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A couple of hours before they are to play the Colorado Rockies on a mild Thursday evening at Dolphins Stadium, Florida Marlins outfielder Juan Pierre stretches his hammy beside catcher Matt Treanor, himself mere minutes removed from watching TV in the clubhouse while pensively raking his goatee with a fork. First baseman Carlos Delgado rolls on the ground behind the batting practice backstop, stretching his legs with an elastic band and laughing with 24-year-old wunderkind Miguel Cabrera. A few feet away, in the shadow of the dugout, sits manager Jack McKeon. Smoke trickles out of both the wet and burning ends of his Padron cigar. He wears rimless glasses, a hearing aid, and a Marlins uniform held together at the waist with a thick black belt fastened on the innermost hole.
When it is suggested to the Marlins skipper that his players themselves might manage someday, his response is swift: "They'll never have the fun that I had."
It's unclear who in baseball is having more fun than McKeon these days, let alone during the rest of his long career, which has, no kidding, spanned seven decades. After he signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates organization in 1948, McKeon slogged his way playing and managing in baseball backwaters such as Missoula, Fayetteville, and Omaha. Then in 1973, he got the call to take the helm of the Kansas City Royals, making him one of the few to manage in the majors without having played in them. If his heart is in the big leagues, his soul remains in the minors, because he believes that is where a manager can teach, and that is whence the best stories come, not that it matters much as long as it's baseball. McKeon could make a Little League team's Kool-Aid break sound like Exodus in the retelling.
"You really got to teach in the minor leagues," he says. "And you got to really feel good about maybe helping someone accelerate ... to get to the major leagues."
With this, he is off. He tells of the time he bet a steak dinner that a minor-leaguer would make the bigs in two years, only to see the kid ascend in six months; he boasts of drafting future hall-of-famer Tony Gwynn with the San Diego Padres; and he roars about the minor-league player who hid the prosthetic leg of a roommate on the road. All the while, he taps a listener on the leg to punctuate what he considers the very best parts.
"People don't understand some of the funny things that happened," he says of the minors. "Like the gal calling me up, wants to know where her boyfriend was that gave her the ring. Said he came over with the ring that night, but he wanted to take it back and get it sized. Next day, he gave it to her girlfriend. And she wanted to know where I could get ahold of the S.O.B. I didn't know -- this is the wintertime. And she paidfor the ring. Oh no."
He pauses only a moment: "Got a call, one guy wants to jump off a fuckin' bridge because his girl dissed him, and I'm out all night looking for this guy."
Still he's hurtling along: "Then the time one of my players one night had a bed check, went to find him, his car was gone, so I went out to Pattee Canyon in Missoula, like Lover's Lane. Spotted this guy's car. And we parked away from him. I wanted to go see who was in the car. Well, I was walking up along the weeds, in the bushes. And I was with another guy, and the bushes were rustling. I say to him, 'Would you quit making so damn much noise?' And proceed another 25 feet, and the bushes are at it again. 'I ain't doing anything,' the guy says. Just about that time, a big black bear comes up. Ho-leee shit. If they'd have had a record for how fast you could run, you bet your ass I'da broke it."
To illustrate the precise flavor of terror he felt that night, McKeon gathers his full five-foot-eight-or-so inches and 200-odd pounds, stands on the floor of the dugout, and raises his hands above his head, arching his fingers in the universal pose of a monster. That, less than an hour before game time, is Jack McKeon, who at 74 years old is imitating a bear that by any reasonable estimate probably died 40 years ago in the hills of Montana but could have, were it not for the skip's record speed, meant his premature demise. Instead, McKeon has survived long enough to prove himself impervious to toil, firings, cigars, Yankees, retirement, carnivorous mammals, what have you, and most important, can relive every daft second of it any time he pleases.
More than any other unscripted cultural phenomenon, baseball has produced quotesmiths. Yogi Berra said that if you come to a fork in the road, take it. After Casey Stengel managed the Yankees to victory in the 1958 World Series, he said he couldn't have done it without his players. Author Bruce Catton wrote that baseball is the greatest conversation piece America has ever produced, and in so doing, unnecessarily confined his statement to a single nation.