Every year Jack McKeon would visit the Times-News sports department. It always happened some time between the World Series in October and the Winter Meetings in December. He arrived unannounced carrying nothing but a big cigar and a ton of stories.
Then he would settle in with Times-News sports editor Bill Hunter for what I called the annual debriefing. McKeon puffed his ever-present cigar while Bill smoked the cigarettes he preferred, a brand simply known as Talls.
The two old friends — who met when McKeon was bouncing around the minor leagues in the 1950s and spent a season or two in Graham and Burlington, had a long-standing appointment for this postseason discussion. After McKeon became a successful Major League manager and later general manager, the interview — if it could really be called that — wound up in stories or a column by Bill. The columns were always great reads because McKeon and Bill simply talked baseball like fans.
By the time I came along in the 1980s, this ritual was well established. McKeon was already known as “Trader Jack” owing to his love of breathtaking trades often involving several players while he was GM of the San Diego Padres. I felt truly fortunate to be able to sit and listen for awhile. I didn’t dream of interrupting them. In fact, I’m positive McKeon wouldn’t remember me at all.
There was always a fair amount of baseball talk, some gossip, quite a few laughs and some conjecture about what the future might hold. McKeon, a New Jersey native who fell in love with Alamance County, always said he planned to retire here and spend his days playing golf at Shamrock. He repeated it so often, it just had to be true. Later, Bill retired and McKeon sent a video of a speech in his owner that was played at the retirement party. We lost him to cancer in 1998.
As good as his word, though, McKeon and his family moved here. One of his daughters married former Cummings star Greg Booker, who had his own Major League playing career and is now a pitching coach for the Syracuse Chiefs, the Triple A affiliate for the Washington Nationals.
But retirement? Not so simple.
Sunday reports began to filter out that McKeon, improbably, is the top candidate of the Florida Marlins to take over the team on an interim basis after manager Edwin Rodriquez resigned in light of a woeful 1-17 record in June. I say improbably because McKeon is 80. If he decides to take the job — and his family seems pretty sure he will when contacted by our sports editor Bob Sutton late Sunday night — he’ll be the oldest field manager in history that didn’t also own the team. Connie Mack, who worse a business suit in the dugout, was 86.
McKeon was still at his home in Elon Sunday night but he looks to be the favorite of Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria. And why not? Loria brought in McKeon in 2003 during the season. McKeon guided the young team to a World Series championship. He posted two winning seasons in subsequent years before retiring in 2005 and has been consultant to the team since. The Marlins website is reporting that McKeon is now expected to take the job.
It’s a schedule that probably doesn’t leave much time for golf at Shamrock. But for baseball lifers, it’s tough to leave the game. Hunter would understand.
And somewhere I suspect he’s smiling.