OAKLAND -- It doesn’t take much to get Jack McKeon going.
He is a reservoir of baseball stories, the Babe Ruth of yarns, and with the Marlins in Oakland to play the A’s, we figured McKeon was worth a call. Someone to fill our ear. Because, really, the Marlins and A’s share little in common.
They seldom play one another. They’ve never made a significant trade, not unless your definition of significant is Mark Redman for Michael Neu. They exist as Major League co-members the same way a polar bear and camel cohabit Earth.
But in McKeon, there’s a link.
Twenty five years before McKeon led the Marlins to a World Series title, he managed the A’s.
And not just any A’s team. Charlie Finley’s A’s. If you’re younger than 50, Google him. Outside of Bill Veeck, there’s never been an owner like him, before or since.
He paid players to wear mustaches.
He experimented with orange baseballs.
He hired a local teenager named Stanley Burrell (later to become hip-hop artist MC Hammer) to be a team vice president.
And in 1977, he made McKeon his manager.
Those A’s were three years removed from three straight World Series titles and on the decline. But, because of their eccentric owner, dull they were not. They were bad, but to hear McKeon tell it, they were comically bad.
McKeon managed just 176 games for the A’s, during which time he was involved in no shortage of stories, all involving Finley.
Here are three of his favorites:
1) During the ’78 season, the A’s called up a base-stealer named Darrell Woodard, who was post-Herb Washington, the quintessential designated runner.
“We brought this rabbit up from Jersey City,” McKeon recalled. “He was leading the Eastern League in stolen bases. We brought him up around the middle of July, I think. And Charlie told me about this guy. He says, ‘Put him in to steal bases. He’s not a very good infielder, but if you play him, only play him at second base.’”
There came a game, though, in which McKeon was out of infield options, forcing him to play Woodard at third. With the score tied in the seventh, a ball was hit to Woodard and he turned the double play.
At 6 the next morning, McKeon’s phone rings. It’s Finley.
The call, according to McKeon, goes like this:
“McKeon, this is Finley. They’re all laughing at you. Players are laughing at you. The media’s laughing at you. The fan’s are laughing at you.”
McKeon: “What the hell are they laughing at?”
Finley: “Hot damn. I’m trying to help you become a good manager and I told you not to play this guy anyplace but second base.”
McKeon explained his decision.
“There was silence for about 20 seconds,” McKeon said. “Then he comes back on the phone and says, ‘Well, I guess you think you’re a genius now.’ That’s him. He wanted that guy to play second. He just wanted to second-guess.”
2) Finley often phoned McKeon in the dugout during games to bark orders and offer his unsolicited advice.
“He’d be home watching the game on television and we’d be getting beat,” McKeon said. “He’d call in about the seventh or eighth inning and say ‘Tell those guys to choke up.’”
Eventually, word got around to the players. When the dugout phone rang, they knew it was Finley, McKeon said. “And all the players would say, ‘Choke up! Choke up!’ They knew what he was calling about.”
Late in the season, the A’s were playing the Yankees. Ron Guidry was throwing a one-hitter. The dugout phone rang.
“We’re not hitting a lick,” McKeon said. “So the call comes in about the seventh inning. It’s Charlie. He says, “Dammit, tell them guys to choke up.’”
So McKeon does as ordered. He sent in Dave Revering to pinch-hit with instructions not just to choke up, but to hold the bat about two inches from the top of the barrel. Just for the first pitch.
“The rest of the bat is hanging down,” McKeon said.
McKeon demonstrated how he wanted it done to make sure Finley noticed.
“He was going to take the first pitch anyway,” McKeon said. “Everybody was laughing.”
3) Finley fired McKeon following a 26-27 start in 1977 but kept him aboard as the owner’s assistant. For some road games, Finley would have Burrell call him by phone and provide the play-by-play broadcast, with McKeon sitting nearby.
“He was a shoeshine guy and Charlie made him vice president when he was 16 years old,” McKeon said. “Hammer (Burrell) broadcast the game to him every night on the telephone.”
Burrell was good at it, apparently.
“He’d say ‘Man on first. Vida Blue looks in. Checks the sign. Checks the runners. Throws to first. Runner gets back. Blue checks the sign again. There’s the pitch, a fastball for strike one.’”
One game, Finley asked Burrell to run an errand and had him hand the phone to McKeon to take over. McKeon wasn’t a polished broadcaster and kept the details to a minimum.
“I’d go, ‘Ball one. Ball two. Foul ball strike one.’”
Finley wasn’t impressed.
“Dammit!” Finley yelled. “You don’t know how to broadcast the game. When Hammer gets back, I want you to sit there and listen to him, see how he does it. He checks the runners and he checks the signs!”