Management Tips from an 80-Year-Old Badass
Not wearing a hearing aid is one of the many tricks Jack McKeon has learned during his six decades in baseball. “I used to be a very strong disciplinarian,” says McKeon, sitting in the Oakland Coliseum one recent afternoon as his players take batting practice. “Then I decided to back off a little bit. I don’t use the hearing aids because I don’t want to see a lot of things, and I don’t want to hear a lot of things.”
It may be too late for that. McKeon took over the last-place Florida Marlins on June 20, the day after then-manager Edwin Rodríguez quit. While Rodríguez wanted the Marlins to offer him a long-term contract, McKeon didn’t exactly need one. The 80-year-old’s appointment is almost without precedent in pro sports. In 2003 the Marlins hired a 72-year-old to take over a club filled with young, inexperienced players. That year, McKeon’s Marlins beat the New York Yankees in the World Series. Still, hiring a bona fide octogenarian is even harder to believe. The odds of McKeon winning the World Series this year (1 in 75, according to Vegas.com) are longer than the odds of him dying this year (1 in 15.5, according to Social Security’s actuarial tables).
While there are at least a dozen chief executive officers even older than McKeon—Hong Kong-based Run Run Shaw is, somewhat inexplicably, both a media mogul and 103 years old—none of them is running an outfit of men largely in their early 20s. Yet this management challenge doesn’t faze McKeon. “I got nine grandchildren, I’m in tune with what’s going on,” he says. “Maybe I’m not about to put my personal stuff on Facebook and all that crap, like the video stuff, whatever the hell they call it,” he explains, moving his thumbs as if he’s using a video-game console.
He doesn’t follow his players on Twitter, either. Marlins right fielder Logan Morrison recently posted, “McKeon asked me what I had going on tonite. Told him I was going home 2 play w/ Twitter. He replied ‘oh, what kind of dog is it?’ ” When I ask McKeon if he wants me to show him what his players are tweeting, he says: “No. I don’t care what they say. What do they say?” Then I show him Morrison’s tweets about his recent visit to Twitter headquarters, and McKeon makes a grumpy face. “I just want them to concentrate on baseball 100 percent once they enter that clubhouse. If he goes down to the minor leagues, he ain’t going to have any Twitter friends.”
Although affable, McKeon is known as a tough manager. During his first game this season, he benched his best player, shortstop Hanley Ramirez, for tardiness. He also pulled pitcher Randy Choate in the middle of a count. (“I’ve never had that happen before,” says Choate. “It worked.”) When he told his players they couldn’t hang out in the clubhouse during games, they knew he was serious; in 2003, McKeon locked the clubhouse doors and required players to hand him bathroom passes when they couldn’t hold it in any longer. He may be the only 80-year-old man who is willing and able to go three hours without peeing.
It’s taken McKeon decades to hone this management approach. “When you first start managing, you want the players to like you—so you let a lot of things slide,” he says. “You feel like these are veteran players and you need them on your side to help you.” However, McKeon eventually came to realize that “it doesn’t work that way. So when I come in, I try to establish me.” He’s learned that the best way to get personnel to buy into his detail-oriented program is by loosening them up—and playing to his own strengths. These days, one of McKeon’s signature bits is to call his players by the wrong name. When I ask him if this is really a bit, or if he actually has trouble telling Gaby Sanchez apart from Anibal Sanchez, he pauses and thinks. “They think, ‘He’s old. He forgot my name.’ So, s–t, I just go along with it.”
Shortly after batting practice, McKeon goes to the dugout, puts two pieces of Double Bubble in his mouth, throws the wrappers on the ground, and gathers reporters to answer the standard pregame questions. Long after the reporters have run out of questions, McKeon keeps talking, telling old stories about former Oakland Athletics owner Charlie Finley. After asking for a second time if reporters have any more questions, he barks, “All right, go to work. Go do something.” Then, in succession, he greets professional autograph seekers, an older scout from the other team, and a foreign beat reporter. McKeon and the reporter talk about a minor league player who died in a 1960s swimming accident. Says the Twittering outfielder Morrison: “My grandfather doesn’t have as much energy as Jack.”
It’s a particularly useful quality, since, unlike other octogenarian bosses, McKeon does his hardest work at night—when most people his age are sleeping, watching Antiques Roadshow reruns, or futzing with their Craftmatic Adjustable Beds. The previous night’s game against Oakland went way past the early-bird special, ending at 12:30 a.m. Regardless, as he does every day, McKeon woke the next morning at 7 and went to church. “A little-known secret is that the older you get, the less sleep you need. It’s the exact opposite of my teenage daughter, who could never manage the Marlins,” says David Samson, the team’s president and McKeon’s boss. “An octogenarian is the perfect person to manage the Marlins, because he never needs any sleep at all.” Samson has come to calling McKeon “Button” because, like Benjamin Button, he seems to be getting younger every day.
Samson also points out that, unlike most businesses, baseball hasn’t evolved all that much during McKeon’s career. “This a unique industry. The rules and the fundamentals have not changed since the 1800s. When we talk about ‘working the count’ or ‘hit and run,’ he speaks the same language as 21-year-olds,” Samson says. “He doesn’t need to be up on technology. He works with players on hitting and fielding. When it comes to analyzing statistics, in the old days they came in a handwritten book. Now it comes in a computer printout. It just looks different.”
McKeon is actually very good at reading charts. In addition to turning around a franchise—at press time the Marlins were an impressive 15-9 since he took over—he watches CNBC and actively trades stocks. Right now he’s hot on LabCorp, which he claims has made him about $150,000. “I don’t do all this p-e bulls–t,” he says. “It’s almost like scouting a player. Don’t even look at debt sometimes, and I end up smelling like a rose.” McKeon figures he’s learned enough about life in the last few years to write a follow-up to his 2005 book, I’m Just Getting Started: Baseball’s Best Storyteller on Old School Baseball, Defying the Odds, and Good Cigars. And he’s already planning to call it God Is My Bench Coach. Sitting on the bench, he takes a cigar out of his pocket, thinks twice, then puts it away without smoking it. “Don’t mention cigars. I’ll get in trouble with my wife,” he says. “I cut down.” He has to. After all, the man is a professional athlete.