McKeon's move to insert Willis keeps Yankees at arm's length

World Series

October 19, 2003|By LAURA VECSEY

NEW YORK - This is the right you earn as a World Series manager, even if it's your first. You take your rookie left-hander, the one who ignited Florida Marlins fever in South Florida after being called up from Double-A and then racked up that 9-1 record by the All-Star break, and you put him in your bullpen.

And then against the New York Yankees, loaded with lefties in the heart of their order, you call upon the 21-year-old lefty to take the mound at Yankee Stadium and believe he can deliver.

"We just decided that with the makeup of the Yankees' lineup, that he would be our best option coming out of the bullpen, left-handed-wise. Had we played against Boston, I imagine he would have been the starting pitcher in Boston," Florida manager Jack McKeon said.

Too bad Dontrelle Willis could not get that final out in the bottom of the eighth inning last night, because he certainly rose to the occasion. Working with a 3-2 lead, Willis came on in relief of starter Brad Penny in the sixth and retired the first seven batters he faced in 2 1/3 innings.

But then veteran Bernie Williams, who started to warm up at exactly the right time in the American League Championship Series after a horrid regular season, banged out a single. So did Hideki Matsui, and it was first and third and Willis was done. Closer Ugueth Urbina then struck out Jorge Posada to kill the scoring threat and end the inning.

McKeon opted for a starting rotation of Penny, Mark Redman, Josh Beckett and Carl Pavano, knowing that Willis had clocked 157 innings in the minors last year but was fried in two tough starts in the National League Championship Series and had already chalked up more than 200 innings by the time he came on in relief for Penny last night. Time to make use of Willis in the bullpen.

"When Dontrelle throws the fastball down on both sides of the plate, that was the Dontrelle we saw a few months ago," Marlins catcher Ivan Rodriguez said. "He did a great job. I'm sure he was very excited, but he trusted his stuff. He's got a very good young arm."

For McKeon, it's good to be one of the last ones managing in October, at least until you lose the World Series. Then all bets are off and one more big league manager can be added to the scrap pile, ripe for second-guessing if not high-volume calls for immediate termination. Ask Boston's Grady Little about that, or the Cubs' Dusty Baker or San Francisco's Felipe Alou.

Not that McKeon cares.

The 72-year-old manager was on his couch last year at this time, watching the World Series on TV and managing another challenging bunch - his nine grandchildren. When the call came in May from Florida general manager Larry Beinfest gauging his interest in taking over the 19-29 Marlins, what did McKeon have to lose?

Same goes for now, even on this World Series' stage, where McKeon is 1-for-1 after last night's 3-2 victory in Game 1. McKeon, a former catcher who was signed by the Pirates in 1949 and is the third-oldest manager ever in the big leagues, has the rare luxury of not giving a rat's tail what anyone says or what anyone thinks.

"I operate now with the theory that `Hey, I'm going to go out and do the best job I can possibly do,' " McKeon said. "I'm going to make the decisions that in my mind are correct. They don't work out? Too bad. In my mind, you can second-guess me all you want, but in my mind, this is the best move I can make to win this ball game."

This doesn't mean McKeon is abrasive, quite the opposite, which is why Beinfest and the Marlins sought him out. As a former general manager and player personnel consultant with the Reds and Padres, McKeon was dubbed Trader Jack for his penchant for multi-player deals. By the trade deadline this summer, McKeon had so much respect and influence, he gave Beinfest and owner Jeffrey Loria the confidence that this Marlins team had the goods to go far, so they added Urbina, Chad Fox, utility man Lenny Harris and Jeff Conine.

Because of those moves, and McKeon's galvanizing effect on the surprise contender, McKeon has joined Yankees manager Joe Torre in this Fall Classic chess match.

Torre has already won four of these things, not to mention having to manage the toxic fallout of the most ego-frying owner in baseball - George Steinbrenner. McKeon, with 55 years in baseball and behind only Connie Mack (88) and Casey Stengel (75) among the oldsters, has a compassionate, grandfatherly disposition - a grandfather who isn't afraid to kick guys in the rear.

"You spend about three seconds with Jack and the age difference is not a factor," Beinfest said. "He knows how to interact whether it's with me, the media or the young kids. We were confident with him right away. We were looking for someone to come in and push these kids. He had nothing to lose. He was available. He came in."

McKeon wants the Marlins to run, and they did last night. Juan Pierre bunted to lead off the game and eventually scored on Rodriguez's sacrifice fly. A quick start, just like Trader Jack wanted.

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