gee currently in the big leagues, one scout replied: "I've got to stretch real hard to find more than an up-and-down type [utility] guy."

What about Fernando Martinez, you ask? "He ran a [painfully slow] 5.3 and a 5.4 to first base," the scout said. "And then he pulled up lame the one time he ran hard. Not good."

• How much irony is there to this? Back in spring 2009, Frank McCourt thought he was pulling a coup when he got Manny Ramirez to sign a heavily deferred two-year deal in which $25 million of the $45 million Manny was making was going to be deferred with no interest. And it was McCourt himself who insisted on all those deferred dollars, for now-obvious reasons. Oops. What went around has come around, and it could be that money -- specifically, the $8.33 million the Dodgers owe Manny by the end of this month -- that causes McCourt to fail to make payroll and lose control of the Dodgers. Moral of the story (once again): Careful what you wish for!

Los Angeles Dodgers

• Meanwhile, even though they're seven games out in the NL West, eight out in the wild-card race and eight games under .500, the Dodgers are telling teams they're weeks from deciding whether they'll be sellers at the deadline.

And the other message they're sending is this: If they do sell, it won't be because of money issues. In fact, the speculation by some clubs is that, if MLB does take control of the team, it could take a similar approach to the one it adopted while funding the Rangers' operations last summer. Texas, you'll remember, was allowed to make seven trades in midseason while the team was in limbo between owners.

"Whoever winds up in charge of that team," one NL executive said, "they can't run the team the way it's been run under this owner. The one thing they have to do is make sure things look a lot different than they look now. Don't you think?" Uhhhh, yep.

Carrasco
Carrasco

• Anyone feel like ranking the Best Players Traded for Cliff Lee in the past two years? Well, we do. And clearly, Justin Smoak (the centerpiece of last year's Seattle-Texas swap) would rank first. But Carlos Carrasco, who seemed like just another name on the list when Lee went from Cleveland to Philadelphia in 2009, has whooshed by the rest of the field to become the clear-cut No. 2. Carrasco is 6-1 with a 2.80 ERA over his past seven starts for the Indians, and he's an especially dazzling 3-0, 0.42 over his past three.

"The thing I'm seeing that's different about him," one scout said, "is, he used to look very insecure trying to pitch with good stuff. He didn't have much feel for what he was trying to accomplish. Now, he's got a much better look. He's more confident. And he's got much better mound presence. He's really progressed."

• Finally, when we talk about the lack of fairness in the interleague schedules, there's a subtle subplot among National League teams that people don't focus on much: Not every team plays the same number of interleague games.

Four NL clubs -- the Mets, Marlins, Reds and Diamondbacks -- will play 18 interleague games apiece this year. Everyone else plays 15 each, which means they all play one extra series against an NL team outside their division. And there's no clear rhyme or reason to those assignments, either. So, here are the toughest "substitute" interleague matchups for clubs with winning records, ranked by the opponent's current record:

Cardinals: Philadelphia (home)
Phillies: at St. Louis
Rockies: at Milwaukee

Brewers: Colorado (home)
Giants: Cubs (home)
Braves: at San Diego

(Other matchups: Astros at Los Angeles, Pirates at Washington)

So, if the Giants beat the Rockies in the West by one game -- and the difference is that one team had to play the Brewers on the road while the other played the Cubs at home -- that's just as compelling an argument for realignment as the interleague schedule. Right?

Five Astounding Facts (Tuesday Edition)

1) Even if the Marlins turn it around and make the playoffs this year, Jack McKeon won't become the answer to this question: "Who's the oldest manager in history to manage a postseason game?" Why? Because he's already the answer. He was 72 when he accomplished that in 2003. The only other man to manage a postseason game after turning 70 was Casey Stengel, in the 1960 World Series.

2) One record McKeon can't set this year: oldest man to manage a team to a winning season. Connie Mack led the A's to winning records at ages 85 and 86. And for all of McKeon's magical powers, one thing he can't figure out how to do is age six years in four months.

3) Your box score line of the weekend belongs to Royals rookie Danny Duffy, who spun this classic Sunday in St. Louis: 3⅔ IP, 6 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 1 BB, 9 K. So how often do you see any pitcher pile up nine strikeouts in an outing in which he gets only two other outs (or fewer)? It has happened just two other times in the live ball era, according to baseball-reference.com's fabulous Play Index. The other pitchers to do it: David Cone on April 25, 1990, and Jim Beattie on Aug. 9, 1982.

4) Usually, a player getting four hits in a game is a good thing. But it didn't work out so hot for the Orioles on Friday in Washington. As ESPN Stats & Info kernel collector Doug Kern reports, three Orioles had four-hit games that night -- and none drove in a run. First time that's happened in the live ball era. And two of those guys -- Nick Markakis and Adam Jones -- got four hits but didn't score or drive in a run. The only other tag team to pull that off in the live ball era: Rod Carew and Fred Lynn, for the Angels, on April 13, 1984.

Clayton Kershaw
Kershaw

5) And how did Clayton Kershaw finish off his shutout of the Tigers on Monday? By striking out the side in the ninth. That's how. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, he was the first Dodgers pitcher to complete a shutout with three straight whiffs since another left-hander whose name, fittingly, also started with a "K" -- Sandy Koufax -- punched out the side to finish off his perfect game against the Cubs on Sept. 9, 1965. Here's a little bet we would make: Kershaw will wind up with more career wins than Koufax someday.

Tweets of the Week

The Jack McKeon tweets were flying this week. Here come a few of the most hilarious ones we ran across.

• From "Late Show" tweeting genius Eric Stangel (@EricStangel):

Jack McKeon says he's ready to go as Marlins Manager. First task: Get his team ready for those pesky Boston Beaneaters!

• From one of Stangel's loyal Twitter followers, @robbwilder:

@EricStangel no more night games for the marlins… He has to be back at the home by 7:00pm for sherbert…

• And from ESPN's own Keith Law (@keithlaw):

Apparently the Marlins believe Jack McKeon holds the keys to contention. Too bad he can't remember where he left them…

Headliner of the Week

Finally, this just in from our favorite goofballs at the Chicago sports parody magazine/website, The Heckler:

GLACIER SENT IN TO PINCH-RUN FOR KONERKO

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in a new paperback edition, in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Follow Jayson Stark on Twitter: @jaysonst