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Tom Verducci
October 27, 2003
With a 72-year-old manage making his World Series debut and a time-tested style of play (but no curses, jinxes or hexes to speak of) the Marlins stood up to those perennials of the postseason, the Yankees, in the Fall Classic
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October 27, 2003

Old School

With a 72-year-old manage making his World Series debut and a time-tested style of play (but no curses, jinxes or hexes to speak of) the Marlins stood up to those perennials of the postseason, the Yankees, in the Fall Classic

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Like Sunday mass at St. Patrick's, the World Series was celebrated once again at Yankee Stadium, familiar and comforting inside the great horseshoe cathedral in the Bronx. Last Saturday night the 98th game there of the 99 World Series ever played came off, according to New York Yankees starting pitcher David Wells, "like a game in June, to be honest with you." New York's insouciant opponents, the Florida Marlins, made sure to put nothing in the collection basket of hype. "These kids don't see ghosts right now—they just go out there ballin'," Marlins infielder Lenny Harris said after Game 1, in which Florida became the first team in 47 postseason tries to walk into the Stadium and beat manager Joe Torre's team by one run. Or as cocksure pitcher and accidental Beat poet Josh Beckett had said from behind his scruffy beard earlier in the postseason, "We may just be stupid enough to win this thing."

The World Series seemed smaller too, in the long shadows of the two epic League Championship Series, in which the accursed Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox fell in the maximum number of games and with the maximum amount of pain. (Said comedian Robin Williams on Sunday behind the Yankee Stadium batting cage, "Not even Bible characters saw that. Even Nostradamus would have said, 'No, you can't do this twice. Come on, you've got to try something else. Sacrifice a chicken.' ")

Still, to find the meaning of this World Series, you needed only to know where to look. And on a clear October night that place was behind the reflection of the halo of Yankee Stadium are lamps upon the thick eyeglasses of Jack McKeon, as the Marlins' manager gazed up from near home plate while being introduced before Game 1. Tears welled in his eyes.

After spending 54 years in pro baseball, managing 3,896 games in the minors and majors, and being fired four times, McKeon had at last made it to the World Series. He is 72 years old, the oldest manager ever to get to the Series. How old is he? He was born before The Star-Spangled Banner was designated our national anthem.

Thank you, Lord, thought the man who in his office keeps a picture of St. Teresa of Avila, the 16th-century Carmelite nun who wrote The Way of Perfection. Thank you for giving me this great group of guys and this chance.

Recalling that moment the next day, puffing on his trademark cigar in the tiny, dungeonlike storage room under Yankee Stadium that has become his enclave, McKeon said, "That's when it sank in, that a lifelong dream is a reality. The Lord looked down on me and said, 'He's worked hard. Let's give the old man one more chance.' "

As usual, a twinkle in his eye was visible through the smoke. In May, McKeon left retirement and his grandkids in North Carolina, putting on a plaid sport coat, plaid shirt and polka-dot tie to interview for the Marlins' manager's job. Then he turned around a 16-22 team that was a 150-to-1 shot to win the World Series. Not bad for a guy who's older than the ground-rule double.

Billiards has hustlers, golf has sand-baggers and baseball has the Marlins. They may have a payroll that's less than one third of the Yankees', they may have attracted fewer fans than every team but the Expos and the Devil Rays ("Buffet Night they get a lot of fans," said Williams), but the Marlins did fashion the best record in baseball after May 23. They did so with a well-aged style of baseball.

"We haven't played a team quite like them all year," Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina said on Sunday after New York won Game 2,6-1, behind Andy Pettitte, the first lefthanded starter to beat Florida since Aug. 11. "They're a throwback National League team."

With table setters Juan Pierre and Luis Castillo at the top of the order, the Marlins are a free-swinging athletic team that relies on making contact, bunting, stealing bases and defense—the antithesis of the best-selling doctrine of youngblood general managers such as the Oakland A's Billy Beane and Boston's Theo Epstein. Under a manager who's older than air-conditioned trains, Florida is trying to become the first team since the '65 Dodgers to win the World Series after leading the majors in stolen bases.

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