It’s spring and baseball is back. Hallelujah and jubilee! The Grand Old Game has helped sustain me from my earliest days, when my father instructed me in its many pleasures. My chief baseball lament is that my love of the game always exceeded my talent for it. As a consequence I had to get a real job. (OK, many don’t consider journalism a real job, but let it pass.)
My passion for the game led to my first major misdemeanor at school. It was March of 1953 and I was in the fifth grade in Tampa. From the Tampa Tribune sports pages that fateful day I learned that the Philadelphia Athletics were playing a spring game against the Cincinnati Reds at Plant Field, less than a mile from my school. And a lefty named Bobby Shantz was starting for the A’s. I had two reasons for wanting to watch Shantz perform. He had managed the year before to win 24 games for a less-than-spectacular A’s team. And at five foot six he was barely taller than I was. I could see it was going to be a tough day to keep my mind on school work, which I found less than engaging at the best of times.
After lunch, as game time neared, the pressure on me was intense. It was then that I made a desperate, and as it turned out, misguided judgment. It seemed to me that with almost 40 kids to ride herd on, if I asked my teacher for permission to go to the restroom she would have too much on her plate to notice that I didn’t return. Yeah, I know. But who said fifth-grade boys were smart?
So after a short stop in the little boys, I lit out for the ball yard, an easy run for a 10-year-old. Plant Field was an old pile even then, with many undefended spots where an enterprising youngster could slip in without paying the tariff — then less than a buck — at the ticket booth. It was also no trick to slip past the inattentive usher into the reserve seats. When I had settled in, the man sitting next to me leaned over and told me to look at a seat a few rows behind us where, he promised, I would see the venerable Connie Mack, there to watch his A’s, just two years after his last season as field manager.
Looking back I saw a dignified old gent (he was 90 then), wearing a dark suit with a high, starched collar and tie — hardly the appropriate kit for a warm, sunshiny Florida spring day. This impressed me less than it might, as I had no idea at the time who Connie Mack was. But the guy alerting me to the presence obviously thought it was important. And I had learned by that time that in many situations involving grownups, it was best to humor them. So I made the appropriate appreciative nods and noises. A few years later, reading in a sports magazine, I learned of baseball’s longest serving major league manager and recalled the game where I had seen him. I’m sure I exclaimed, “Oh — Connie Mack!”
Before this revelation, though, I had to pay the piper when my fifth grade teacher, more attentive than I had given her credit for being, did notice that I hadn’t come back from the head, and ratted me out to my parents. My mother had to come to school the next day to get me back in class, and there were consequences at home. Fairly unpleasant ones, but as a 10-year-old boy calculates these things, probably not unpleasant enough to make me regret I had gone to the game. Mom really had her game face on when passing sentence. It seemed to me that Dad was a little less offended by my offense, but was obliged to make a show of parental solidarity.
This back-story brings us to the current matter of Jack McKeon, another venerable baseball man, and one of the game’s good guys. In a long career the 85-year-old McKeon has managed the Kansas City Royals, Oakland Athletics, San Diego Padres, Cincinnati Reds, and Florida Marlins. His best year as a skipper was 2003 when he won a world championship with the Marlins, leading them to a six-game World Series win over the New York Yankees.
That year McKeon became, at 72, the oldest man to manage a World Series winner. He’s still in uniform with the now Miami Marlins as special advisor to the owner. He recently announced he would like the Marlins to allow him to manage, if only for a few games, in 2018 or early 2019, so he would become the oldest man to manage in the bigs, being a bit older then than Connie Mack was in his final year.
I hope the Marlins satisfy McKeon, a personable fellow and a better than average post-game interview. After the final game of the 2003 World Series, a young reporter asked McKeon how it felt to be the oldest manager to win a World Series. “Son,” he replied, “I’ve been around so long I remember Preparation A.” A guy this poetic should be accommodated.
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