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Flashback Friday: Jack McKeon named Marlins manager

This week, we take a look back at the Marlins’ hiring of Jack McKeon as interim manager of the eventual 2003 World Series champs.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

While the Marlins may be stumbling here during the 2019 season, know that this franchise has had more than its fair share of bleak moments. Remember 2003? Just 38 games into the campaign, with the Fish limping out of the gate at a disappointing 16-22, owner Jeffrey Loria and president of baseball operations Larry Beinfest had seen enough: they fired Jeff Torborg as manager. In an unpopular move (at the time), they brought 72-year-old Jack McKeon out of retirement to lead the Marlins instead.

This Saturday will mark the 16-year anniversary of the franchise making this iconic move. McKeon would join Bob Lemon (1978 Yankees) as the only managers to take over a major league team during the regular season and lead them to World Series glory.

McKeon came to South Florida with a lifetime of baseball experience already under his ball-cap. Although never playing in the majors as a player, the New Jersey native first was named manager at the age of 42 when he took over the Kansas City Royals. In Kansas City, McKeon oversaw the calling up of future Hall of Famer George Brett.

He also had managerial and front office stints with the Athletics, Padres and Reds. In 1999, McKeon won NL Manager of the Year, leading Cincinnati to the playoffs. As the general manager in San Diego, McKeon drafted Tony Gwynn, and also signed free agent Steve Garvey, and helped build the club that would win the 1984 National League pennant.

On another note, McKeon sent Ozzie Smith to the Cardinals before the shortstop realized his Hall of Fame potential, a move that he’d probably like to have back. Despite that, “Trader Jack” became a Hall of Famer in his own right, inducted into the Padres team HOF in 2017.

Jumping back to 2003, this move wasn’t necessarily warmly welcomed by Marlins fans or journalists. In fact, a South Florida columnist joked that, “These are not your grandfather’s Marlins. However, they are managed by your grandfather.”

What was humorous and ironic about the whole situation, is that the elderly McKeon—who had been out of baseball for three years—was now taking over a Marlins team that was especially inexperienced. You had a 20-year-old Miguel Cabrera, 21-year-old Dontrelle Willis, and at the time 22-year-old Josh Beckett. He did have veterans like Iván “Pudge” Rodríguez and Mike Lowell, however, and by the end of the 2003 season, McKeon would be relying on both the veterans and the youngsters to guide Florida through October.

Interestingly enough, the Marlins were in San Diego—McKeon’s old stomping grounds—when McKeon took over as manager. The reunion wasn’t so pretty, and neither was Jack’s first couple weeks on the job. Florida dropped seven of their first 10 under their new skipper, including six straight.

After taking a few bumps early on, McKeon and his ball club slowly but surely started to rack up wins and creep into playoff contention. A 17-7 July and an 18-8 September primed the Marlins for a late-season push, ultimately clinching the NL Wild Card. During that stretch, McKeon waved his dealing wand again, acquiring closer Ugueth Urbina from the Rangers, called up Cabrera from AA and traded for former Marlin Jeff Conine. These deals McKeon exemplified his quote to the New York Times in 1988:

“Why do I trade? I’m aggressive. I’m confident. I’m a gambler. I’m willing to make a trade and not be afraid I’ll get nailed.”

The Marlins posted the best winning percentage in the majors from May 21 on. That performance earned their leader NL Manager of the Year honors.

McKeon’s veteran managerial skills were on full display throughout the 2003 playoffs. From battling back from a 1-0 deficit to the Giants in the NLDS, to one-upping that by rallying against the Cubs despite falling behind 3-1.

His impact was never more evident than when his young Marlins went up against the Yankees in the World Series, a team appearing in their sixth World Series in eight years. After trailing in the series 2-1, Florida stormed back to take a 3-2 lead going back to the Bronx.

Now, McKeon had a decision that needed to be made. Does he pitch Beckett on three days’ rest? Or does he go with Mark Redmond, or perhaps Carl Pavano, and save Beckett for a possible Game 7? Redmond had been trounced in Game 2, though Pavano looked strong in Game 4. Even with all that, Beckett was still the Marlins ace, and McKeon put his full trust in the fiery right-hander, rather than worry about tomorrow.

The result? A five-hit complete-game shutout. The Marlins won 2-0 in historic Yankee Stadium, capturing the franchise’s second World Series trophy. At age 72, McKeon became the oldest manager ever to win a championship.

Trader Jack would go on to manage the Marlins for the 2004 and 2005 seasons before announcing that he would not return the following year. To this day, McKeon remains the winningest manager in Marlins history with 286 wins and a .538 winning percentage.