He has more wrinkles than most big league managers, is a little more hunched over, walks with a shuffle and, like many 80-year-olds, he’s a little hard of hearing.
When it comes to wit, though, Jack McKeon is still as quick and sharp as a top comic.
McKeon was introduced Monday as interim manager of the reeling Florida Marlins, making him the second-oldest man to manage in the major leagues since Connie Mack, then 87, closed his career with the Philadelphia Athletics in 1950.
This is not the cigar-chomping, blunt-speaking McKeon’s first rodeo. His last three managerial jobs began midseason, and in May 2003 he took over a 16-22 Marlins team and led it to a stunning World Series victory over the New York Yankees.
“Age was not a factor in this decision,” Florida President David Samson said in a Sun Life Stadium news conference before Monday night’s game against the Angels. “His work ethic is five times better than half the 40-year-olds I know. And he’s sharper now.
“When I first met him, he literally didn’t know anyone’s name, including Jeffrey [Loria, Marlins owner]. I found him to be strangely not sharp at 72. It was worrisome, almost. At 80, he’s frankly sharper than half the people we have working for us.”
McKeon, without missing a beat, turned to Samson and said: “Thanks, George.”
The whole room erupted in laughter, which is what McKeon would like to hear more of in the tightly wound clubhouse he inherited from Edwin Rodriguez, who resigned Sunday as manager of a team that had lost 20 of 22 games to fall from 30-20 and second in the National League East on May 28 to last place, 121/2 games behind Philadelphia.
“We need to have some fun,” said McKeon, who has observed the Marlins as part of his duties as a special advisor to the owner. “This team is pressing a bit.”
Fun, McKeon said, starts with playing the game hard and playing it right, which is why his message during a brief meeting before batting practice Monday was essentially the same one he delivered to his 2003 Marlins team.
“The first thing I did was tell them to leave their egos at the door,” said McKeon, who was watching his granddaughter’s softball game Sunday when the Marlins called. “Start changing your work ethic. Be more dedicated to being the best at your profession.
“It worked. We were [six] games under .500 when I took over in 2003, and we played together. That was one of the most unselfish clubs I’ve ever managed. I hope to get this club playing the same way, doing the little things right.”
Underscoring his message, McKeon benched All-Star shortstop Hanley Ramirez for being late to a team meeting Monday and started Emilio Bonifacio in his place.
McKeon guided the 1988 Padres, 1997 Reds and 2003 Marlins to a combined winning percentage of .579 after taking over those teams during the season.
It’s easy to understand why the Marlins wanted McKeon, who earned the nickname “Trader Jack” from his wheeling-and-dealing days as the San Diego general manager from 1981-90.
But why would McKeon, who retired after 2005 with a 1,011-940 career record, return to the demands and the everyday grind of the big leagues?
“When I came back the last time, my family and kids were against it, but now they see me around the house watching television, watching ballgames, 12 to 15 hours a day, so they’re probably for it,” McKeon quipped. “And this organization has been so good, so loyal to me over the years, I couldn’t turn them down.”
Told that some might consider it “crazy” to hire an 80-year-old manager, McKeon said, “They probably say the same thing about [Penn State football Coach] Joe Paterno, and he’s going on 85. Why should experience get penalized?
“Eighty doesn’t mean a thing. My birth certificate says that, but I don’t feel it. People said in 2003 that I was too old, and now I’m still too old. Age is just a number.”
Brandon Hyde, the Marlins’ 37-year-old bench coach, was born in 1973, the same year McKeon began his first season as a manager, with the Kansas City Royals.
At that time, Walter Alston and Leo Durocher were still managing. The left fielder in the first lineup card McKeon filled out? Lou Piniella, who is now 67, and who retired in 2010 after 24 seasons as a manager.
McKeon is almost four times as old as Mike Stanton, Florida’s 21-year-old right fielder. Won’t a manager who is an octogenarian have problems relating to players in their 20s and early 30s?
“You know, I don’t think that’s an issue,” McKeon said. “I have kids and grandkids, and I’ve managed those types of players for years. Maybe I’m not hip with the Twitter or the Facebook, but outside of that I don’t have any problems disciplining my kids or any of these players.”
The Marlins, it seems, could use McKeon’s old-school, no-nonsense style.
“We have a lot of guys on this team who don’t hustle, who don’t play hard,” Florida outfielder Logan Morrison said. “Maybe Jack can kick them in the [butt].”
McKeon’s goal isn’t just to right this ship; he wants to sail it into the playoffs.
“If we play the game right, I’m confident there’s enough talent in that room to play in October,” McKeon said. “I’m going to do it my way, and if you don’t like it, too bad, because frankly, I don’t need this job.
“But I love doing it, and I decided to come back here and give it my best shot to get this team back to respectability. That’s what I aim to do.”