Extra Innings

The game of baseball isn't played against the clock, which is a good thing because Jack McKeon has lots of stories to tell

"They haven't reached where I want them to be yet," McKeon says of his players. "But at least I've got them on the right track. Now it's constantly trying to guide them to stay that way."

With McKeon, it's tough to tell where the awareness begins and ends, when he's kidding, when he's serious, how much is calculated, how much is him channeling Casey Stengel, how much is him calling up another old episode or another battle story, and how much is just him enjoying the hell out of whatever he's doing.

Jonathan Postal

Example: The day in early May when Barry University gave the clown sage an honorary law doctorate. So after the Marlins buzzed through the Colorado Rockies May 8, and the usual band of scribes jostled into McKeon's office, there was McKeon, wearing a long white medical coat, dismissing the nitpickers who pointed out that he was actually a doctor of law.

"I'm all kinds of doctors," he said. "Shit, too bad TV wasn't here tonight, huh? But that's okay. You guys can have a laugh."

He held court in the manner of a practiced manager, going through the usual motions, the "We're thankful we've got pitchers who throw plenty of strikes," and so forth. Sound bites, then a pause. And McKeon springs: "Yeah, you guys take two aspirins and get lots of fluids and get some rest," which comes out as high-grade gibberish, what with the huge cigar occupying the center of his mouth and the fact that he's chortling so much he can barely talk. "You guys are great, I love it. You've got to have a couple laughs, right?"

McKeon arrives a few minutes before the May 21 Sunday Mass at Saint Matthew Catholic Church in Hallandale, sits at the end of a middle pew next to Harry Dunlop, and listens as Father James Quinn delivers a liturgy on the Holy Trinity. "It is impossible for you and I to understand," Quinn says, which is reassuring in a way.

Outside, after the service, an usher takes a baseball from a plastic Publix sack and asks McKeon to sign it. "Guy gives me a ball, and it's a wet ball," McKeon grouses. "God almighty."

He takes a Bic lighter from his pocket and lights a half-cigar. He succeeds in pressing his name into the dingy leather with a pen. "Well," McKeon says, "we gotta go to work."

That afternoon, in a game against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, McKeon gets ejected for the first time in two years after critiquing an umpire's interpretation of the strike zone. He is sent back to the clubhouse in the fourth inning. In the sixth, seven Marlins score, earning the team its first three-game series sweep of the year. And if there's any question as to whether this man McKeon is blessed, consider he smoked and blasphemed at church, was tossed from the afternoon game, and still wound up extending a lead over the filthy-rich Atlanta Braves to a game and a half, solidifying his hold on first place, a position which, if the Marlins can so finish, would be one final unlikely first for their manager.

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