Jack McKeon: A Storied Career
Marlins manager Jack McKeon has taken some heat lately from a few "experts" for letting his pitchers throw complete games early in the season.
I've known Jack since 1988 and I can tell you one thing: He couldn't care less what the experts think as long as his team is winning. When you consider the basis of his baseball philosophy, you'll understand what makes McKeon so different than most of today's "feel good" managers in the age of "The Athlete Knows Best."
McKeon and I collaborated on his new book: I'm Just Getting Started this past year. We spent a lot of time together and the former catcher was able to detail how he became the manager he is today at the age of 74, the oldest manager to ever win a World Series.
One of his strongest beliefs is that a young pitcher must pitch extended innings to build up a strong arm. He does not like the way many of today's pitchers are "babied" by management. He believes in a different kind of Moneyball.
"Moneyball is basically computer stats," Jack says. "I think my style is more observation and going with your gut.
"I never learned my baseball out of a book. I learned it by doing it and watching the best in the game do it. I go all the way back to Branch Rickey."
Now that is going back, but McKeon is not just some oldtimer afraid to change his ways. He will change, if he feels it's for the better.
"Some of the stuff in Moneyball has some merit," McKeon says. "There's no question about it, but you can't just go by numbers. How far back do the numbers go? Has the player changed? It doesn't take into consideration the mental approach the player has that day.
"What if his kid's in the hospital, maybe he is not focused as he normally is because of that," McKeon notes. "Something like that changes the entire picture. You have to go with your gut as well as your stat sheet. When you see me sitting in the corner of the dugout, I'm using a computer all right, the computer in my head."
The image of McKeon sitting alone in that corner of the dugout has become a staple of Marlins' broadcasts. That isn't just Jack McKeon sitting there, that's 50 years of managerial experience sitting there. McKeon fell in love with some of the teaching tools that Rickey brought to the game.
"When he was trying to teach a guy to throw a curveball down low and just off the plate," McKeon says, "he would lay a $20 bill right there on the ground. He'd say, 'If you hit the $20 bill, you got it.'
"Now that's Moneyball. That got the pitchers focused. They were focused on what their job was to do -- hit that $20 bill," McKeon says. "They had to follow through and come down through their motion. It was a great incentive. It was not only a fun thing, it was a teaching tool. I've never forgotten that."
McKeon knows the same drill would work today with one minor change. "You'd have to use a $100 bill," he says.
There were other Branch Rickey pitching drills that McKeon loved. "Rickey was one of the first guys to put up strings for the strike zone as a teaching tool, which I copied and used to teach Jim Kaat when I had him in the minors," McKeon says in the book. "Rickey would get two poles and put strings across them and he would make it the size of the strike zone. He would have the guys hit the inside corner, the outside corner, up and down, all around the plate. It was a great way to teach location. Rickey didn't know it at the time, but he developed the first K Zone."
As for Kaat, McKeon, who has a story on everyone, has one for the lefty, who is now a broadcaster with the Yankees. The so-called experts might want to listen closely.
"Jim Kaat was the first player that I was around on an everyday basis who you could tell was going to be a star," McKeon explains. "When I met him he was just an 18-year-old kid in Missoula, Montana. He pitched 251 innings that season. It was only a 17-man roster and we only had seven pitchers on the team. That would never happen today, the way young pitchers are babied."
If a minor league manager allowed a young pitcher to throw 251 innings in this day and age, he'd be fired, but McKeon saw something in Kaat that was special. He saw how Kaat knew how to work a batter and change velocity on his off-speed pitches, something many of today's pitchers never grasp.
"Jim was one of the most fascinating young men that I've ever managed," McKeon says. "This guy had tremendous instincts, excellent knowledge of pitching, tremendous work habits and tremendous focus.
"You had to understand this young man," McKeon explains. "In today's game, if you used a radar gun you wouldn't sign him, but he had great knowledge of pitching. He could paint the black on the inside. He could paint the black on the outside. He changed speeds. For an 18-year-old kid he had tremendous knowledge of pitching.
"Here, I'm his catcher, I'm a player-manager, and I see that this guy can pitch in the big leagues. He knows how to pitch. He knows how to win."
McKeon also gave his young players an opportunity to work out of jams, something that would help them later on in their careers.
Recalls Kaat, "I remember Jack coming out to the mound and saying, 'Well you got into this mess, let's see how you're going to get out of it.'"
By taking that approach, Kaat says, he learned how to pitch out of trouble.
Because of all of Kaat's ability, McKeon knew the young man was going to be a star, something no one else in the organization knew.
"Charlie Dressen was just let go as manager at Washington, he came out along with Calvin Griffith and Joe Haynes,'' McKeon says of the late-season scouting trip of 1958. "Calvin was the president and Joe Haynes was the vice president and pitched a number of years in the big leagues and was considered a pitching guru in the organization. Now, a lot of clubs have gurus. Maybe someday I'll even become a guru. Anyway, the three of them come out to Missoula one night to see our team play.
"Kaat was pitching and he pitched a two-hit shutout and I think we won 2-0, and after the game we went out to have a bite to eat. I sat down with those guys and said to Joe Haynes: 'What did you think of Kaat?'
"He said, 'Not enough stuff to pitch in the big leagues.'
"I said, 'I tell you what, I'll make you a bet. I'll bet you a steak dinner that within two years he pitches in the big leagues.'
"When I believe in somebody," McKeon adds, "I put my faith in them."
McKeon has a lot of faith, considering he goes to Mass every day.
"That's what I did in Game 6 of the World Series with Josh Beckett," McKeon says. "I wasn't going to give that game away. I knew Josh could win it. And he did."
Joe Haynes took the bait and the bet.
A year later Kaat started the season at Chattanooga. "On July 1st he was leading the league in strikeouts and he was having a great year down there so they bring him to the big leagues," McKeon recalls. "He pitches his first game in Chicago on, I think, July the 3rd.
"I got on the phone to Joe Haynes and said, 'Hey, where's my steak?'"
Turns out that Kaat, the pitcher with "not enough stuff to pitch in the big leagues" pitched 25 years in the big leagues.
"I don't think I ever got that steak dinner but I was just happy that Kitty got to the big leagues and there he was 25 years later with 283 victories," McKeon says proudly, taking a victory puff of his ever-present (except for nine innings) Padron Cigar.
Not only did Kaat go on to win those 283 games, he completed 180 of of his 625 starts (or nearly 30%). Imagine that.
Kevin Kernan is a columnist with the New York Post. He has covered sports for 28 years and during that time has not once smoked a cigar. I'm Just Getting Started is published by Triumph Books.
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