Major League Baseball

McKeon's chance to prove old is gold

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 July, 2011, 12:00am

Comedian Dennis Miller once commented on the presence of a septuagenarian in the White House controlling the nuclear fate of the free world. 'Ronald Reagan is 76 and he has access to the button,' he said. 'My grandfather's 76 and we don't let him use the remote control for the television.'

A little less than two weeks ago when the manager of the Florida Marlins suddenly resigned, the team named Jack McKeon as interim skipper for the rest of the baseball season. McKeon is 80 years old. Think about that for a second. If McKeon worked at the University of Hong Kong, he would be a full 20 years past the mandatory retirement age. Ironically, McKeon is the second octogenarian manager in the game's history. Connie Mack managed until he was 87, but he owned the team.

The good Lord willing, I will someday make it to 80 as well. But I am fairly certain I will not be managing a Major League Baseball team at that age so kudos to McKeon for scoring that gig. McKeon also took over the Marlins during the 2003 season and there was no shortage of criticism, much of it unkind, about the club hiring a 72-year-old. All McKeon did was lead the Marlins to a World Series championship over the New York Yankees. Despite the preponderance of young and obscenely wealthy players he was managing, old-school McKeon felt no need to change. The players would be held accountable, he maintained, and it worked to perfection. The question now is whether it will play in 2011, when players are even more wealthy and pampered. Even if he doesn't know much about 'the Facebook and the Twitter', McKeon says he will still manage like he always did.

But so much more is at stake with the hiring of McKeon than the outcome of the Marlins' 2011 season. For many of the game's old-boy network, McKeon's return is so important it should be called 'The Empire Strikes Back'. Baseball players, and baseball people, are perhaps the crudest of all professional sportsmen and that is truly saying something. Even the hot prospects have to ride buses in the minor leagues to places like Peoria, Savannah and Fort Wayne before they could ever dream of playing in Chicago or New York. Baseball lifers like McKeon, who has spent 60 years in the game, know this all too well. It's an old boy's club where stains on your teeth from chewing tobacco and smoking cigars are more of a badge than a health risk. But baseball grudgingly evolved over the past 10 years and now there is a preponderance of statistics and quantitative theories. Preppy geeks from schools like Harvard and Yale, many of whom never played the game and couldn't chew tobacco without choking, have become decision makers for a number of clubs. Conventional logic is constantly questioned.

McKeon, at 80, has become the face of old-school baseball while the face of the geeky new school is none other than Brad Pitt. Not really a fair fight, is it? Pitt will soon be lending his considerable celluloid sex appeal to a most unsexy role as the general manager of the Oakland Athletics in the upcoming movie MoneyBall. In the book, MoneyBall: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, Billy Beane's team were lacking in financial resources but were still forced to compete with big-money teams like the Yankees and Boston Red Sox. It's a system of gross inequity that still exists today and in 2002 it forced the resourceful Beane to look at the game in a new way while largely repudiating conventional wisdom from his scouts.

In one telling scene from the movie, a grizzled old scout is commenting on a prospect who has an ugly girlfriend 'and that shows no confidence', Beane upbraids the scout and tells him the team are looking for baseball players, not a look alike for Fabio. 'Who's Fabio?' the scout asks.

Beane and his bookish assistant, Harvard graduate Paul DePodesta, devise a system that puts a premium on things like on-base percentage as opposed to home runs and it allows them to find a number of bargain-basement players. Despite being ridiculed for trying to change the way things have been done for 150 years, the A's win their division. Soon enough a number of highly educated Beane disciples take over teams with mixed success. But in an era of fantasy sports empowering millions of fans as general managers, the stat geek executives become somewhat legendary.

As a general manger of the San Diego Padres in the 1980s, McKeon made so many deals he became known as Trader Jack. Times may change but one thing has not: baseball players are still commodities and baseball executives are merely commodity brokers. In baseball, new is always old. And for me at least, it's why the game is still great.