10/26/2003 12:46 AM ET
McKeon's message gets through
Marlins manager brought fun to the forefront
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By Mychael Urban / MLB.com
NEW YORK -- It's a little on the trite side, and Jeff Conine admitted as much.
But with celebrating teammates whooping it up all around him after Josh Beckett's gem gave the Marlins the World Series on Saturday night, it was all he had to give.
He was asked about manager Jack McKeon, and the question brought a few more watts into his championship grin.
"It's a cliché," Conine said, almost apologetically, "but the thing about Jack is that he talks the talk, and he walks the walk."
And the talk centered around one very simple message. It was delivered shortly after he replaced Jeff Torborg in early May.
"My first speech with them, I told them, 'Let's have fun,'" McKeon, 72, said after becoming the oldest manager/coach in any of the four major sports to win a title. "I said, 'Do the best you can, relax and have fun."
"That's pretty much it," insisted leadoff man Juan Pierre, whose silly jig with pitcher Dontrelle Willis on a makeshift podium in the clubhouse showed the message was still being received. "He said, 'Look, this is a fun game, and you guys don't look like you're having any fun. So here's what I want you to do, and that's go out and play this game like you did when you were little kids.
"That was it, man. He just let us go and do our thing."
Beckett, the World Series MVP, echoed as much. But he shot a couple holes in the building perception that McKeon was twisting balloon animals and passing out Kandy Korn all season.
"He's a fun guy to play for," Beckett said. "But he's got some strange ways to motivate you sometimes. When I was pitching like [expletive], he wouldn't say a word to me. You know, try to get under your skin a little bit.
"But he's awesome to play for. He really is."
Beckett and Pierre are part of the nucleus of young players who responded to McKeon's methods and helped turn the Marlins around, but even the veterans appreciated the leeway and levity the manager lent.
"He's the kind of guy you want to play for," said free-agent-to-be Pudge Rodriguez, who suggested McKeon would be a factor in his decision should he return. "He lets you enjoy yourself, but he's tough when he needs to be. You need a good balance from your manager, and Jack had balance."
Conine was on the Marlins' first championship team in 1997, but was dealt after that season and didn't return until this season, in an Aug. 31 trade with the Orioles. One of the first things he noticed was how sold the team was on its skipper.
"You know right away if a team is behind [the manager] or not," Conine said. "And there was no question that these guys were behind Jack. I knew right away that he had every guy in that clubhouse ready to do whatever he said to do."
And truth be told, McKeon didn't just tell the team to get that Little League vibe back. He said he saw a tremendously talented team that just needed a tweak or two. So he told them that, too.
"I didn't feel like I needed to change everything," McKeon said. "I just needed the guys to believe that they can have fun coming to the ballpark and go out there and play relaxed baseball. Just focus a little better and work a little harder. That was about the essence of my meeting.
"Pretty soon, they started to do all those things and started winning."
And winning and winning and winning. They were underdogs to the Giants in the National League Division Series and won in four games. They were underdogs to the Cubs in the NL Championship Series and won in seven after being down three games-to-one. They were underdogs to the Yankees in the Fall Classic and won the clincher at Yankee Stadium.
"He never changed the whole way, as far as I could see," Conine said of McKeon's demeanor during the postseason. "He just stuck to his guns, threw it all out there and let us play."
Willis, who was converted from sensational starter to situational reliever for the World Series, said McKeon's treatment of him throughout the season made the postseason juggling act easier to take.
"Look at what I'm doing right now," Willis said as he poured champagne over Pierre's head. "Jack's a big part of why I'm doing it."
Pierre, wiping his eyes, said it was all about walking the talk.
"People call him Dad or Grampa or whatever," Pierre offered. "Call him what you want, but call him a great guy to play for. Call him a guy who treats his guys like men. And call him this all night: World champion, baby.
"He might be old, but he's a champion of the world, and I love him."
Mychael Urban is a
national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to approval by Major
League Baseball or its clubs.